Tons of Memphis recyclables being sent to the dump

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphians recycle thousands of tons of waste each year - or so they thought.

FOX13 Investigates found a loophole that means the company we pay to recycle our waste doesn't actually have to.

"People want to know that if they're taking that time to separate the materials and put it in the bin it is actually being followed through on,” Scott Banbury, Conservation Program Coordinator for the Tennessee Chapter of Sierra Club told FOX13 Tuesday.

The University of Memphis, St. Jude, and the Memphis International Airport are three of many commercial facilities Republic Services will no longer accept recycling from.

Republic Services is the company under contract with The City of Memphis to collect and dispose of our trash and recycling.

"Republic owns the two landfills and the material recovery facility. They're probably making more money now putting it in the landfill, where they have lower overhead, rather than following through with the recycling,” Banbury explained.

Making Republic Services' stake in this a potential conflict of interest. Money is the end game.

If recycling costs more than dumping it, or if the product has low market value, the decision comes down to dollars and cents.

"There's a value to this recycled material,” Banbury argues. “It just may not be as great as the value of putting it in the landfill."

But why is that? Banbury explained several years ago companies like Republic Services were able to ship recyclables, clean or dirty to China. Facilities there would repurpose the material.

China began refusing the product in 2016, and now cities like Memphis have nowhere to send their recyclables.

"We're caught between these two challenges. 1: wanting to recycle, wanting to be good green neighbors, but at the same time, not having anyone who will take it,” said Scott Brockman with the Memphis International Airport.

He said they've had a hard time finding a plan b. "Within this community, there are not any vendors that are willing to take it."

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Brockman said the recycling bins at the Memphis International Airport are here to stay, at least for the time being. He says it took a long time for people to begin using these bins regularly. He doesn't want them to become desensitized to the importance of recycling.

Both men support finding a long-term solution, even if that doesn't include Republic Services.

"Maybe we need to have an authority that says, 'if you want to do waste management business in the City of Memphis or Shelby County, you have to meet certain recycling targets,” Banbury said finally.

The City has three years left on its contract with Republic Services. We reached out to the company several times for comment.

All they told us was "our facility is unable to accept contaminated material from a number of our hauling partners."