How Tennessee harnesses Waste Stream Mapping

P2 Impact

How Tennessee harnesses Waste Stream Mapping

Tennessee vintage design postcard
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A project summarized the waste streams from four manufacturing industry sectors: automotive; building products; food; and furniture.

Tennessee has thousands of tons of industrial waste material from numerous manufacturing processes that have monetary value. However, manufacturers don’t have the connections to return that material back to the economy. Tennessee is working to change that by conducting an in-depth study of the types of waste materials produced by the state’s top industries.

In 2014, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Office of Sustainable Practices saw an opportunity. By connecting companies located near each other, the department hoped to help facilitate potential opportunities for synergy through waste stream reuse and repurposing. These potential opportunities have become a reality through the Waste Stream Mapping Project, a collaborative effort between the department and the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services.

The Waste Stream Mapping Project summarizes the waste streams from four manufacturing industry sectors in Tennessee: automotive; building products; food; and furniture. The project resulted in a physical representation of geographic clusters of wastes that helps to quantify waste streams from the four industry sectors and identifies whether they are disposed of in landfills or reclaimed, reused or recycled. Many results of this study were encouraging, surprising and sometimes frustrating.

The four industrial sectors, which included a total of 265 companies, do an excellent job of recycling common materials because there are existing markets for paper, cardboard and most plastic. Tennessee’s automotive industry produces 38 percent of the state’s industrial output from nearly 600 automotive manufacturers and suppliers, and recycles at a rate of over 90 percent. Food, furniture and building product manufacturers are not far behind at a recycling rate of just over 70 percent.

Those are encouraging figures in a state with a recycling infrastructure that has room for growth. 

"There are well over 30 companies in Tennessee that use recyclable materials as their prime feedstock, and nearly 8,000 Tennesseans go to work every day in those companies," said Will Sagar, executive director for the Southeast Recycling Development Council, a network of governmental and non-governmental organizations that seeks to develop sustainable recycling solutions for the 11 states in the Southeast. 

The council sees potential for further growth in infrastructure for the exchange and reuse of industrial waste materials within Tennessee. Sagar noted, "There are still markets that need improving in Tennessee, like plastics, which often get processed in adjoining states."

According to the Waste Stream Mapping Project research, high-end and high density plastic materials from Tennessee industries often don’t make it back into the Tennessee economy. Other materials such as fabric and some types of oils and rubbers don’t have enough of a viable end-market to justify the logistical issues of transporting the material. 

Materials with obvious value such as rubber hose trim, phenolic slate and process oils are often sources of frustration for companies wanting to be designated as zero-waste without diverting materials through waste-to-energy. 

"It’s nice to have the option for energy recovery, but I’d rather have a true market of recovery for certain stuff," said Larry Gibson, plant manager of Unilever in Covington, Tennessee. "

One of the more unexpected results of the study was that some materials thought to be evenly distributed throughout the state almost exclusively were concentrated in one location. Due to potential transportation efficiencies, this might allow a market to develop around the repurposing of a single material that is being generated from a single company or set of clustered companies in a small geographic area. 

"One company generates nearly 97 percent of all the spun glass waste in the entire state," said Albert Tieche, solutions consultant with the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services and primary administrator for the Tennessee Waste Stream Mapping Project.

According to Tieche, "There’s currently no market [for the glass], but the company is working diligently with us and with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation." Spun glass is a major component of fiberglass insulation, used in the construction industry.   

The food sector serves as another example where 85 percent of plastics waste comes from only one facility. 

Tieche is quick to point out the positive: "The potential economic impact of recycling the [materials that are currently] disposed [of] … across all four manufacturing sectors is estimated to be a minimum of $11 million with the potential to create between 1,800 and 2,600 jobs." The potential for expansion is tremendous and suggests that good things are coming to Tennessee’s economy and workforce.  

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is working with the U.S. Business Council on Sustainable Development to implement the results of the Waste Stream Mapping Project by creating an industrial waste material exchange program in Tennessee. The Business Council has had successful reuse markets for industries in Denver, Detroit and Ohio, as well as Austin, Texas, where the council has its headquarters.