Fact sheet from "What Have We Done?,
The Foundation for Global Sustainability's State of the Bioregion Report for the Upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachian Mountains."

And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination.

Jeremiah 2:7


  • One mile of average highway contains about sixteen thousand pieces of litter-- mostly cigarette butts, which take fifteen years to decompose. Styrofoam cups last 10-20 years, and milk jugs last 50-60 years. Glass and aluminum last hundreds of years.


  • EPA Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Subtitle D mandates that municipal solid waste landfills have plastic liners, leachate (liquid) collection systems, and groundwater monitoring wells. These requirements help protect groundwater, but they are extremely expensive, making small landfills unprofitable. As a result, the remaining open landfills are "mega-fills" as big as mountains.

  • As of 1994, the average life-expectancy of the 17 landfills in our area was 12 years. As landfill space becomes increasingly scarce, landfills are being built in less accessible and less desirable places, causing trucks to drive longer distances to get there. This brings about greater environmental and economic cost for waste disposal.

  • No one wants a landfill in their own neighborhood. Sometimes the conflicts can get violent, as in the case of an Anderson County man who was beaten by pro-landfill thugs following a commission meeting in the early 1990s.

  • Negative impacts of landfills include the following: noise, odor, aesthetic problems, truck traffic, leakage (despite Subtitle D), and health problems in neighboring communities. The biggest problem is contamination of groundwater by toxic material leaking out of the landfill.

    Municipal Solid Waste

  • Thirty to thirty-seven percent of municipal solid waste (that is, not hazardous waste, mining and heavy industry) comes from homes, according to the EPA. The rest comes from commercial, institutional, and industrial sources. Knoxville, which is fairly progressive concerning recycling in the region, only recycles or composts 15% of its waste, which is poor compared to the national average of 24%.

  • In Tennessee, the Solid Waste Management Act of 1991 mandated a 25% per-capita reduction of waste "burned or buried" by 1995. However, in some areas this reduction was not achieved at all, but in fact the amount went up. In Knox County, per capita generation increased by over 6%, and an accompanying population increase meant that thirteen percent more waste was going to landfills in 1995. Much of the additional garbage comes from businesses which have little incentive to recycle due to cheap, available methods of disposal.

  • While TN claims to have reduced waste disposal by 20% per capita, this may not be accurate. For example, Sevier County says it "composts" its glass, plastic, furniture, television sets, and household chemicals. There are few buyers for the "compost," so it is spread on the landfill as "landfill cover." Another trick used is to divert waste into a construction and demolition landfill, which counts as reduction in waste.

    Yard "Waste"

  • The greatest progress in our bioregion has come in diverting yard "waste" from municipal landfills. Knoxville diverts 100 dump trucks daily to a composting facility. An alternative solution, incineration, emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (greenhouse gas), and contributes to soil nutrient depletion.

  • Ideally, yard waste should be composted on site. It is not waste at all, but actually nutritious organic matter which should be kept in the ecosystem. All necessary ingredients for composting bacteria, rainwater, and heat are available in abundance free of charge. Apartment-dwellers can even compost indoors using worm bins.


  • Aluminum and steel are the two most economically profitable materials to recycle. Of steel cans, 55% were recycled in 1995 and for aluminum beverage cans, 62%. Using recycled aluminum to make cans saves 90-95% of the energy required to extract aluminum from bauxite ore. Similarly, steel production requires vast quantities of iron ore, coal, and limestone.

  • Strikes against recycling include the artificially low cost of incineration and landfilling and the undervaluing of virgin materials, none of which takes into consideration the environmental costs. Glass and plastic, for example, are less economically favorable to recycle, since they are made from relatively cheap (and subsidized) sand, oil and natural gas.

  • Every county in Tennessee is required to have at least one recycling drop-off center. This increases availability and convenience of recycling. Many of the facilities are unattended and some badly littered, discouraging recyclers, but it is a good start.

  • To make recycling work, we need to "close the loop" by buying materials made from recycled products. This is especially important with paper products, since using non-recycled paper promotes the deforestation of our mountains and valleys by pulp and chip mills. It is important to note the percent of "post-consumer" content in recycled paper. This indicates the paper has been used once already (as opposed to pre-consumer, which can be from the paper industry itself). Ecologically sound alternatives for virgin paper include non-tree fibers such as kenaf and hemp.

  • Plastic recycling is important due to the durability of such products. While we have the technology to recycle many of the five hundred types of plastic in use, most centers only accept two types. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is "#1" plastic, such as soft drink bottles, and high density polyethylene (HDPE) is "#2" plastic, such as milk jugs.

  • Since plastic can absorb some of the chemicals stored in it, it is not re-made into food-storage containers. Recycled materials containing plastic include detergent bottles, plastic lumber, carpet, and fabric. Unfortunately, most plastic cannot be recycled a second time, but using it twice is better than only once.

  • Used motor oil collected at service stations is burned as fuel. This causes pollution, but is better than the traditional "just stuff it in the ground"-method. The best alternative would be to re-refine the oil for motor use. Re-refined oil is available for purchase in some auto supply stores; it is important to support this process to stimulate the market.

  • Tires are a huge disposal problem, and whole tires are banned from landfills in Tennessee. Knoxville's first River Rescue in 1991 pulled over 500 tires from the Tennessee River and nearby creeks. Retreads are an economically and environmentally viable way to extend the life of a tire.


  • Incineration of waste results in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as a best-case scenario. A host of other pollutants can also be emitted.

  • Incinerators are expensive to run and require a steady stream of waste, reducing the impetus to reduce and recycle waste. This especially holds true when the incinerator is used to provide energy.

  • In our bioregion we have several incinerators worthy of noting, including hazardous and radioactive waste incinerators in Knox and Roane counties. Notorious are the corporate incinerators of the Scientific Ecology Group (not a nature study club!) and Diversified Scientific Systems, Inc. The Department of Energy operates the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) incinerator which burns mixed waste containing both radioisotopes and other hazardous materials, including PCB's. Many hospitals burn medical waste. Plans for a municipal waste incinerator in Knoxville were shot down in the early 1990s.

  • When a state air-pollution permit is issued for an incinerator, only the emissions of that particular incinerator are taken into account, not the cumulative emissions of regional incinerators.

    Mine Waste

  • Mine waste includes overburden (soil and rocks covering ore), tailings (created by concentrating ore), slag (product of smelting and refining), and waste water. These materials are often toxic and pollute soil and water. Mine tailings are normally stored near the mine behind dams (called tailing or slurry impoundments) and left as after-mining "new contour' of the land. Coal, mica, olivine, crushed granite, marble, shale, clay, gemstones, and feldspar are all mined in our bioregion. Barite, zinc, silica sand, and shale are also mined.

    Industrial Waste

  • The world generates about twenty billion tons of industrial waste per year, of which thirteen billion tons are U.S.A. made. Two hundred million tons of the U.S.A. waste is hazardous (six hundred million world wide).

  • Previous lack of legislation and high levels of industrial negligence have resulted in many communities and areas being permanently contaminated by hazardous old industrial waste sites. Most of these communities consist of the poor and people of color.

  • Ten thousand people in two neighborhoods near Chattanooga Creek are exposed to contamination from forty-two hazardous waste sites. Health problems such as cancer, miscarriages, breathing problems, headaches, and skin and eye irritations have been reported, with a host of other ailments possible.

  • In Knox County, three of the most contaminated sites are junkyards operated by David Witherspoon, Inc. Radioactively or chemically contaminated metals were sorted by hand by women wearing no protective gear but gloves. Contaminated pieces of equipment were illegally buried on-site, and tires were burned in the open air. Hundreds of complaints and violations were reported, not the least of which included the sale of 200,000 lbs of steel contaminated with uranium 235. Two creeks which run through these properties have been contaminated to high levels.

    Nuclear Waste

  • The most dangerous, and expensive (to remediate) dumping of waste in our bioregion occurred at the Oak Ridge Reservation during World War II and the cold war. Waste was dumped in unlined trenches, pits, and ponds which often penetrated and polluted the water table and surrounding groundwater. White Oak Creek, White Oak Reservoir, Clinch River, and Watts Bar Reservoir were all contaminated by a variety of toxic and radioactive wastes.

  • In the late 50s, ORNL mixed waste with cement and injected it deep underground. Called hydrofracture, this process was abandoned in 1984 when the groundwater was observed to be contaminated. Now, waste is stored in cement tombs. While the most abusive practices have been stopped, the legacy of contamination will remain in Oak Ridge for hundreds of years.

  • To reduce the amount of contamination flowing from its waste disposal sites, ORNL uses a variety of methods. Often, the flow water of is rerouted. A new process, called in situ vitrification, involves melting the earth into a kind of glass, which freezes in the contaminants forever. The process has had many problems, however.

    The Three R's..Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
    "The used metals, glass, wood products, plastics, and chemicals that we dump into landfills once had to be mined or logged or pumped from the earth...to jumble them together into an entropic mess from which they are once again difficult and expensive to extract and then bury them in the ground, degrading still more air, water, and land, is, therefore, highly irrational."

  • To improve the way America handles its solid waste, the EPA launched a program in 1989. The order in the hierarchy of waste management is the following: 1) REDUCE..source reduction of waste is by far the most important 2) REUSE 3) RECYCLE. What is left over after these three methods have been employed should be disposed of in the following order: 1) composting 2) incineration 3) landfilling.

  • Source reduction is difficult in our area, because many cities use tax revenues to pay for waste disposal. "Pay as you throw" schemes, either charging by volume or by weight, would encourage less waste and promote reuse. While illegal dumping may increase at first, education and enforcement have been shown to contain this problem.

  • If people were held economically accountable for their waste, our entire economy would benefit. Reusable and recyclable products would be in high demand, as would be products with minimal packaging. This in turn would inspire manufacturers to increase efficiency, promote conservation, and protect the land.

  • The benefits of recycling include creation of jobs, reduction in the environmental and energy costs of extractive industries, and reduction of materials and energy costs for industries.

  • Recycling has been hampered by government support and subsidies of such processes as lumbering, mining, and oil and gas exploration. This keeps the cost of virgin materials artificially low. Tax provisions are also provided for energy development and timber. Much higher rates of recycling with much greater economic efficiency have been achieved in the more advanced waste management systems of Western Europe and Japan.

  • Only by personal changes, tax and municipal changes, and an increase in the value of thrift will we significantly reduce the amount of waste we generate.