NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — A Tennessee state senator has filed a bill that aims to increase recycling and decrease landfill usage, with plastic waste the primary target and “chemicals of high concern” within plastics set for particular scrutiny.

Sen. Heidi Campbell’s “Tennessee Waste Recycling and Reduction Act” would rely on a state-appointed board and a newly formed non-profit — comprised of packaging producers themselves — to work together. The groups would develop methods to make both reuse and recycling of packaging materials easier, and a system of dues to finance the changes.

Even as corporate efforts at Eastman Chemical Co. and Domtar contribute to what’s known as the “circular economy” in the region, Campbell said local governments in Northeast Tennessee struggle with the costs of recycling.

Plastics at a recycling dropoff center in Johnson City, Tenn. (WJHL photo)

The announcement earlier this month that Elizabethton’s two recycling convenience centers would close permanently was just one example among several of decreasing recycling availability. Kingsport’s decision to pause its curbside recycling program more than two years ago is another.

The nearest “material recovery center” (MRF), where materials are sorted and sent out for actual recycling, is more than 90 miles away.

“As a result, the options for collected plastic are limited because it’s really high transportation costs,” Campbell told News Channel 11. “So this bill would provide the resources to build out recycling processes that will include plastics and support local recycling systems.”

Funding to increase recycling and reuse would come from dues paid by the “Producer Responsibility Organization” (PRO) members. Most companies that produce packaging will be required to join the PRO, with dues varying based on the volume and chemical makeup of that producer’s packaging materials.

As written, the bill calls for revenues sufficient to reimburse recycling services fully for costs associated with the collection of recyclables, transportation to a recycling facility, processing in preparation for recycling and actual recycling.

The Oak Hill Democrat said she believes her bill — which has similarities to laws already passed in Maine and Oregon and to legislation in several other states — has real potential for bipartisan support in the heavily Republican Tennessee General Assembly.

“I know that everybody in Tennessee is worried about microplastics in our water, and everybody in Tennessee is aware of our horrible litter problem and the fact that our landfills are at capacity,” Campbell said. “So this is a really good way for us to divert plastics from landfills and I’m hoping that everybody sees the value in doing it.”

As written, the bill aims to develop and implement “a comprehensive approach to addressing packaging waste in this state.”

Tennessee Senator Heidi Campbell (D-Oak Hill) is sponsoring the “Tennessee Waste Recycling and Reduction Act.” (Courtesy Heidi Campbell)

That would be accomplished by “recovering valuable materials” otherwise headed to landfills (or the roadside) and developing markets for them “to support a circular economy in this state.” Other key goals would be providing financial stability for local recycling systems through investment in recycling infrastructure, and “engaging producers of packaging in the innovative reduction and reuse of packaging materials.”

Campbell said she’s designed the law so producers have options beyond maintaining their status quo and paying their dues based on that. If those producers innovate to decrease the volume of packaging for products or change their composition to be more environmentally friendly, their dues would decrease.

Some companies may elect to keep their operations the same and pay whatever costs this law would bring them but others may not, she said.

“Some companies are price elastic, other companies are operations elastic, other companies are environmentally elastic,” Campbell said. “We want to give options, so whatever works for them is going to work for us, and that’s exactly the intent of this bill.”

How would it work?

Campbell said she’s continuing to look at minor tweaks to her bill, which she said several Republican senators have shown some openness to co-sponsoring. She’s not sure what the PRO’s budget would be, but the bill envisions a lengthy setup period.

Producers who will help fund the PRO are businesses that used covered materials for selling or distributing a product in the state under their own brand. Licensees also fall under the law.

Businesses with less than $1 million in annual gross revenue and those who use less than a ton of packaging materials per year are exempt.

The commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) would appoint a 13-member “producer responsibility advisory board” that would begin meeting in the second half of 2024. It would include three local government representatives and one member each representing an MRF, a recycling hauler, an environmental nonprofit and a community-based nonprofit that works in solid waste. Keep Carter County Beautiful could be an example of the latter.

Other members would include one from a trade association, chamber of commerce or other business advocacy association, one from a packaging material supplier, one representing a landfill and one representing underserved communities.

While that group is meeting, the PRO would be conducting a needs assessment and developing a “producer responsibility plan” covering five years. The needs assessment would go to the advisory board by July 1, 2025, and a “producer responsibility plan proposal” would go to TDEC and the advisory board by July 1, 2026.

That plan, including a funding mechanism, would go into effect by the beginning of 2027. Specific details about the needs assessment and funding mechanism are on pages 10 through 14 of this draft bill:

Campbell said she believes there will be openness to at least substantive discussions about the bill on the part of Republicans and representatives of the corporate world who would pay the freight.

“I sense a shift in the business community,” she said. “Most of the people in the business community also live here, and they realize that this has reached sort of an emergency level where we’re going to have to do something about our plastics, our waste, and this is the opportunity to actually make that a revenue positive prospect.”

On the political side, she thinks people can see the pragmatism behind the effort.

“In the final analysis, and I say this constantly, we’re here to solve problems and not to fight. So if we can figure out ways to work together to solve problems for Tennesseans, then we all win.

“On the environmental issue of microplastics, I have colleagues in the Senate on the Republican side who are very concerned about that and concerned to the point where they really do want to do something about it. I’m hoping this offers them the option to do so.”

While Campbell said she hopes the appetite is there for a law of this nature in Tennessee, she isn’t taking a “Pollyanna” approach to the effort.

“It’s a Sisyphean battle, and always is,” she said. “Environmental issues are really hard in Tennessee, but trying to find ways where it can be business-friendly is the best possible way to move the needle.”

One thing is for sure. The municipalities, counties and others involved in trying to keep plastic and other waste out of landfills and off the state’s highways and byways face an uphill financial battle.

A national nonprofit called The Recycling Partnership is currently studying the feasibility of an MRF for Northeast Tennessee. In an introduction to a survey for stakeholders like municipal and county solid waste officials, the group echoes Campbell’s contentions about the challenge here and statewide.

Northeast Tennessee communities “face considerable challenges when it comes to their ability to operate effective and efficient public recycling programs,” the partnership’s letter reads. It pins a major part of the blame on “lack of a sufficient recovery infrastructure for processing recyclable materials” — essentially the lack of an MRF to serve the area.

Campbell said she plans to keep pushing for changes surrounding plastic waste, reuse and recycling, and harmful chemicals within packaging as long as it takes.

“If we don’t have a habitable planet, everything else is irrelevant, so it could not be more important to me.”