A full trash can that's part of Nashville's curbside garbage service. Credit: Eric England/Nashville Scene

Nashville has a coming trash crisis, and Metro has only three-and-a-half years before the situation gets much more expensive. 

The problem of how to better deal with trash has loomed over Davidson County and Middle Tennessee for years now. As an extended legal battle has played out, it’s become increasingly likely that Middle Point, a landfill in Rutherford County that services 34 counties, including Davidson County, will not get the expansion it needs to stay open, and will close down in six years or less. That gives counties that use Middle Point two options once it closes: pay more to ship their trash at least four times further or start finding ways to decrease the amount of trash they have to send to the landfill. 

As landfills all around the country start filling up, there are legal battles taking place over their attempts to expand. An expansion to Middle Point could extend its lifespan by 25 years, but has been met with staunch opposition. 

“No one wants a landfill nearby, which is understandable,” said At-Large Councilmember Burkley Allen, a member of the task force that established Nashville’s Solid Waste Master Plan in 2019. “But we all want to be able to put our trash out and have it go away. And we just don’t know or care right now where it goes.”

Allen tells the Banner that Nashvillians don’t necessarily need to worry about their trash having nowhere to go — city streets lined with our trash are not really a possibility. When Nashville residents take out their trash, the garbage truck that comes and picks it up takes it to one of three transfer stations. After that, the trash is no longer Davidson County’s problem. Metro has a contract with Republic Services, which operates Middle Point Landfill, to make that trash disappear, whether it goes to Middle Point or somewhere much further. 

But that contract is up in 2027, and then it will be time to renegotiate. The looming Middle Point closure means that when Nashville’s trash gets taken to a transfer station, Republic or whatever company replaces it will have to drive that trash a lot further to dispose of it, meaning more fuel, equipment and employees. 

“Somewhere there will be a landfill, but the farther we drive, the more expensive it is, and the more we’re contributing to carbon emissions and greenhouse gas,” said Allen. “It just becomes less and less sustainable.”

Cutting Waste

That leaves Nashville with a simple-sounding alternative that will undoubtedly be more complicated in practice — create less trash. 

“Ultimately, with all of our zero waste programs, part of the goal is to keep these materials in a more local circular economy, which the more local it is the more cost-effective it’s going to be,” said Jenn Harmann, the zero waste program manager at Metro Water Services

Zero waste programs like the one in Nashville have been popping up all over the country, aiming to divert 90 percent of city waste from landfills. Right now Nashville is well short of that goal; the city currently diverts only 18 percent of its trash, with 12 percent to recycling and 6 percent to compost.

Improving those numbers will take work, and some of that work is in progress. In recent years, Nashville’s recycling program has slowly improved. Biweekly curbside recycling pick-up began in January. And this week, Metro is rolling out a new food scraps pilot program that could be a big step toward county-wide composting. 

“The goal of the pilot is to better understand how people interact with a compost collection program at the curb, as well as understanding all of the logistics and costs to try to better understand how we could potentially scale it to all of our service area,” said Harmann.

Seven hundred fifty households are receiving five-gallon buckets. Food scraps and other organic waste, which currently accounts for about a third of landfill residential waste, will go in the bucket and be picked up once a week by a private company Metro contracted for the pilot. Harmann explained that the pilot program will help gauge how impactful a citywide program could be.

There’s another big problem with both recycling and composting in Nashville: There is currently zero incentive for Nashville residents to use these programs outside of wanting to save the environment — a big-picture issue that can sometimes be too abstract to affect household habits. But where impending global ecological collapse fails, another motivator often succeeds: money.

“As we get [recycling and composting] infrastructure in place, then I think the incentive is, you can pay less for your recycling or what’s leftover you’re going to have to pay more for because there’s no place to put it,” said Allen.

This model is known as “pay as you throw.” Households get a large recycling bin and a large composting bin. Then, they can choose between different-sized options for their third bin, which goes to the landfill. The smaller the bin, the less residents pay in weekly pick-up fees. Simply put, the less waste sent to a landfill, the less they must pay. Allen said that as residents begin to be more mindful about single-use waste and what bin they’re putting their trash in, they will likely find they don’t need to send all that much to the landfill. 

In addition to building the infrastructure for a large-scale compost program, the city would need an overhauled recycling program — Metro recycling is currently limited in what materials it can accept, excluding certain glass and certain plastics, something Harmann said they hope to resolve this when they sign a new contract in 2025 with a company that processes the city’s recycling — before it could implement something like “pay as you throw.” But it will also take a complete restructuring of Metro’s waste management. 

Restructuring the Departments

Currently, waste management falls under the Metro Water Services department. It has been this way since 2021 when former Mayor John Cooper broke up the Public Works Department to establish the Nashville Department of Transportation. As a more independent entity, NDOT can now put more focus and dedicated funding towards transit-related projects, a much-needed step as the city looks to address traffic congestion and a lack of public transportation

It remains to be seen whether a restructuring could similarly benefit the city’s waste management efforts. As the need for a more intentional way of dealing with trash becomes more urgent, solid waste could eventually move out of the water department. In the first weeks of his administration, mayor Freddie O’Connell told reporters that it would take “at least a year” to separate solid waste from Metro Water Services. On Friday, O’Connell expanded on those comments. 

“I think right now we’d rather move towards a more permanent solution than a bookkeeping and [memorandum of understanding] based approach to solid waste that is housed in the Metro Water Department,” said O’Connell. “We’re going to look at what it would take to set up an independent solid waste entity.” 

O’Connell said that the idea of a pay-as-you-throw program is not currently being seriously considered, and that a more permanent solution to solid waste will need to be the first step. The 2019 Solid Waste Master Plan named establishing a standalone solid waste authority as the first step towards reaching the 90 percent waste diversion goal. As with almost every program, implementation of that plan was slowed by a global pandemic, an especially rocky 2020 for Nashville, and all-around budget problems. 

While some improvement did come during the Cooper administration — such as biweekly curbside recycling and the beginning of talks about separating solid waste from Metro Water — the O’Connell administration has signaled it may focus on getting the city back on track to reach 90 percent waste diversion. Pay-as-you-throw is another strategy laid out in the master plan to reach that goal, and if given the authority in its creation, a standalone solid waste department would ideally have more resources and personnel to implement that type of program. 

“This part of the Zero Waste Master Plan is in the early research phases at this point as we need to evaluate the various options and understand the unique landscape a program like this will have to navigate in Nashville to be feasible,” a spokesperson for Metro Water Services told the Banner.

And then there is the elephant in the room — commercial waste. Residential waste only accounts for 33 percent of the waste Davidson County exports, while the other 67 percent comes from businesses. 

The commercial sector disposes of its own trash, meaning it doesn’t go through Metro transfer stations and can end up in any number of landfills, including Middle Point. So, while Metro cannot influence this large portion of waste as directly as residential waste, there are some measures it can implement to require private companies to stop producing so much waste. 

One such strategy is already in the works. Harmann, the zero waste program manager, said that a bill introduced last year at the end of Metro Council’s term — requiring companies to recycle certain highly recyclable materials with large markets, such as metal — will be coming back. If passed, this measure could greatly impact the amount of waste created by construction and demolition, which accounts for around 23 percent of the total waste stream. 

“We will have the ability to adjust that if those markets change so that we can drive both infrastructure investment as well as ensure that contractors can actually meet the requirement,” said Harmann. 

Recycling construction and demolition waste will be a vital aspect of increasing the city’s waste diversion over the next few years. Until recently, 90 percent of Nashville’s construction and demolition waste went to Southern Services Landfill in Bordeaux, a predominantly Black Nashville neighborhood. But similarly to Middle Point, Southern Services’ recent request to expand the landfill was denied, leading to an extended legal battle. That means the cost of disposing of construction waste will increase as companies have to ship their trash further away, inflating development costs. 

Even if Metro implements all of the needed changes to become a zero waste city, there will still be trash, and that trash will need to go to a landfill, whether it’s in Murfreesboro or much further away. But the closer Nashville gets to being a zero-waste city, the less trash it will need to export. Additionally, as counties all around Middle Tennessee begin to ship their trash further, many are looking at more cost-effective alternatives to exporting it on the road, such as by barge or train.

“We can wait until it’s a crisis or we can move methodically and just try to improve on a day-to-day basis, starting today,” said Allen. 

Connor Daryani is a staff reporter. He has previously freelanced for the Nashville Scene and the Nashville Post covering the state legislature and Metro.