Picture taken by Julie Long

Over 20 Compass Community School teachers from grades 3-5 boarded a bus and took a trip they had never imagined – to the Shelby County MRF (Materials Recovery Facility)! In order to have a reference to the problems of solid waste in Memphis and Shelby County, these teachers saw for themselves that recycling is happening in Memphis, but there are problems. “Wishcycling” – the practice of putting things you “think” might be recyclable is occurring at a higher rate than actual recycling. The group witnessed crowbars, a set of golf clubs, and a propane tank that had been put in someone’s recycling bin! And the Republic staff gave a shocking answer to the one item people put in the recycling bin that doesn’t go there: used diapers!

Contamination is a problem in recycling in Memphis – and this means that more people, actual people, have to pull those often dangerous items out of the machines before they break the equipment. In fact, while our group was visiting, the entire operation had been shut down and two employees were untangling cords from the equipment. Recycling participation is extremely low in Memphis, as well, and it’s clear people don’t know what is recyclable.

Teachers saw that education was key to a smooth operation – the wrong materials can shut down the operation for hours and our MRF has the capacity to recycle much more material than it is currently handling. The more money that recyclers can make from recyclable materials, the lower the cost to the rest of us, and the fewer landfills will be needed. Michelle Cowan, Director of Education for Clean Memphis, says this hands-on learning is as important for teachers as it is for students. “When teachers, just like students, have an experience rather than just listening to someone talk about a topic, it becomes more real to them. That authentic learning experience for the teachers becomes first-hand knowledge they can impart to their students.
Julie Long, Service Learning Coordinator for Compass Schools, talks about the impact she hopes the trip has made on teachers: “One of the most important aspects of Service Learning is connecting with our mission and the mission of our partners. Spending time with Michelle and Gus and having an amazing, unique, collective experience as we had at the Memphis Area Recycling Facility allowed us all to see firsthand the vast impact our community can make on reducing what is put into our landfills.  We were amazed at the process of sorting the materials and in subsequent reflections after our experience, our teachers have revealed that it was a powerful experience to witness firsthand why it is so important to be respectful of what we recycle and how we prepare the items we place into recycling bins.  For example, we had no idea how many people might discard garden hoses or other materials that can cause their whole conveyer belt to be shut down for hours, that one reason it is important to clean out food waste containers is so that fewer rats and other animals will be attracted to their facility, or that all 3 recent fires were caused by people improperly trying to recycle lithium-ion batteries to their facility.  We are sure that having this collective experience with Clean Memphis will make our future interactions with them more meaningful and more powerful.  This trip engaged and empowered us all to find small ways to make a big difference towards keeping our community more beautiful, more healthy, and more sustainably responsible.  We are very thankful for the opportunity to learn experientially on our “field trip” and we are excited to provide similar hands-on experiences to our students throughout this year!”

If in doubt about whether something is recyclable? DON’T! Stick with the basics: cardboard, paper, cans, bottles, plastic bottles, and jugs. Make sure your materials are Empty of food and drinks – pests and contamination can result in safety issues for the MRF staff.