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Residential glass collection program to launch in November, as Knoxville startups tackle sustainability

Two Knoxville companies work on reusing, rather than just recycling.
Hiroshi Watanabe
Getty Images
Two Knoxville companies work on reusing, rather than just recycling.

Two Knoxville-based startups are tackling the challenges of waste and sustainability, one household at a time.

KnoxFill, founded by Dr. Michaela Barnett, is the city’s only refillery, and provides household and food products, ranging from shampoo and laundry detergent to coffee and tea. Vitriform3D, a 3D printer technology focused on using glass waste and converting it into architectural building products, was founded by Alex Stiles, PhD., and Dustin Gilmer, PhD.

Both businesses are filling a void left by a lack of state and local policies to address sustainability issues, and by the logistics challenges of recycling.

“We know from the science that recycling can be part of a sustainable waste management program, but it really comes after trying to reduce source waste," Barnett said. "Recycling really should be a last resort.”

Vitriform3D offers consumers the chance to recycle, and know that their recyclables are also being re-used. Knoxville has long lacked easy glass recycling capabilities; currently, residents have to transport their own glass to one of five repositories around the city.

“We're launching a service we call Fourth & Glass," Stiles said. "That is Knoxville's first dedicated glass only recycling program. We do have the equipment to handle glass and turn it into new products.”

Vitriform3D is also partnering with Blount County.

“For any of the glass that we don't have the capacity to handle right now, we'll be taking that to Blount County, where they have a recycling center that is set up to crush glass and use it for local road construction projects,” he said.

Tennessee has the fourth-lowest recycling rate in the U.S. Some states that do better, including Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, have policies in place, such as bottle bills. Knoxville also has no mandatory recycling laws or policies in place, unlike cities such as Gainesville, Fla. and Pittsburgh.

“They have recycling rates that are over 80% for glass recycling. In Tennessee, we are at 7%,” Stiles said. “Simple programs like bottle bills, where there can be a deposit added to the price of purchasing your product in a glass bottle. Those have proven to be very effective. It still puts the onus on the consumer. So certainly I would encourage other measures that shift more of that cost to the manufacturers.”

Barnett agreed that more of the burden should be placed on the producers.

“Producers can create all this waste, a lot of which is not recyclable in our existing system, and then tell people, well just figure out what to do with it,” she said. “Oh, and by the way, your tax dollars are what goes to disposing of it, when really this should be an issue that we put back on them through policies like extended producer responsibility, where they have to pay for the recycling of their products, and that incentivizes them to design products that are more recyclable in our existing system.”

Barnett said product bans, though not always a popular choice, work well where they’ve been implemented, once people adapt.

“In the states that have implemented these different single use packaging bands, which can vary from Styrofoam to grocery bags to a whole range of different single use packaging applications, they're seeing much less pollution,” she said. “You can also see less contamination in your recycling streams, because you no longer have these products that are so hard to recycle in single-stream recycling programs.”

Knoxville lacks a nearby glass processing center. To recycle glass, residents currently have to haul it to one of the five drop-off centers for glass recycling, leaving only 10% of glass being recycled in 2022.

Vitriform3D is currently still in the research and development phase of their 3D printing startup and competed in Knoxville’s startup competition this year, taking top place.

“We've been able to get over a million dollars in grant funding. And we're a part of the Innovation Crossroads Program, which is based out of Oak Ridge National Labs. So we have lab space here locally. Then if you look at Fourth & Glass, the collection side of the company, like I said, we're rolling that out in November and we've got over 100 people on our waitlist so far. So we're excited to see that grow,” he said.

These businesses can help consumers feel more empowered on issues of sustainability, but Barnett suggests that individuals also need to think about underlying policy issues.

“It is writing to your representatives, and those public servants that stand in for us and saying this is an issue that I really care about. And I want to see better policy,” she said.

(This story was co-produced with students from the University of Tennessee's Department of Journalism and Media.)