City of Memphis - Solid Waste History

Early Methods of Garbage Collection

In its early years, Memphis was very much like other American settlements when it came to addressing waste collection and disposal. Initially, there was no garbage collection or specific place for people or businesses to take their discards. Finally, in 1864 Memphis health officials began to wonder if perhaps there might be a correlation between the spread of Yellow Fever in the Memphis area and garbage being dumped throughout the city.  To reduce the threat of the deadly Yellow Fever disease, residents were told to take their “garbage”, as it was referred to in those days, to specific locations on the edge of town.  Although there was never any proof that garbage caused Yellow Fever, it forced Memphians to think responsibly about how waste should be handled.

In 1878, Memphis Mayor John Flippin and other city officials decided it was time to organize garbage collection at homes and businesses.  The method of collection was with small wooden carts pulled by mules. This form of collection continued until the mules were replaced by motorized vehicles sometime during the early 1900's.  These early trucks were simple dump trucks with no compacting capability, unlike today’s modern compacting trucks which can contain up to twelve tons of waste material.

There is no record indicating how often garbage was collected in those early years, or when twice per week collection began;  however, we do know that garbage was collected from the back yards of homes by City of Memphis employees.  This service was referred to as “back door collection” and the service involved employees going to the back yards of homes with a large metal tub to collect the garbage from garbage cans provided by the homeowners.  The tubs containing approximately 40 gallons of garbage would then be lifted on to the heads of the City employees and walked to a garbage truck waiting in the street. This form of collection lasted approximately sixty years.

Early   Methods of Garbage Collection
Early Methods of Garbage Collection

In 1968 one of the most significant events in American history took place in Memphis involving the city’s garbage collection.  The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a national leader for civil rights, was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis while leading  striking City of Memphis garbage collection employees,  who were protesting conditions within the City’s Sanitation Department. Reverend King’s death was a tragic moment in Memphis history, however, from this tragedy, dramatic improvements were made in the work conditions and rights of Memphis sanitation workers, while influencing the civil rights movement nationwide.

In 1981, “back door” garbage collection was discontinued in favor of a more modern system of garbage collection at curbside.  All residences were issued one 90 gallon wheeled cart for their waste.  The 90 gallon cart made it much easier on garbage collection crews who would roll the cart to the garbage truck and with the use of a semi-automated lift, the truck could empty the cart into the rear of the truck.  More importantly, the residents did not have to provide their own garbage cans and the cart was convenient and handy to use.  However, an interesting thing happened.  Supposedly, the Mayor at that time made the decision  to continue with twice per week garbage collection, even though one collection per week of the 90 gallon cart nearly doubled the containerization needed by each home previously.  This decision proved to be significant since most homes generate approximately 80 gallons of household garbage each week. So, when it was decided to remain with two garbage collections per week there was more service being provided than was necessary.  Although many residents only put their garbage carts out on one of the two collection days or rarely filled their carts on the two days, they became accustomed to having more container space than was necessary.  Consequently, many residents over the next seventeen years  came to the conclusion two collections were the norm, when actually the twice per week service proved itself to be more of a luxury than a necessity. 

In the late 1980's and early 1990's  an environmental movement began in  the U.S. which would ultimately bring about some of the most significant changes in how Memphis and other cities would handle garbage.  New words and definitions regarding garbage and how it would be handled were developed.  Garbage would be referred to as “solid waste” and garbage collection would become “solid waste management.”  But more importantly new federal laws were passed which governed the way landfills were to be operated and waste reduction goals were established for the first time.  In Tennessee, the Solid Waste Management Act of 1991 was passed, which required all cities and counties to reduce the volume of waste going to landfills by 25% before 1996 and a 10 year plan had to be submitted to the State to show how waste reduction was going to be accomplished.

As Tennessee’s largest municipal waste generator, the City of Memphis, in preparation for the new waste reduction laws, began immediately in 1990 addressing ways to reduce waste.  Within City government the Sanitation Department became a service center within the Division of Public Works and its name was changed to the Bureau of Solid Waste Management.  Along with administrative changes, a pilot curbside recycling program was implemented with 500 homes in the Scenic Hills neighborhood in north Memphis. Over the next five years fifteen pilot recycling routes were established throughout the city in order to determine what was the best way to collect recyclables.  From this experience the City was able to create the citywide curbside recycling program that exists today.  In October of 1995,  the Bureau of Solid Waste Management,  began what was perhaps the largest service change in Memphis history when the entire city began a two year transition to once per week collection of household garbage, yard waste and recycling materials.  Residents for the first time could now play a role in reducing waste rather than simply putting everything together for disposal in landfills. 

By the end of 1997 Memphis had achieved a 27% reduction in waste going to landfills, thus meeting the 25% reduction goal required by the Solid Waste Management Act of 1991. Perhaps the greatest influence in meeting this goal was the implementation of a yard waste processing operation by the City to make mulch and compost from the trees and shrubs discarded by Memphians.

In 1999, the long awaited Farrisview Solid Waste Complex became a reality. On September 28th, Mayor Willie Herenton officially opened the new facility, which successfully merged the solid waste operations previously located on Democrat Road and Brooks Road. Located at 3207 Farrisview Boulevard, the Farrisview facility provides the City with the latest in solid waste transfer technology, vehicle maintenance, and fueling capabilities, plus administrative office accommodations for more than 300 employees. The opening of the Farrisview Complex successfully completed the development of this 36 acre tract of land, which began with the opening of the City’s recycling facility in 1996.

In 2000 the holiday collection schedule was changed to allow for uninterrupted curbside recycling during holiday weeks. In the past recycling had been suspended during holiday weeks. Additionally, Solid Waste Management began offering free recycling bin wheel kits for residents who have physical restrictions.

In the fall of 2001, the City’s recycling program indirectly suffered a major setback with the collapse of energy giant Enron Corporation, whose subsidiary, Garden State Paper, owned several paper mills in New England with ties to the City’s recycling processor FCR Inc. of Charlotte, North Carolina. Following the bankruptcy and subsequent closing of these mills, FCR was forced to restructure its contract with the City, thus reducing recycling revenues. However, Memphis was still able to maintain one of the more lucrative municipal recycling processor contracts in the nation. City recycling officials were also able to negotiate a contract extension with FCR, which provided greater security and an opportunity to recoup earlier lost revenue. Also, during 2001 two recycling drop-off centers were established to provide residents, not serviced by City of Memphis Solid Waste Management, the opportunity to recycle. Mud Island (downtown) and Agricenter International (east Memphis) were the sites chosen for their proximity to large concentrations of apartment and private housing developments. Both locations proved to be very successfull.

In 2002 Solid Waste Management began examining the use of one man, fully automated, garbage trucks rather than the old standard, semi-automated, or two-man trucks. The term “fully automated” comes from the truck’s ability to mechanically pick up and empty garbage carts via a mechanical arm which is guided by the truck’s operator. This type of vehicle and method of collection has proven to be very practical and cost effective in certain areas of the city, however, semi-automated collection involving two man trucks and limited manual collection remains the standard for most of the city. Curbside recycling also realized its first significant growth since recycling service began in 1995. The upward trend can be attributed to the addition of magazines and perhaps to a recycling contest called THE CURBSIDE CASH GIVEAWAY, which rewarded randomly drawn winners with cash prizes daily. Also growth could be seen from a third recycling drop-off center which was established on Walker at Cooper Street (midtown) and with the annexation of Countrywood in eastern Shelby County, which brought into the city an additional 5,000 homes.

In 2003 Memphis Solid Waste Management was challenged by a devastating windstorm, which struck suddenly during morning rush hour on July 22nd. Packing winds as high as 102 miles per hour, the storm marched through the heart of Memphis from downtown to east Memphis in less than twenty minutes. In its wake, over 338,000 homes were left without power and, proving Memphis is a city of trees, thousands of trees were left broken, uprooted and thrown about. Three months later and 1.1 million cubic yards of debris removed, the city had successfully completed the immediate cleanup. However, as with the ice storm of 1994, residents would continue to place storm related yard waste at the curb for collection for months to come. Never the less, the disaster cleanup was yet another test for Solid Waste Management and Public Works, which collectively responded admirably. Federal Emergency Management project manager, Dave Brown, perhaps paid Memphis the highest complement by remarking, "The Memphis operation was the most organized disaster cleanup effort I have ever been involved with." Regardless of the complements, City of Memphis Solid Waste Management never missed a beat throughout the three months of emergency clean up, as garbage and recycling services continued without interruption to the city's approximately 200,000 customers.

2004 and 2005 were challenging years as weather and City budgetary concerns impacted services and employees significantly. In November and December extreme winter weather resulted in delayed collections and the temporary suspension of curbside recycling. Also, in April of 2005 several hundred City employees were laid off the last three months of the fiscal year for budgetary reasons. During that time, curbside recycling was altered to every other week collection rather than weekly. Consequently, recycling volume declined by approximately 20%. However, in July, as a result of budget revisions, the monthly solid waste fee of $7.50 per home was increased to $19, thereby allowing laid off employees to return to work and curbside recycling to resume regular weekly collections. The new increased solid waste fee, which closely matches the cost to provide services, marks the first significant increase since fees were implemented in 1968. While the new rate is still well below that of many other cities, a discounted rate program was created to assist residents who are 65 years of age or older and making less than $25,000 per year, or are certified as being totally disabled and making less than $25,000 per year.

Also, during 2005, City of Memphis and Shelby County Public Works officials began final preparations for a permanent household hazardous waste collection facility to serve all residents of Shelby County. To help fund construction and initial operational costs, a $500,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation was applied for by the City. Plans call for the facility to be built on County owned property, near the Penal Farm and for Shelby County to serve as subcontractor and operator of the facility. While finalization of the grant and construction were made, another, perhaps final, State of Tennessee funded household hazardous waste collection event was scheduled for November 5, 2005 at the Memphis Fairgrounds.  

© City of Memphis Division of Public Works - Solid Waste Management