Problem Waste

Pile of dirty old straws

Problem wastes are materials that are difficult to manage. Some products are toxic, don’t decompose, or are too small to manage properly.

Toxic materials are considered hazardous waste. Toxic materials include paints and solvents, household cleaners, drain openers, pesticides, lithium and automotive batteries. Other materials that are difficult to manage include tires, metal wire, box springs and mattresses. When hazardous materials are discarded in a landfill, they pollute water, soil and air. Other materials, such as plastics, are noxious because they absorb chemicals and other toxins from the environment. Plastics do not decompose. They degrade into microplastics and wash out of landfills into waterways. Mattresses and box springs are sometimes banned from landfills because they absorb liquids from garbage (leachate) and leachate is mixed into a toxic stew. These items do not easily compress in a landfill and take a lot of landfill space.

Problem Waste Materials

Plastic Bags
Hazardous Waste
Needles & Sharps
Waste in the ocean

According to National Geographic, “9 million tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year."

Problem wastes are materials that are difficult to manage. Some products are toxic, don’t decompose, or are too small to manage properly. Plastic is all of those things. Plastics will prove to be one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time. According to National Geographic, “9 million tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year.” Discarded plastic is widespread and can be found on every beach and highway, and even in our yards. It is eaten by birds and animals and contributes to their declining health. We eat fish that are living off of bits and pieces of plastic and are not clear on how this will impact human health. It is expected that, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.  

Plastics are bad for people because they contain BPA, otherwise known as bisphenol A, a hormone disrupter thought to cause obesity, early onset puberty, and breast and prostate cancer. It disrupts testosterone and is banned in many countries. In the U.S., BPA is only banned from baby bottles. This chemical is also used in cheap plastics, such as one-time-use bottles or food containers. Plastic has recently been found in the human bloodstream and it is unknown to what extent that will harm us.

Find substitutes for plastic. Replace single-use disposable plastic with products that can be reused.  The four most used single-use plastics include plastic bags, water bottles, to-go coffee cups, and plastic straws. Other frequently used single-use plastics are plastic cups, Styrofoam beverage containers, lids and stirrers. Purchase quality products that are not made from plastic for a life-time of use rather than a one-time use. Avoid plastic and replace with other more sustainable and durable products.


Pile of nasty old straws

Straws cannot be recycled and literally “fall through the cracks” at collection sites and recycling centers. They are blown or washed into waterways and make their way to the ocean. Straws injure marine animals and break into tiny pieces, where they are consumed by birds and fish.

In the United States, approximately 500 million straws are consumed daily. To help put this into perspective, if all the straws consumed in one year were laid end to end, they would circle the earth 92 times. The number of straws used daily in the United States fills 127 school buses. The bad news is that disposable drinking straws are horrible for the environment and affect all of us. Straws are one of the worst disposal items marketed because they are only used for 15-20 minutes before being discarded. They are not recyclable and persist indefinitely in landfills, along roadsides and waterways, and in our lakes and oceans. All the straws in the world that have been manufactured, used and discarded still exist in some form on the earth today.

Many straws have washed down to lakes and oceans as litter, discarded by thoughtless users. Snorkelers are seeing straws more frequently as they explore underwater habitats, and straws are now on the list of the top 10 types of litter found along beaches. Straws are bad for the environment because they don’t biodegrade or turn into dirt as they decompose. They break into smaller and smaller pieces and wreak havoc wherever they settle.  

Straws are bad for marine animals because they can get caught in turtles’ noses and injure or kill them. Straws break into smaller and smaller pieces turn the ocean into a “plastic stew” which is then consumed by fish, turtles and birds.  As we consume seafood, we also are exposed to chemicals that leach from the discarded plastics.

If you must use straws, purchase straws that will biodegrade instead of plastic straws. Substitute paper, bamboo or stainless steel straws for plastic ones. These will not persist in the environment like plastic, and the stainless steel straws will last over a lifetime.

Plastic bag caught on a barb wire fence

Over 100 billion plastic shopping bags are used annually in the United States at a cost of approximately $4 billion to consumers. This is an unnecessary expense, and plastic bags can be easily substituted.

When it comes to plastics, the best course of action is to just say no. However, because of how pervasive plastics are in packaging of the products we consume, saying no is almost impossible. For most of us, reducing the amount of plastic we use, recycling and reusing plastics — along with eliminating our use of some products — is the best we can do. Recycling is not a good option for managing plastic because it all ends up in a landfill or as litter anyway. Plastic bags are the single-use most used item.

The easiest way to reduce the quantity of plastic bags you use is to buy less.  Eliminate the use of plastic shopping bags by taking your own reusable bag when shopping. Hundreds of bags per person are used annually, distributed by stores for the convenience of carrying purchases out of the store and back into our homes or businesses. The bags are lightweight and can easily blow out of a garbage can. Approximately 60 percent of the plastic in the ocean is made up of discarded plastic bags that have blown or washed into waterways.  

Sea turtles are endangered because they eat plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish. Plastic bags degrade into tiny microplastics and are consumed by birds, fish and other marine animals. These microplastics do not provide vitamins and minerals needed for proper growth and reproduction, so they affect all marine life. We do not know the impact that eating fish that eat plastics will have on our own health.

Many people think it’s okay to use plastic bags if they recycle them. Unfortunately, plastic bags cannot be recycled at the county recycling center. Any bags that are “recycled” through the plastic collection bins are taken to the landfill. Bags must be recycled at the front of any store that provides them to shoppers.

A propane take, car battery, gas can, and antifreeze container in front of a fence

Hazardous waste is any unwanted or spent product that can catch fire easily (flammable), eat away at or irritate living tissue (corrosive), react violently with water or other chemicals (reactive), or is poisonous to humans and animals (toxic). This waste must be disposed of properly.

Putnam County received a grant from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to build a permanent household hazardous waste (HHW) collection facility. The new HHW facility is now open and accepts hazardous waste from Putnam County residents only.  They are open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 7 am to 3 pm; and Tuesday and Friday from 7 am to noon. This facility is a convenient way for residents to safely dispose of toxic waste that should not go into the household garbage.  It replaces the HHW annual event previously provided to residents from past years as the only method to dispose of hazardous waste.  The new facility is located at 2101 West Jackson Street, Cookeville, TN, beside the Cookeville Brush Yard.  If you have a question about what can be taken to the HHW facility, please call Martin at 931-400-0622.

The hazardous waste facility collects the following hazardous materials:  household cleaners — e.g. oven cleaners, wood and metal cleaners and polishers, toilet bowl cleaners, disinfectants and drain openers; automotive products — e.g. fuel and oil additives, grease and rust solvents, carburetor and fuel injector cleaners, air conditioning refrigerants, starter fluids, body putty, antifreeze/coolant, contaminated motor oil and gasoline; home maintenance and improvement products — e.g. paint thinners, paint strippers and removers, and adhesives; lawn and garden products — e.g. herbicides, pesticides/rodenticides, fungicides, wood preservatives; and miscellaneous items — e.g. lithium, rechargeable and button batteries, fingernail polish remover, pool chemicals, photo processing chemicals, reactive material, aerosols/compressed gas, fluorescent light bulbs and tubes.

Materials that will not be collected include: latex paint, automotive batteries, antifreeze, used oil/filters, medical sharps/pharmaceuticals or waste, ammunition, explosives or radioactive materials. Other materials not accepted at the HHW facility but that can be recycled elsewhere in Putnam County include:  1)  automotive batteries, antifreeze and used oil/filters can be recycled at county convenience centers located around the county or at the Putnam County Recycling Center.  2) Needles and sharps. To dispose of them properly, make sure they are in an impenetrable container to prevent accidental sticks. A plastic laundry detergent bottle is an acceptable container. Make sure the lid is closed tightly.  Take to a pharmacy for disposal or throw labeled and secure container into the household garbage. 3) Expired medication. Take to a pharmacy or the Cookeville Police Department for disposal. 4)Latex paint.  Dry latex paint completely and then put into the household garbage. Wet paint cannot go into the household garbage.

Hazardous waste can be reduced to a minimum by only buying the amount of a product needed for immediate use. Better yet, try to find an environmentally safe product to substitute for the hazardous one. Always use the product according to the directions on the label. If you have purchased more than needed, give it to someone else who can use it. When purchase of chemicals is required, keep chemicals in original, labeled containers for proper identification and store waste out of reach of children or pets.

Disposing of hazardous waste by burning, dumping onto the ground or down the sink, or putting in the trash can or directly into the landfill is not acceptable. Those methods can cause irreversible environmental damage to the air or groundwater and can even contribute to injury or death for others through accidental exposure. Always dispose of hazardous waste properly to help keep city, county, state, nation and earth from becoming polluted.

A mattress and some furniture in front of a house because someone didn't pay their rent

In the United States, more than 40 million mattresses are discarded per year.

Most mattresses and box springs in Putnam County are discarded in a landfill, with each mattress taking up around 40 cubic feet. Mattresses and box springs are a problem waste for several reasons. It costs to dispose of items in a landfill. A mattress is especially bulky and takes up a lot of room. It can't be compacted in a baler like most other trash and bounces right back when it is compressed in a landfill. Mattresses absorb liquids in a landfill and become very toxic as chemicals mix.

It makes sense that as more products are recycled, mattresses and box springs will find their place in the recycling cycle. Mattresses are made up of around 25 pounds of steel and foam — most of which can be reused. When dismantled, around 90 percent of most mattresses can be used in other products. Taking a mattress apart is no easy task. It is time consuming and physically demanding. Because of the difficulty in recycling mattresses, there is very little competition or demand for them, therefore few of them get recycled. As consumers strive to lessen their impact on the environment, the demand for recycling of mattresses will increase.  

For now, the best local option for disposal includes participation in a retail store mattress take-back program, where the old mattresses are re-covered and resold in discount showrooms. These stores will pick up your old mattress when you buy a new one from them. Another option is to list a mattress for sale or for giveaway on Craigslist or Local Sales Network if the mattress is still good enough to be used.

The nearest option for recycling mattresses and box springs is in Nashville at Spring Back. This nonprofit organization was started with seed money from a first-place, $10,000 prize received by students at Belmont University in Nashville through a national Values and Ventures Competition. Not only do they recycle mattresses, but they also employ ex-convicts through Nashville's Belmont Church, called Isaiah 58. Cost for recycling each piece is $10. If you travel to Nashville and want to recycle your mattress and box spring, contact Spring Back at (615) 207-2736.  

Putnam County would like to recycle mattresses and box springs locally since we have so many new hotels coming into our county. We will keep you posted on our progress!!

A shnazy looking pile of batteries

In 2016, the Hearing Industries Association estimated that 3.65 million hearing aids were sold in the United States. This number is anticipated to increase as more baby boomers require hearing aids as they age. As demand increases, so will production. The more hearings aids are produced, the more batteries will require disposal.

The most popular battery is the zinc-air button battery. This battery contains zinc and is activated by exposure to air when the sticker is pulled off the battery. Sealed batteries can last for up to three years at room temperature. However, once activated, batteries will only last up to 20 days, depending on the number of hours used per day and the size of the battery. The life of these batteries can be extended by turning off the aid when not in use and by opening the cover on the hearing aid at night as you sleep. Opening the cover allows moisture to dissipate, prolonging the life of the battery. Keep extra batteries secure if carrying an extra one or storing one in a drawer. If the metal from the battery comes into contact with other metals, the battery can short-circuit, rendering it unusable.  

Less popular batteries used in hearing aids are rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable batteries cost a little more upfront but last considerably longer than zinc-air button batteries. Use of rechargeable batteries reduces the amount of waste that is discarded in a landfill. Rechargeable batteries can be easily recycled, and their materials can be reused in the manufacturing of new batteries.

Button batteries, whether zinc-air or rechargeable, are considered hazardous waste. They contain heavy metals such as cadmium, lithium, lead and mercury. It is important that these batteries be recycled rather than put into the garbage can to reduce the amount of hazardous waste that is leached into the environment after storing in a landfill. Batteries disposed of in a landfill emit greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. According to the Batteries Plus website, new batteries are 98 percent recyclable, and 87 percent of new batteries manufactured use previously recycled materials.

Batteries can be recycled at Lowe’s or Batteries Plus in Cookeville. If you do not have easy access to those stores but want to collect and recycle both rechargeable and button batteries, order a prepaid collection box. Go to to buy a collection box for your office, assisted living facility or business. Boxes start at $63, and that includes return postage. Boxes can also be purchased at The smallest box is $40.  Read the instructions on how to prepare the batteries for transport. Terminals must be taped or batteries bagged to keep them from rubbing against one another and possibly causing a fire. An easy way to bag batteries for shipping is in a newspaper sleeve. Several batteries can be bagged in one bag separated by a knot. When batteries are damaged, pack them in kitty litter or sand. Contact the manufacturer to find the best way to dispose of damaged batteries.

A large pile of burnt out bulbs

It is frequently forgotten that many of the products we use on a daily basis are hazardous to one's health.

Waste that can pollute the earth if improperly discarded is hazardous waste because it has the potential of harming the environment and all living plants and animals that are exposed to it — including humans. However, we get so used to using batteries, light bulbs and household cleaners that we don't consider they must be disposed of properly at the end of their lives to keep from polluting the earth.

Fluorescent bulbs, both the curly and tube types, can be recycled in Putnam County. These bulbs contain mercury and can contaminate soil, air and water when disposed of in a landfill. To recycle bulbs, take them to the Household Hazardous Waste facility at 2101 W. Jackson St., Cookeville, or to the Putnam County Recycle Center at 1846 S. Jefferson Ave., Cookeville. Regular incandescent light bulbs no longer contain mercury and can just be thrown away. For safety purposes, make sure the bulb is wrapped in plastic or paper and put in the outside trash container to make sure that it doesn't break in the trash and injure whoever handles the trash.

Please do not put light bulbs in the glass recycling collection bins located at convenience centers or drop-off sites. They are very fragile and frequently break when leaned up next to a container or put into the glass recycling collection bins. When they break, they cause all other recyclable material in the collection bin to be discarded in the landfill.  Help prevent injury to employees and recycle the bulbs properly.


A ginormous dumpy pile of used electronics

Electronics contain valuable metals and can be recycled. Recycle electronics rather than throwing them in the garbage.

We live in a world filled with electronics. We all have our personal favorites — laptops, cell phones, video games, TVs, office electronics, computers and other appliances that keep us "plugged in." Most of us update favorites on a regular basis to be current with the latest technology, having the fastest speeds and latest apps available in an instant. We have gotten used to having the best — first! As we seek out new gadgets to enhance and simplify our lives, there is an important consideration: Old equipment must be disposed of properly at the end of its lifecycle. According to the EPA, "Americans now own an average of 24 electronic products per household." This totals nearly 3 billion per year per household in the U.S. Each year, over 70 percent of them end up in the landfill. With more than 7.5 billion people on Earth, the demand for new electronics increases daily. This creates a huge problem with disposal.  

Before EPA regulations concerning e-waste, electronics were disposed of in landfills along with other household trash. Electronics contain high concentrations of lead and phosphors — considered hazardous waste — which, if put in a landfill for disposal, can leach into the environment, contaminating groundwater, soil and air. Approximately 70 percent of heavy metals contaminating landfills come from electronics.  

Recycling is the best practice for disposal of electronics. Recycling saves space in the landfill, conserves natural resources, prevents water and air pollution, provides raw materials for new manufacturing, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions contributed by new manufacturing. Electronics contain valuable materials, such as silver, gold, platinum, lead and copper, plus as many as 60 other elements that can be harvested from spent electronics and reused in manufacturing new electronics. More than 100 million pounds of materials are recovered through recycling each year.  

There are several ways you can help decrease the negative impact of electronics without committing yourself to remain in the dark ages. Try to keep electronics a little longer without updating, if possible. If electronics are in good, working order when you are ready to discard them, look for an organization or individual who might be able to use them. Used cell phones are collected and distributed to women in shelters and military personnel wherever cell phones are sold. Also, consider purchasing electronics that can be upgraded rather than discarded. Look for electronics that are manufactured from recycled parts and are energy efficient. Electronics that are "greener" have less packaging and contain fewer toxic materials.  

Electronics can be recycled six days a week in Putnam County through the Solid Waste Department, located at 1846 S. Jefferson Ave., Cookeville, TN. They are open six days a week from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. To recycle electronics, drive over the scale at the entrance of the Solid Waste Department. After receiving the green light, follow signs to the electronic recycling area. Employees will help unload electronics. Drive back over the scale again, as the county keeps weights on trash and recyclables that comes into the transfer station.

Pile of unused medical bottles

Worldwide, more than 16 billion shots are administered each year, with the average person receiving approximately 8.5 shots annually.

When hospitals give shots they discard the sharps in collection boxes.  Hospitals dispose of their sharps and needles either by mail or by contracting with a truck that picks up the waste and transports it to an incinerator for destruction. Hospitals and pharmacies must pay for disposal. When shots are administered at home, disposal is left up to the patient or caregiver. Needles and sharps are particularly dangerous waste because blood-borne diseases can be spread through inadvertent exposure. Needles and sharps can be disposed of either by mail at a cost, or by placing them in an inpenetrable plastic milk or juice jug. This container — after being tightly sealed with duct tape and clearly labeled — can be disposed at a pharmacy, the Cookeville Police Station, or discarded in the household trash. 

Rusty old paint cans

Disposing of paint used to be a little more difficult than disposing of other materials.

In the past in our county, residents had to collect latex and oil-based paint for disposal at the local Household Hazardous Waste collection event annually. If your vacation coincided with the HHW event, another year would go by before you could get rid of the paint accumulating in the basement or closet.

Now it is much easier to dispose of paint. Oil-based paint and spray paint cans (empty or full) must be recycled at the permanent Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) facility in Cookeville.  Turpentine, varnish and paint strippers will also be accepted at the HHW facility. Always keep these products in their original containers so they can be disposed of properly.

To dispose of small amounts of latex paint, take the lid off the can so it will dry. Once it is dry, it can go into the regular household garbage. Larger quantities can be dried by pouring paint into old paint trays to provide more surface for easier evaporation of liquid. The dried paint can go into the garbage can. Wet paint cannot be disposed with the household trash.

Donate good paint to the local community or school theaters to paint sets. Larger quantities of good paint can be donated to Habitat for Humanity for use in painting houses that are under construction.