Digging through the trash: The struggle to get churches to recycle

Digging through the trash: The struggle to get churches to recycle

Youth at White Oak United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, check trash cans for water bottles, soda cans, and other materials that can be recycled. (Photo by Maddy Easterly)

ALCOA, Tenn. -- It’s not uncommon for the choir director at Trinity United Methodist Church to go digging through the trash. He can’t stand to let recyclable plastic and paper go into the landfill.

“I try to show the singers how easy it is to put their bulletins and empty water bottles in the recycle bin, which is located right next to the trash can,” says Warren Clark, music leader at Trinity in Lenoir City, Tennessee.

Although “several folks do set an example,” the choir director still finds himself rummaging through the garbage each week to pull out recyclable materials.

Throughout Holston Conference, many other environmental stewards like Clark are out there, trying to help their churches reduce waste and pollution and make better choices for the good of the earth.

The ministry of “creation care” is part of being United Methodist, based on the Social Principles section on “The Natural World”: “All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it.”

Several Holston church leaders said they’re trying to step up to the responsibility:  
  • “We recycle cardboard and aluminum. We use real coffee mugs for the Sunday coffee time,” says the Rev. Brooke Atchley, pastor of outreach and family ministries at Gray United Methodist Church in Gray, Tennessee. The church also asks food-pantry guests to return plastic bags for reuse.
  • Morgan’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Fairlawn, Virginia, saves “plastic bags of all kinds,” says the Rev. Rachel Collins. Each time they reach 500 pounds, they send them off to a program that transforms plastic into outdoor benches.
  • “We are transitioning from bottled water to water dispensers,” said Charla Bobbitt, director of White Oak United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “We even have our youth helping us on Wednesday nights by going around our campus and helping empty the recycling bins and finding things that should have been recycled and ended up the trash.”
  • First United Methodist Church in Mountain City, Tennessee, serves a light breakfast every Sunday morning “on glass plates with real coffee mugs and stainless steel flatware,” says Wanda Payne. “We also recycle a lot of paper.”
  • Emory United Methodist Church in Emory, Virginia, aims for “zero waste” by serving Sunday breakfast with reusable dishes. “We are fortunate to have a dishwasher, so our breakfast teams load it with the dirty dishes after the service and hit ‘start,’” says the Rev. Sharon Wright. “A college work-study student unloads the dishes on Monday afternoon and puts them on a cart for the next week's breakfast team.”
  • Instead of buying cases and cases of water in single-use plastic bottles, Camp in the Community gives children refillable water bottles to use during the week and then take home, says Director Whitney Winston.
Compostable to-go containers at Norwood UMC

Some ministry leaders said they feel an urgency to help move their congregations along, as plastics and other waste take an increasing toll on the environment, ending up in oceans or landfills.

“It doesn't feel like a lot, but just knowing where we were a year ago and trying to make better decisions for our church and the earth, means we have at least begun the journey,” said Bobbitt.

“We haven’t made the switch away from Styrofoam to-go containers yet, but are going to start offering meals inside,” said Atchley, whose church offers a monthly drive-through meal ministry. “Hopefully, we can reduce our Styrofoam use.”

Last week, the Washington Post reported that Americans recycled 5 to 6 percent of their plastics last year, down from 8.7 percent in 2018. 

The lure of convenience can make it tough to argue for a different way, some church members said.

“After gatherings that have refreshments, no one wants to stay long enough to wash dishes, although they are available and we have a commercial dishwasher,” said Jane Willis, a member at First United Methodist Church in Pearisburg, Virginia. “The name of the game is convenience.”

Darrell Breeding said smaller congregations might believe it wiser to use disposable plates, when there are fewer people to share the workload and firing up the electric dishwasher seems to waste more water than is practical.

“When members are rushed for time, it’s easier to throw away instead of staying back and cleaning up,” said Breeding, a member at Midway United Methodist Church in Pounding Mill, Virginia.

Church members said they are also challenged by lack of recycling options in their areas or finding earth-friendly alternatives to plastic or Styrofoam food containers.

“There is no curbside recycling program available here,” said Willis. “We use a dumpster ... that we share with a neighboring business.” Willis said she and her fellow church members try to choose biodegradable plates and other products “that will disintegrate in the landfill as much as possible.”

Biodegradable and compostable food containers are available in some stores or online, but they’re more expensive, which puts off some consumers. However, congregations that commit to dumping less plastic into the ground or waterways will likely find the cost and extra effort to be worthwhile, Collins said.

“It seems like a daunting move. It’s a cultural move, but once you do it, you don’t think about it,” she said.
Rev. Collins serves communion in the Burks UMC garden.
Collins is trained and certified as an “EarthKeeper” by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. She currently serves three small rural churches in the Radford, Virginia, area, but at her former appointment in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she started a community garden at Burks United Methodist Church.

Collins said an “obvious first step” for churches to help take care of the earth is to stop using (or use much less) “expanded polystyrene foam,” also known as Styrofoam. “It’s easy to find information on why Styrofoam is a problem, and it’s easy to make a big impact by doing something different.”

United Methodists who are leading their congregations to make environmentally-conscious shifts often say “it’s a process,” because research, creativity and commitment to making one change seem to lead to more ideas. It also might take time to get fellow congregants on board. In some United Methodist conferences, creation-care incentives and information-sharing networks are set up to help local churches find their way, Collins said.

In Holston Conference, Camp in the Community is one example of a ministry making an impact. “We see a lot of waste outside of our control as we go from church to church,” said Director Whitney Winston. The mobile camp introduced the use of refillable water bottles for children when Winston and her staff saw the huge number of plastic bottles that were bought and discarded in previous summers.

“Kids would drink half of a bottle, throw it away, and then get another bottle later,” she said. “You would be appalled at the amount of plastic we wasted.”

This summer, Camp in the Community will use its new mobile STEAM lab to teach children about reducing food waste through composting.

Next summer, reusable dishware will be instituted as part of the camp experience, Winston said. Camp in the Community will invest in 180 sets of small dishes that kids will eat their lunches on, and then they will participate in washing the dishes as part of a team effort to take care of God’s good earth.

Find out more about creation care through Resource UMC.

Did you like this story? Sign up for a free weekly subscription to The CallHolston Conference includes 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

Related News

Creation care chair wants to raise consciousness in Holston

  WASHBURN, Tenn. (April 24, 2019) -- It’s standard behavior to use paper plates and plastic cups for our church dinners – and then throw them into the trash during cleanup. Sara Orellana thinks we can do better. “Every church can step out and do ...

Shawn O'Neiil, center, chooses pepper and tomato plants at a plant give-away at Harned's Chapel on Aprill 22. (Photo by Duay O'Neil, NPT)
Parrottsville church celebrates Earth Day with plant give-away

By Duay O'Neil/ Newport Plain Talk PARROTTSVILLE, Tenn. (April 27, 2017) -- It’s a unique idea and one whose time coincided perfectly with Earth Day on Saturday, April 22. For the past three years, members of Harned's Chapel United Methodist Church...