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Bills aim to increase Michigan’s recycling rate and send less material to landfills

“Sending waste to landfills is more expensive than it seems," a recycling advocate told Michigan lawmakers recently, "It costs money to store and manage trash, it also takes valuable material like plastic and aluminum out of the supply chain and away from manufacturers who could reuse it."

Michigan Recycling Coalition Executive Director, Kerrin O'Brien went on to tell legislators that a package of bills recently introduced in the state house aims to reverse that by rewriting Michigan solid waste law to emphasize recycling and composting material over sending it to landfills. The bills aim to increase the state's recycling rate, provide curbside or drop off recycling for most Michiganders, and strengthen oversight of landfill and composting facilities.

Credit Michigan Recycling Coalition
Kerrin O'Brien

“Current state law says that Michigan counties have to demonstrate that they have enough disposal capacity to meet the needs of 100 percent of the waste that's produced in that county. So our solid waste laws are really keyed into making sure that we have the disposal capacity needed rather than the capacity for other methodologies, like recycling and composting, to more productively dispose of that waste. And frankly, we've been more focused on ensuring landfill capacity. We're really not investing in using our materials more productively. Since the legislature back in 2018 put money into recycling, however, policy needs to follow through on making sure we have the framework that we really need in place to assure that we can step up to do more recycling and composting.”

“Right now the state of Michigan recycling is poor,” says Michigan Environmental Council Policy Director Sean Hammond.” We compare very poorly to not only our neighbors, but the whole country. We're looking at about a 15 to 18 percent recycling rate, that's the lowest in the Great Lakes and one of the lowest in the country. It is really disappointing given that we were a leader in recycling at one point with the passage of the Bottle Bill 40 years ago and the city of Ann Arbor starting up a single stream recycling program in the early days of that technology.

Credit Michigan Environmental Council
Sean Hammond

“So these bills really want to have Michigan retake the lead in managing solid waste and recycling differently. And these bills to me really do that by flipping county planning on its head. Instead of looking at just solid waste of capacity, as Kerrin noted, now we're looking at recycling and composting capacity as well. We're not just, again, looking at landfill capacity, we're looking at how are we managing all our materials? How are we diverting waste from landfills and giving incentives to those counties that work towards those goals?”

“Michigan certainly has a lot of room for improvement,” says Michigan Chemistry Council Executive Director, John Dulmes. “We do have a very strong container recycling program that does well with those materials, but a lot of the other materials that are out there - plastics, metals, cardboard, glass, and other things that we use every day -  Michigan is putting a lot of it into landfills.

“There have been studies showing that hundreds of millions of dollars of value every year of materials gets land filled in our state. Companies that are part of the supply chain want to see that stuff return to available use. And in fact, there are a lot of companies out there that are looking for these kinds of materials and they want to meet recycling goals of 50 percent or more recycled content in their products. Michigan can play a big part in making that happen, but only if we get our act together and get recycling more universally across the state and get everybody educated on what they can recycle and the best way to do that. Counties need to be part of the process and make sure that the facilities and infrastructure are there and that we are not just putting things in the ground irresponsibly.”

How can we all become better recyclers?

Credit Michigan Chemistry Council
John Dulmes

“First and foremost, it's really about paying attention to what you can recycle in your local program,” O’Brien says. “Don't put something in your recycling bin that's really not supposed to go there. Yes, many things can be recycled, but there's only a subset of materials that can be put in your curbside recycling bin or accepted at your drop-off. Other things can be recycled, like for example plastic bags, but they go back to the retail store. Meijer or Kroger or wherever you do your shopping will take back those bags for recycling. So it's really important to clue into where material can be accepted and don't send them garbage that only degrades the whole process.

“We, the industry, really certainly needs to be better at providing the right kind of information and educating consumers about who, what, how, why and where. These bills provide funding and requirements to do that. So I expect we'll get better with education, but recycling is a really effective way for residents to participate in doing something helpful for the environment. And if we can get better at it on an even larger scale, we can reduce all the environmental impacts that go along with producing and consuming in our modern lifestyle.”

“We encourage everyone to look at what you're consuming to start with and try to figure out and buy more reusable and recyclable products,” Hammond adds. “A lot of times things that you might think of as recyclable aren't really. So for example, plastic silverware is made of a plastic that you would probably think is recyclable, but it's often not. The whole system that we have is based on consuming products and throwing them away.

“That's how we've dealt with our waste for forever in this country. And what we really need to do is look at what we're buying, how we're buying it, and how we're using it to do better by recycled materials and send those market signals. We've seen success in this, for example, the last straw campaign where McDonald's has ditched single use plastic straws in a lot of places and gone to paper or compostable products. There are options out there. As consumers, we need to be better at buying those options that are recyclable or compostable or contain recycled materials to help drive the economic piece of everything.”

“A lot of products now, additionally, have very specific labels detailing how to recycle and what can go in where,” Dulmes says. “That can help make that process easier. I would also say at the local level that you should just speak up with your waste hauler, with your township or county or city, whoever is responsible for managing those things. We've seen in recent years and even during COVID that sometimes those local governments and municipalities cut back on recycling when the costs go up a little bit and they feel like that's not something that the citizens would want to support. And I think it's very important that citizens make their voice heard at the very local level just to say that recycling is something that's important, not only to individuals and to our state's wellbeing, but also to industry.”

“Our solid waste laws are 23 years old and were developed in a different time when we were more concerned with filling up our landfills,” says O’Brien. “But what we're finding now is that we've got plenty of disposal capacity. What we don't yet have the capacity for is to use all of these resources that are already circulating in our economy to their maximum benefit. And that's really what we're trying to do. And I think that many people in the legislature see that and get that. And so if you want to weigh in with your state legislator about your opinion, this would be a good time to do that.”

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