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Emterra Material Recovery Facility Opens In The Mid-Michigan Region

Emterra employees sort about 50% of the delivered materials, while optical sorters and machines handle the other half.
McKoy Scribner
Emterra employees sort about 50% of the delivered materials, while optical sorters and machines handle the other half.

What once was trash, can be given another life. And can now be done, a little closer to home. The cities of Lansing and East Lansing have a new recycling and sorting facility.

Upon arriving at mid-Michigan’s Material Recovery Facility in Lansing, the rumbling of shipping trucks, shards of glass crunching beneath work boots, and the sorting of materials can be heard almost instantaneously.

The facility is the first of its kind in the region.

It’s a collection point where recyclable materials are brought to be sorted into commodity types before they’re shipped to different markets and made into new products.

The cities of Lansing and East Lansing announced in April they were partnering up to create the facility with Flint-based Emterra Environmental USA.

Former East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens worked with the city of Lansing to secure the deal.

He says the community’s recyclables used to have to be sent to the Detroit area. But now, both cities can save time and money on shipping costs.

“The transporting of those materials took a good amount of time and it took a good amount of resources, and so having something local here will decrease on both of those,” Stephens said.

Plant manager, Derrick Peterson, and his crew are still adjusting to the new facility, but things are running smoothly.

“It’s going great so far. Like any other new system, we’re working out little kinks but I think we’re there,” Peterson said.

There are about 20 people working at the facility whose job it is to sort materials to be processed.

“And once we process them through our system, they go to end markets to different mills to be created into other recyclable products,” he said.

And there’s one member of the team who isn’t even human.


“We have a...what we call a robot, that’s an artificial intelligent robot, with an arm that picks up to seventy-picks per minute,” Peterson added.

Because both of the cities estimate they will send around 7,500 tons of recyclable materials to the plant each year, the need for state-of-the-art equipment, like the robot, is necessary.

That way recyclable materials can be sorted and processed safely, cleanly and more efficiently.

“We accept mostly curbside recycle, we do some commercial, as well paper, cardboard, plastics, film, metals, aluminum.”

When materials are brought to the plant, they’re unloaded into large piles which are then scooped up and placed onto a conveyor belt.

The belt runs the materials by employees to sort most of the items before they are dumped into a sorting machine.

The three-level sorting machine uses gravity to sift and separate 2-dimensional items from 3-dimensional items. 2-dimensional items include papers and cardboard and the 3-dimensional items include bottles and cans.

The purpose of the three levels is to drop heavier items to the bottom while holding lighter materials at the top.

Those larger items are then taken by conveyor belt to the robotic arm which uses vacuum suction to sort materials by hardness and durability.

Peterson and his team reuse almost everything, including the building they’re in. It used to be a metal shop.

“That was one thing that was significant for us, we didn’t wanna go just do a new infrastructure. We seen a building that was here sitting and we pretty much recycled it as well so.”

Stephens says making changes to help the environment can’t just come down to individuals.

“You reduce emission in your house or reduce power consumption in your house? That’s awesome. Absolutely something we should be going for. However, the bigger impact on that is a community doing it or region doing it,” Stephens said.

About 35 trucks bring in materials to the facility every day. But that’s set to increase as the cities work to further promote recycling.

McKoy's story is brought to you as part of a partnership between WKAR and Michigan State University's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

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