OCCHIPINTI: Michigan is a low-performing recycling state

It surprises many to learn that Michigan is near the bottom of recycling performance compared to other Great Lakes states, and we are well below the national average.
May 16, 2014


Michigan recycles around 14 percent of its solid waste stream and we bury an estimated $435 million of recyclable materials in landfills every single year. 

The fact demands repeating, and with some more flair: Michiganders pay to throw away $435 million of recyclable solid materials every year, and then we pay to manage those landfills well after they’re closed. In fact, we will continue to pay to manage closed landfills until they stop leaching toxic garbage water — exactly how long we will continue to pay is anybody’s guess.   

Perhaps the bottle bill adds to the perception that Michigan does relatively well when it comes to recycling — but, in reality, the 97 percent return rate on a select number of beverage containers represents a very small portion of the overall solid waste stream — around 16 percent in 2008 (the most recent estimate in Michigan). 

For context, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois are all above 35 percent recycling rates; Minnesota is at 43 percent. Even Ohio has hit 25 percent. 

It becomes downright embarrassing when Michigan is compared to high-performing states like Missouri, California, Washington and Oregon that are all around 50 percent. New Jersey leads the way with over 60 percent.  

Gov. Rick Snyder has recognized both the woeful state of recycling in Michigan and the economic opportunity in turning it around. In his 2012 special message on energy and the environment, he tasked the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality with bringing together more than 45 stakeholder and interest groups to develop a comprehensive statewide recycling plan. The group spent 2013 engaged in quality discussions and made some progress. The effort culminated with the announcement of the governor’s plan last month. 

Snyder’s plan has four major pillars: benchmarking and measurement, public education and community technical assistance, access, and market development. 

Michigan lacks reliable, holistic material stream and recycling data. We need better and more accurate data on material quantity, quality, type, origin and destination. We need a more efficient and seamless way to gather, analyze, report and share the data. 

The governor’s fiscal year 2015 budget is a $1 million appropriation to begin improving baseline data collection and work on the other three pillars. In addition to the new appropriation, the governor has called for allocating $500,000 in existing pollution prevention grants to local recycling programs over the next two years.           

Another pillar worth highlighting is the governor’s goal of making access to recycling more convenient for more Michiganders. Currently, only 25 of Michigan’s 83 counties have “convenient” access to recycling. The governor wants all Michiganders to gain access by December of 2017 – the same year he wants Michigan’s recycling rate to surpass par among Great Lakes states. Convenient access in all 83 Michigan counties will require considerable investment in new infrastructure and capital, and access alone will not ensure people will recycle at high levels. 

WMEAC participated in the governor’s recycling stakeholder group, and we believe the plan and new resources represent a good first step, but we recognize it is only that. Many large issues remain unsolved and significant resources will have to be invested to build a quality, comprehensive system.

The identification of a dedicated funding stream will be a very difficult issue to solve, and there are others:  Compromise and innovation will be required to bring disparate stakeholders together around bottle bill 2.0. It’s much too cheap to landfill in Michigan — artificially so — and today’s residents and taxpayers are still paying to manage the waste of previous generations. 

Improved price signals and economic incentives will have to be employed to drive participation and markets while discouraging waste. Policy tools such as landfill bans might be needed for easy-to-recycle materials that are stubbornly thrown away. Better product design, research, innovation and market development will be required for hard-to-recycle materials. 

Yet, the large issues are worth solving, because the payoff will be great. Public Sector Consultants, a Michigan research and management firm, estimates that capturing 4.3 million tons of resources buried each year would produce 7,000 to 13,000 jobs and $3.9 billion in receipts, and will save the annual energy equivalent of nearly 417,000 homes.

“Garbage.” “Trash.” “Waste.” “Throw away.” These terms are becoming outmoded. A new paradigm is emerging that recognizes material value throughout a product’s life cycle. 

As Michigan learns to reduce, reuse and recycle more, we will capture and sustain more of that material value — and in the process we will grow the economy and improve the quality of life for all.           

Nicholas Occhipinti is policy director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.




It should be a requirement that everyone tours the landfills we so thoughtlessly toss our stuff into.
Part of the problem is the business model of trash collection. I can "recycle" some of my stuff by putting it in a blue bin for my collector. They will then sell it to a firm that will transform it into useful materials. That activity does nothing to reduce my bill, even though the collector benefits from my activity. My neighbor, "recycles" nothing and I am sure my bill is the same.
We should get to a system where we pay by the pound. You can imagine the efforts to reduce packaging and to use stuff until it really is "worthless".
Yes, we truly need to learn to reduce, reuse, and recycle better instead of just throwing it out. That stuff has to end up somewhere, and it lasts a long time!


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