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Recycling: Michigan works to catch up

You would think that running an organization called the Michigan Recycling Coalition is pretty straightforward. Its name says it all, right? 

But Executive Director Kerrin O’Brien must navigate some tricky political crosscurrents. Her membership roster includes the landfill industry, composting operations, recycling outfits and environmental interests. 

They don’t always play nice with each other! 

Nonetheless, O’Brien managed to herd most of them to the organization’s 28th annual meeting in Detroit in May where lots of common ground was tilled. She sat down prior to the conference to answer some questions for Michigan Environmental Report: 

Michigan has a crummy recycling rate. Why can’t we do better? 
It’s disappointing that there’s not more recycling happening. But in all actuality we don’t know much about recycling in Michigan. In 1999, with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5, the MRC undertook a two-year effort to quantify a recycling rate. To date, that kind of measurement effort has never been repeated, so the 20% recycling rate we established back in 2000 sticks. 

What’s being done to change that? 
The most significant investment we’ve seen in recycling of late is in single or dual-stream recycling systems. Material recovery facilities (MRFs) with advanced sorting technologies allow us to collect more materials at the curb, i.e., plastics #1–7. MRFs are owned and operated by both public and private entities that are choosing to make investments because it makes business sense; there’s money to be made here. Unfortunately, the state hasn’t provided any real leadership in recycling and composting for more than 15 years. 

What are the economic benefits of recycling? 
A still-relevant Institute of Local Self-Reliance study from 1997 reports, “For every 10,000 tons of material: ten jobs are created if the material is recycled, four jobs if composted, and only one job if the waste is incinerated or landfilled.” We have to change the paradigm. We’re willing to pay for the service of having our garbage picked up at the curb and taken to the dump. But we’re not willing to pay for the service of having our recyclables picked up at the curb to be sorted, processed and remanufactured into new products? We need to pay for the services we value in order to assist business in making the transition to serve us better. 

Is it important for us to purchase items made from recycled products as well as recycling our own trash? 
Ultimately, the demand for products made with recycled materials will drive the whole system. 

You know, the print version of the Michigan Environmental Council’s newsletter is 100% post consumer content. Does that make you feel warm and fuzzy? 
I wouldn’t expect any less from MEC. And I’m proud to be a part of an organization that operates a conscientious business. I think there’s a misconception out there that recycled products are inferior or more expensive. Business will respond to our demands, we just have to keep moving toward the light. Michigan’s landfill rates are cheap compared to surrounding states, correct? Yes, we have many, many years of available landfill space, and the urgency to conserve it has been lost. The out-of-state waste argument still holds sway (Michiganders generally don’t like being a dumping ground for other states), but we have yet to actually take a stand and do something about it. 

Various proposals have been made to increase the waste disposal fee and use the money to establish a coordinated statewide recycling program. Is that a good idea? 
Our members fully recognize the need for funding. Funding could support a comprehensive education and promotion effort to increase participation and grow a sustainable stream of materials on which Michigan businesses can depend. Funding could also be used to provide all residents and even businesses with convenient access to recycling opportunities. The conversation gets more challenging when we begin to talk about the actual funding mechanism. Recyclers generate waste just like any other business, and few businesses want to see their disposal costs increase. Twenty-six other states partially fund their recycling programs with a disposal surcharge, so it’s a valid tool. There are other funding options—for example, a one-cent fee on every retail transaction has been discussed. But again nothing has been acted upon.

One more controversial subject…what about expanding the bottle deposit law to include other types of beverage containers? 
That is a tough question. The Bottle Bill has been very effective in capturing that portion of the waste stream, but it’s also a relatively small part of the recycling stream, roughly 1.5%. MRF operators, whether public or private, make their money on the value of the materials that go into the recycling bin. If water bottles, which have some value, are diverted from recycling bins to the bottle deposit system, recyclers don’t have that revenue to offset the cost of recycling lower-value materials. As a culture, we’ve invested a lot in recycling services, and I think it’s time we follow up and support the system that already exists to capture as much material as we can. 

So if we sent some interns to go through your trash, are we going to find that you practice what you preach? 
I have a clear conscience! 

Wrapping up, if you had one thing to say to state policymakers, what would it be? 
Investments in recycling and composting are having and will continue to have a positive impact on the local and state economy. Fostering increased investment in managing our waste as a resource has significant economic and environmental benefits over waste disposal, which ultimately has no benefit at all. 

And if you had one thing to say to your fellow Michiganders, what would that be? 
It’s easier than ever to recycle—why not contribute to making the world a better place?
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