Environment Picture

President's Column: Improving Michigan's abysmal recycling rate

A priority for the governor, an opportunity for stronger, healthier Michigan communities
Chris Kolb
Sometimes it feels like Michigan is stuck in the 1970s, especially when it comes to environmental and conservation issues. One glaring example is recycling. Michigan had one of the first and best bottle deposit laws, and one of the first curbside recycling programs in the country. Since then, some communities have invested in recycling, but not enough. Most of the nation has passed us by.

But there is a move afoot, led by Gov. Rick Snyder, to reverse decades of recycling lethargy. And it is past due.

Since 2001, six studies have looked at recycling in Michigan. The shared conclusion is that Michigan’s recycling rate is abysmal—between 14 and 20 percent. The national recycling rate in 2010 was 34.1 percent. In the Great Lakes region, only Indiana ranks lower than Michigan.

The biggest reason for Michigan’s low recycling rate is that too few of our communities have invested in adequate recycling programs, and the state has not made it a priority. In fact, until recently Detroit, our largest city, did not offer curbside recycling. Currently, the city has implemented pilot programs in three neighborhoods serving 34,000 residents out of a population of 700,000.

So it was a welcome surprise when in November 2012, Gov. Snyder used his special message on energy and the environment to make recycling a priority. Why aren’t more folks excited? Maybe it was because initial proposals advocated weakening our bottle deposit law as part of a comprehensive statewide recycling system. This initial framing heightened fears that it was really just an attempt to scuttle the successful and popular bottle deposit bill.

A proposal from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) included a provision allowing retailers to opt out of taking containers back if curbside recycling programs and redemption centers were available nearby. But before we change the bottle bill to let any retailer opt out, we need to ensure that a new system is in place and working at least as well as the existing bottle bill. Michigan is the only bottle bill state that has no redemption centers and since the state already has the authority to establish regional redemption centers, there is no reason to open up the bottle bill when we can already try pilot redemption centers to see if they work.

Not “either/or”
Too often in Lansing policy questions are translated into “either/or” propositions. That was the fear with the newest recycling report and initial conversations. It seemed like the question was defined as either increased comprehensive recycling OR keeping Michigan’s bottle deposit law. It’s time for all of us, especially in Lansing, to learn the power of “AND”!

Michigan can have comprehensive recycling “and” our bottle deposit law. The benefits will be tremendous:
  • Less pollution produced when using recycled content rather than virgin materials;
  • Conservation of natural resources;
  • Saved energy;
  • Greenhouse gas reductions; and
  • Job creation: for every one job at a landfill, there are 10 jobs in recycling processing and 25 jobs in recycling-based manufacturers.
The latest study on recycling, conducted by Public Sector Consultants (PSC) in February 2013, showed that bottle bills are not necessarily a determining factor in high performing recycling states.

The top ten recycling states are split almost evenly between bottle law and non-bottle law states. Interestingly, Minnesota, which is a high performing state at 43 percent and does not have a deposit law, is currently investigating a statewide recycling refund program for beverage containers to increase its recycling rate.

This conversation cannot be an either/or proposition. Curbside recycling and container deposit systems are not mutually exclusive. Taken together, they become part of a comprehensive recycling system, which is more effective than curbside alone. Deposit states, through a combination of recycling methods, have recovery rates two-and-a-half times that of non-deposit states.

Because of a lack of financial incentive to recycle, curbside programs have a much lower participation rate than container deposit programs. States with deposit laws recycle between 65 percent to over 95 percent of containers covered by their laws (Michigan averages 95 percent), while the average recycling rate for beverage containers in non-deposit states is approximately 30 percent.

Michigan’s bottle deposit law was enacted to address the litter issue. It is a highly successful anti-litter tool. While beverage containers represent around 2 to 6 percent (the containers covered under Michigan’s law account for 2 to 3 percent) of the waste stream, they represent 40 to 60 percent of litter. States that implement bottle bills find container litter drops by up to 84 percent, and total litter is reduced by between 34 and 64 percent, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

Steps for moving forward
The PSC report lists three things needed for a successful state recycling program:

Know where you are. Solid data tracking and measurement are essential to success. Every high-performing recycling state utilized data tracking and reporting on the amount of waste generated, diverted and/or recycled. This allows the states to track their progress and make necessary adjustments.

Know where you want to be. Set statewide comprehensive recycling goals. All of the high-performing recycling states established “a specific target or goal for waste diversion and/or recycling at a statewide level.”

Know how to get there. Develop a comprehensive plan. Top performing states had strong, well-funded policies.

The first step is to measure and collect data on municipal solid waste recycling and recovery rates. This will help determine where we need to make investments to improve recycling rates.

The second step is to establish statewide goals for recycling—the “where you want to be.” Michigan should aim for a 75 percent recycling, recovery and diversion rate by 2030. Every community with a population of 5,000 or more should have curbside collection. This goal should count participation, not just access. In the curbside communities, a 90 percent participation goal is attainable. Communities with fewer than 5,000 population and rural areas should have access to a drop-off center within 10 miles.

Third, we need to pull together a strong stakeholder group to develop a strategic plan to meet these goals, and secure a funding source to implement the plan.

In 2011, the Michigan Recycling Coalition (MRC) authored a report, State of Recycling in Michigan: A Way Forward, which identified the key components of a successful statewide comprehensive recycling program and the funds required. While the total cost was pegged at $75 million, the largest component was for community services and infrastructure at $69.5 million. The rest of the components totaled $6 million: measurement and data collection ($321,000); education and technical assistance ($542,000); market and economic development ($1.4 million); county planning ($3.438 million); and state solid waste policy administration ($150,000).

These non-infrastructure components are important keys to developing a truly comprehensive recycling program in Michigan. Building upon MRC’s plan, I would suggest a $4 to 5 million grant program to fund pilot projects, infrastructure development, and enhanced community outreach campaigns. The total budget for this initial work would cost $10 to 11 million and is easily paid for initially with general fund dollars.

Gov. Snyder has pointed Michigan in the right direction to catch up to other states. It is up to the stakeholders—and that is all of us—to find consensus on a forward-looking statewide recycling policy that maximizes the use of valuable resources, protects the environment and creates jobs and prosperity for Michiganders.

Let’s get to work!
-Chris Kolb
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