Writer: Kim Kisner

How and Why? And What Does the Future Look Like?

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Published On August 29, 2023

According to a recent press conference from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), recycling in the Great Lakes Region is now at an all-time high. The total amount of residential recycled materials being reported for fiscal year (FY) 2022 was 620,494 tons – that’s over 66,000 tons more than the previous new record set the year prior.

Materials Michiganders recycled last year would fill the football stadiums at Ford Field, Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium, and the Big House at the University of Michigan. Michiganders recycled over 339,000 tons of paper and paper products during FY 2022, more than 154,000 tons of metals, more than 71,000 tons of glass, and over 45,000 tons of plastics and plastic products.

SBN Detroit spoke to the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, Kerrin O’Brien, and executive director of Green Living Science, Natalie Jakub to get their unique perspectives on how the state got here and how businesses in Southeast Michigan are participating.

Q: Recycling rates in Michigan are now at an all-time high. How did we get here?

O’Brien: There is a history of recycling in Michigan communities. Those communities that made recycling a priority began to develop their own programs. With advocacy through the Michigan Recycling Coalition, we started to see state-level leadership around 2014. Then Governor Rick Snyder saw the value of recycling and productive materials management and funded four additional recycling technical assistance staffers. The state department also began working with stakeholders to identify the level of funding needed to support a robust recycling program in the state. Funding for recycling was passed in 2018 which supports community grants for infrastructure and market development which are needed to grow recycling in Michigan.

Q: How do you think education has impacted the increase in recycling?

Jakub: Green Living Science works a lot with youth and in schools and one of the things we continue to hear is that families will often begin recycling because their children have learned about it and want to institute it in their homes. So, more education at a young age is a natural part of this behavior.

The more conversations we have about the impact that waste has on our lives, people start to understand. The simpler we can make the education and the actual act of recycling we will see more people willing to participate.

The city of Detroit has a 40% recycling participation is a huge jump from 11% a decade ago, so people and businesses are learning and largely eager to support.

Q: How does Green Living Science work with businesses in Southeast Michigan regarding recycling practices?

Jakub: GLS began in 2011 with a focus on education in the schools but over the years we started to see a great need for local businesses to get support setting up programs. Many businesses don’t have a dedicated staff person so it’s typically an administrator now tasked with everything that is involved with recycling – which can be a lot.

We developed a program called Bee Green Business to make it easy for businesses that includes setting up infrastructure, bins, signage, and education. Bee Green Business is an education and certification program that aids businesses and their employees in becoming responsible corporate citizens.

This program has been successful from small independent brands like 14 East Café and Red Crown restaurant to large institutions like Henry Ford Health, Ally Financial the DIA, and more.

A challenge we commonly see in commercial facilities is that they weren’t designed for more than one waste stream, so there are challenges with space issues and infrastructure needed to make the programs run smoothly and efficiently. Many haulers only offer dumpsters for recycling and we’ve learned that there’s a great need for cart programs. Something mobile that can be moved from an office to a loading dock and dumped.

Q: How can we and are we bringing more businesses into our recycling efforts?

O’Brien: Our perspective is that recycling services need to be on par with waste services. If we are serious about developing a circular economy and getting the most value out of the materials already circulating in our society then we have to divert waste to recycling. We are working to assure businesses have the services they need to do this. Businesses also have to make the budget and program choices to say yes recycling is worth it.

Reducing waste can add to the bottom line and savings can be used to expand services to make recycling even more efficient.

Real progress will be driven by a combination of factors including public opinion, consumer choice, manufacturer ESG goals, future resource needs, and policy. Together we think these elements are moving businesses to make smart choices with end-of-life materials.

Q: What can businesses get even better at recycling?

O’Brien: Right now, brands are driving recycling in a new way. Many national, and international brands are looking at where the resources for making future products will come from and many of them are recognizing that recycling provides them with needed feedstock for new products

This long-term thinking about product development and impacts provides good reason to recycle for all of us. In addition, many more job and business opportunities will develop locally as we get better at sorting through waste to recover and process resources for manufacturing that would otherwise be thrown away.

Q: What does all of this mean for job creation in Southeast Michigan?

O’Brien: This is a big topic but basically what we are talking about in the development of a circular economy is creating a new sector based on extracting resources where no one saw resources before.

Anything we can do in this new sector – collection, diversion, processing, secondary processing to turn plastic to pellets, for example, means a new business opportunity in this region, the state, and the country. Diverting the resources that are in our waste offers a huge opportunity for new jobs.

Q: Governor Whitmer and the State Legislature are committed to raising Michigan’s recycling rate to 30% by 2029 and ultimately raise it to 45%, exceeding the national recycling rate of 32%. How will we get there?

O’Brien: At the end of 2022, the Michigan legislature passed sweeping changes to the Michigan solid waste law. One of the most important components of the updated law will require every county in Michigan to have a “materials management plan”.

This means for the next three to four years, beginning in September, counties will engage municipalities and other stakeholders to develop plans for site facilities, provide services, meet benchmark recycling standards and other requirements of the law, and show progress toward the state goal of recycling 45% of waste. This conversation about waste and recycling is just beginning to heat up.

Q: What is your advice to businesses looking to increase their recycling efforts?

O’Brien: Waste is an often invisible business activity and expense but if made visible, it can be a key indicator of where improvements can be made. Waste is costly and reducing waste has economic benefits. The cost of recycling services can be offset by a reduction in waste costs. For example, adding a recycling dumpster does add cost to your bill but if that means your waste dumpster needs to be tipped two to three times less often, there’s a cost savings and good public relations value to be had.


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