Rediscovering Recycling

Recently in the United States, the recycling movement is under attack. The federal government is dismantling one major environmental policy after another, and new quality-based restrictions by Chinese scrap buyers have sent the value of many recyclables into a free fall. This is hurting all recyclers, but especially those in Michigan, where landfill overcapacity had already put recycling at a disadvantage. 

Some communities are cutting back the materials they’ll accept, some are stopping their recycling services altogether, and the rest are trying to figure out how to deal with the worst political and economic climate for recycling in generations.

I’ve been working on these issues for three decades, and my organization, the Ecology Center, for far longer yet. We’ve got an answer for people and communities trying to make sense of the recycling chaos:

The right response in 2018 is the same as it was in 2008, and in 1998, and in 1988. And it’s what we’ve been urging communities to do since the 1970s.

Double down on real recycling, and remember what it’s truly supposed to be about.

Real recycling is not about “managing solid waste.” It’s about reducing the need for trash incinerators, like Detroit’s, which is one of the community’s worst sources of air pollution. It’s about reducing the need for landfills, like Washtenaw County’s one facility, which has been a source of noxious odors and state violations for two years. Real recycling is one of the most important ways that households and communities can reduce carbon emissions, air and water pollution, and natural resource depletion. In fact, doubling the U.S. recycling rate would reduce climate emissions as much as installing solar panels on 44 million homes.

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Real recycling is about the work of building a zero waste community.

In a zero waste community, you don’t just put your trash and recyclables in two separate bins – with one going to a landfill or incinerator, and the other to a loosely regulated overseas scrap market. 

A zero waste community uses less stuff in the first place; reuses and repurposes other things; works with manufacturers to redesign the “throw away” packaging; connects with other national, state, and regional organizations to lobby governments and industry to coordinate meaningful action; invests in ongoing education for residents and businesses; and makes sure that what’s left gets collected and reprocessed in an authentic way—into new recycled content products that can be recycled again and again or high quality compost that can grow healthy food.

So, if you’re a recycler today (a real recycler!) trying to make a difference in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit, or anywhere else in southeast Michigan, what do you need to do next?

First of all, ignore the skeptics and naysayers. Landfill companies are telling communities to cut back their services, to quit collecting glass and other materials, to consider stopping services entirely. Their lobbyists are telling legislators that recycling isn’t worth the trouble and expense. Their PR firms are publishing “research” that’s meant to sow doubt in all our minds.

Just remember, the landfill industry makes its profits from trash. Every bottle you recycle cuts into their bottom line a little bit. Recyclables are sold on global commodity markets; their prices constantly fluctuate, and they’ve been low before; they always recover.

So ignore the naysayers, and instead, double down on recycling. For starters, Michigan should create a statewide fee on waste disposal to fund recycling programs. Michigan charges a nominal $0.36/ton fee right now, even though the average fee charged by our neighboring states is over $5/ton, with Wisconsin at $13. Senate Bill 943 would raise Michigan’s rate to $4.44/ton, and that’d be a good start. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Mike Nofs, and supported by Governor Snyder. 

Second, support the shutdown of toxic disposal alternatives. At the top of that list is the Detroit trash incinerator mentioned above. Built in the 1980s, the facility has been a public health menace and financial albatross to the City for decades. It’s one of the leading sources of asthma in a community with asthma rates five times higher than the rest of the state. Detroit should close its facility as soon as possible, and no later than 2020, when the City’s current contract with the incinerator ends.

Third, support public investments in recycling and zero waste in southeast Michigan. At the top of that list is a reinvestment in Ann Arbor’s materials recovery facility (MRF). The MRF is the place where household and commercial recyclables gets sorted and shipped to re-processors. Ann Arbor’s facility was closed down in 2016, increasing the City’s expenses by $1 million per year. Even worse, it shrunk the processing capacity for recyclables in the larger region, so, even if you don’t live in Ann Arbor, your recycling options have shrunk too. Ann Arbor should reinvest in its facility, even if it doesn’t rebuild a full-scale MRF.

Finally, be mindful about stuff. Not just about any old stuff – I’m talking about the consumer objects and containers of everyday life. Avoid excessive packaging. Avoid unnecessary packaging. Avoid unrecyclable or uncompostable packaging. Reuse and repair what you can. 

Recycle mindfully, and learn the recycling requirements in your community. The U.S. recyclables market is glutted today because Chinese scrap merchants (who’d become the leading buyers of American recyclables) wouldn’t tolerate scrap loads with large amounts of trash. When recyclables aren’t prepared and processed cleanly, they have less value, and Chinese markets said they wouldn’t take it our way anymore.

The bottom line to all of us is that we’re not throwing away garbage. We’re providing raw materials for new products. Over the years, many communities grew complacent about recycling, and thought “that problem’s been solved, what’s next?”  Like all good things, though, recycling and zero waste needs steady attention. Don’t give up when you read bad news about recycling – now is the time to do real recycling, and start building zero waste communities.

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Michael Garfield is the long time director of the Ecology Center, which aids in the development of innovative solutions for healthy people and a healthy planet. They are located at 339 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor, or you can learn more about their work on their website, www.ecocenter.org. Email Michael at: michaelg@ecocenter.org.

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Posted on January 8, 2019 and filed under Columns, Green Living, Issue 71, Local.