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Expert says Michigan recycling industry needs you to recycle more

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Reusable products, bulk bins and local recycling centers can help you reduce waste in your home and your community.
Holly Nobles/Lansing State Journal

LANSING — Most of Michigan’s recyclables were processed within the state last year, an achievement one expert said could mean the state’s industry will survive the turbulence of a global market that is pinching waste haulers and their municipal customers.

But it might not save Lansing-area municipalities and taxpayers from rising costs unless residents increase their recycling rate and keep the bins sorted and clean.

“What I would ask anyone to do is figure out what should go in your recycling bin,” said Matt Flechter, a recycling market development specialist at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “Use your recycling bin, and do it correctly. Don’t put a half-full bottle of ketchup in there.”

That’s especially important now that the recycling industry is wading through a fluctuating market, Flechter said. 

China, once a major importer of recyclables, drastically reduced the amount of scrap plastic and paper it accepts from outside its borders last year, according to a January report from Resource Recycling. The country also increased its demand for imported recyclables to be clean and well-sorted.

The global flux has created a price problem for companies that need new markets in which to sell material, even for companies in states like Michigan that recycle much of their material nearby. 

It’s simple economics, Flechter said. With the same supply of recyclable material and fewer interested buyers, the price of that material drops.

“It has been a really tough blow,” he said. “We were finally starting to get some momentum to grow recycling access and participation and markets, and the market drops out from underneath us.”

As Michigan’s recycling industry is hit by fluctuations in the global market, experts call for more residents to recycle their waste and to keep their bins clean and carefully sorted. (Photo11: File photo by Rod Sanford)

Trash less, recycle more

It’s not all bad news for Michigan. Although recycling rates in Michigan still lag behind the national average, participation in recycling and the processing industry here are both growing, Flechter said.

More than half of the material recycled in Michigan was processed within the state in 2018, according to a recent DEQ report. Michigan companies are increasingly using the bottles, cans, jars, paper and cardboard that are placed in local recycling bins.

Yet some companies have to import recycled material from outside the state to keep their production plants busy, while some Michigan residents still send recyclables to landfills. That’s nonsense, Flechter said. 

“We need you to put that in the recycling bin and not put it in the trash so they can keep those plants running,” he said.

Michigan paper companies are making “major investments” to increase their use of recycled paper in the wake of the Chinese government’s decision to limit imports, Flechter said. Recycled paper is often turned into cardboard boxes that are used for shipping goods purchased online.

Companies across the country are making similar investments. Waste Management, which operates in the Lansing area, put more than $100 million into its domestic recycling infrastructure in 2018, spokesperson Tanisha Sanders said. 

“As a company we’re continuing to invest in recycling infrastructure,” she said. “We’re seeing an increase in municipalities wanting to move toward more recycling and recycling more materials.”

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New drop-off recycling bin at the East Lansing Public Works Office, pictured April 4, 2018, accepts polystyrene. (Photo11: Judy Putnam/Lansing State Journal)

Waste Management could build more facilities in Michigan if demand grows, Sanders said.

Rising fees possible

Waste companies have to find ways to accommodate sharp decreases in the value of their recycled materials.

Recycled paper products decreased in value more than 50 percent in the last year, said Phil Mikus, Granger Waste Services recycling manager.

Taxpayers may end up bearing the weight of the shifting market. Companies including Republic Services, a major waste company that operates in Michigan, saw a drop in recycling-related revenue last year, Resource Recycling reported. The company has responded by increasing recycling volume and fees.

Something similar happened in Battle Creek in January, when city leaders approved a new contract with Waste Management that reduced recycling pick-up to every other week, the Battle Creek Enquirer reported. The contract allows the company to increase its charges based on the recyclables market.

Customers of Granger Waste Services, which operates in lower Michigan, could see “upward movement of recycling fees” depending on their contracts, locations and material recycled, Mikus said.

Despite the potential cost hike, Flechter implored municipal leaders consider the societal costs of trashing recycling programs.

“Ultimately we’re going to be paying for the decisions to landfill trash for years to come,” Flechter said. “It’s not as though we’re putting this trash in the ground and it’s going away. There is no ‘away.’

“We’ll be paying these costs whether it’s now to manage [waste] in an environmentally sound way through recycling or later when we have to go back in and clean the landfills up.”

How you can help

Residents can ward off future price increases by “recycling right,” Mikus said, quoting the moniker of Granger’s public education campaign that encourages customers to be more careful about what they put in their bins.

Recycling only works if there’s a market for the product. Companies are more likely to find one if they’re exporting clean, top-notch material.

“You can’t make good stuff out of garbage,” Mikus said.

Greasy items and non-recyclable materials are considered contamination in the recycling stream. A higher level of contamination means a lower quality product.

For Granger, plastic bags are a contaminant.

“Grocery stores and other big box retailers have plastic bag collection bins in their lobbies, and that’s the right place to take plastic bags,” Mikus said.

Contamination is increasing, and bags aren’t the worst of it, Flechter said.

“We’re seeing an increase in contamination and non-recyclable materials ending up in the recycling bin,” Flechter said. “Hoses, Christmas lights, hypodermic needles, just stuff that should not be in the bin.”

Want to help avoid cost increases and make sure what goes into your recycling bin actually gets recycled into a new product? Here’s what you can do:

  • Start recycling or recycle more. The companies that turn recyclables into new products need material to work with. Recycling helps that industry grow, which could help Michigan’s economy, Flechter said.
  • Keep recyclables clean and dry. Even if they are technically made of recyclable materials, dirty, greasy (think pizza boxes) or wet objects get in the way at recycling facilities and can make the process more expensive. Before you put something in the bin, empty it. If it’s not paper or cardboard, wash it and dry it first.
  • Review your hauler’s rules. The companies that pick up recyclables have different rules for what is allowed in the bin. Be certain which materials your company accepts before putting something in the bin. Granger’s guidelines are posted online here. Waste Management’s guidelines are available here. Lansing and East Lansing both have guides for residential recycling.
  • Check for specialty recycling. Items like batteries, plastic foam, plastic bags and electronics aren’t accepted through curbside recycling programs. There are specific drop-off locations for those items in the Lansing region. Ingham County’s Recycle-Rama, which includes electronics and other items, is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 13 at the Ingham County Health Department, 5303 S. Cedar St. The county also offers regular collections for household hazardous wastes including medications, paint thinner and other items, from from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays from May to September at the Ingham County Health Department.

More: Where to donate and recycle used items

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Contact Carol Thompson at (517) 377-1018 or ckthompson@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @thompsoncarolk.

Read or Share this story: https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/local/2019/02/19/michigan-recycling-market-weathers-global-flux-how-to-help/2883514002/



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