Contaminated recycling has become a serious problem in Battle Creek.
Since March, materials collected in recycling bins in some areas of the city have been diverted directly to the landfill.
The diverted collection bins are those that are picked up on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and most residents live north of Columbia Avenue.
The city is working to find solutions to make its recycling program effective and sustainable, but, in the meantime, residents who want to make sure their recyclable materials don’t end up in the landfill should consider dropping them off at a collection facility.
“The bottom line there is we’re getting to the point where the current service just isn’t going to work anymore,” said Andy Helmboldt, the chair of the Battle Creek Sustainability Committee.
Waste Management is contracted by the city to haul recycling to its sorting facility in Springfield. There, the materials are lightly sorted before being sent to a materials recovery facility in Holland, Michigan.
At the materials recovery facility, the items are lightly sorted again and baled for sale to an end-user.
If the materials are contaminated—meaning they have items that are not recyclable, are too wet or have food waste on them— the market value is significantly reduced, so loads that have too much contamination are sent to the landfill instead.
For every load rejected by the materials recovery facility, the city has to pay $1,650, according to city Environmental and Storm Service manager Patty Hoch-Melluish.
“Our program is just not working,” Hoch-Melluish said. “Basically, the recycling bins are being used as a garbage bin, in many cases… When it gets mixed in that truck, it all becomes trash pretty quickly.”
In some Battle Creek neighborhoods, about 30% of recycling is contaminated, Hoch-Melluish said. The biggest problem is that people are trying to recycle things that cannot be recycled, including plastic bags, diapers and old vacuum cleaners. Other people have items that are too wet to be recycled or have food waste on them.
Since March, materials collected in recycling bins in some areas of Battle Creek have been diverted directly to the landfill. (Photo: Nick Buckley/The Enquirer)
Why is contamination such a big problem?
The United States exports much of its recyclable materials to other countries, especially China, where the materials are used to create new products.
Previously, these countries accepted most materials, but, in the last few years, many have introduced bans on certain recyclables, including mixed paper—which includes magazines, office paper, and junk mail—and most plastics.
Recycling that is too contaminated is not accepted. China banned mixed paper recycling in 2018, and, in 2019, Indonesia announced a 0.5% contamination rate on mixed paper recycling. In January 2020, India said that it would not accept mixed paper recycling with contamination of greater than 1%.
According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, a trade association that represents private waste and recycling companies, 25% of what Americans put in the recycling bin can’t be recycled.
Waste Management contacted the city to let it know about the contamination problem in Battle Creek earlier this year. The highest levels of contamination were in materials the company collected on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so the company decided to divert the materials directly to the landfill to avoid the rejection and the cost.
Because of a change to the city’s contract in January 2019, the diversion could be done without notice to customers and it was expected to be temporary. The city planned to do educational outreach so that normal recycling operations could resume, Hoch-Melluish said, but the COVID-19 pandemic and city furloughs made that difficult.
Now, with its environmental team back to work, the city is looking for solutions to get the recycling program back on track, Hoch-Melluish said.
City staff plans to introduce an amendment to the garbage ordinance at the August Commission meeting that will allow the city to create a better contract when its current contract expires next spring.
Under Battle Creek’s current contract with Waste Management, residents pay $19 per month for unlimited curbside pickup. The service includes weekly garbage pickup, biweekly recycling, weekly yard waste pickup from April to November, unlimited bulk pickup and spring and fall cleanup. Every single-family home in the city is provided with a free 96-gallon recycling roll cart.
Some ideas to reduce recycling contamination include allowing an opt-in recycling program, requiring hauler-provided trash carts or changing to a recycling program that requires materials to be sorted at the curbside.
The Sustainability Committee also discussed changing the ordinance to allow for recycling bin audits that would help people learn how to recycle better. During a bin audit, recyclable materials would be looked at prior to being hauled, and if the bin was contaminated the homeowner would be contacted. A recycling audit program exists in Kalamazoo, and, if homeowners are contacted more than three times about contaminated recycling, they must take a class.
Recycling the right way
In the meantime, the city wants to educate residents on how to recycle the right way.
Here are some tips to remember when recycling in the city of Battle Creek:
- Items such as vacuums, clothes, diapers, toys, paint cans, dirty food containers and plastic bags are not allowed in curbside carts.
- Make sure items are clean and dry when they go into the city cart. Keep the lid closed to avoid water getting inside.
- Items must be inside the container; drivers will leave behind a cardboard box placed next to the cart because Waste Management trucks pick up recycling with a robotic arm.
- Items should be loose in the recycling cart. Do not put them in a plastic or paper bag.
- People should throw away items if they are not sure if they can be recycled.
To learn more about what can and cannot be recycled, people can visit the city’s website at battlecreekmi.gov/recycling.
Residents who have their recycling picked up on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are encouraged to continue recycling by bringing their materials directly to Waste Management’s Springfield facility, at 4547 Wayne Road. Recycling drop-off centers are also available in Marshall at the Marshall Recycling Center and C&C Landfill.
Contact Elena Durnbaugh at (269) 243-5938 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ElenaDurnbaugh.
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