Proper recycling practices protect the environment — and recycling workers

Proper recycling practices — as encouraged by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) through its “Know It Before You Throw It” education campaign — are not only good for the environment and economy.

They’re also important for the safety of people who work at any materials recovery facility (MRF) throughout the state where items placed in recycling bins are sorted.

Just ask Matt Van Benten, operations supervisor at the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County (RRRASOC) MRF in Southfield.

“Safety is huge here — it’s our No. 1 concern, and it’s our No. 1 problem,” Van Benten said as he sorted through a box of potentially dangerous items that were pulled from the MRF’s conveyor line, including a bladed instrument, scissors and a cellphone.

“These are the kinds of things we don’t want to see,” he said. “There are homes for these, but your local recycling bin is not it.”

The dangers posed by sharp objects such as blades and scissors are obvious — they can injure workers who are sorting items moving down the MRF’s conveyor line. They’re particularly troublesome because they’re often hidden among material such as paper and plastic, Van Benten said.

“You don’t know where it is,” he said.

Electronic devices such as cellphones and old laptops are a no-no because they’re powered by lithium-ion batteries, which can explode when crushed or shaken.

“We’ve had explosions and fires here caused by things like this,” Van Benten said. “We’d like to have the message out there … this is not how you deal with that. Please, do it the right way.”

Information on proper disposal of hazardous waste is available on the EGLE website.

Check out the accompanying video for more advice from Van Benten on how to help keep recycling workers safe.

Here’s a ’dirty’ secret about the benefits of composting in Michigan

Emily Piper of Bay City, left, discusses details of Iris Waste Diversion Specialists’ new food scrap collection pilot program for residents in Bay City and Saginaw with Iris CEO Sarah Archer and her husband, Darrell Reed. 

BAY CITY – Former high school science teacher, current online educator and avid gardener/composter Emily Piper recently moved from Phoenix to Bay City to be closer to her parents.

Piper unabashedly professes she is “wildly passionate” in her dedication to improving the environment and reducing, recovering and recycling wasted food while diverting those materials from landfills to prevent climate change.

“I grew up in the 1990s when everything was love the earth and conservation,” laughs Piper, who works as a content manager for Cambium Learning Group.

So she was eager to discover whether she could find the same top-quality composting and recycling convenience in Michigan she’d found while living in major metropolises around the U.S.

Turns out, Piper had nothing to worry about.

She learned about a new pilot food scrap collection program open to residents of Bay City and Saginaw created by Sarah Archer, the CEO of Iris Waste Diversion Specialists, Inc., with support from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

“I want to live in a sustainable way and reduce my impact on the environment,” Piper said.

“Composting conserves resources. I have big dreams and a small back yard that my dogs pretty much own, but I eventually plan to build a green house where I’ll grow vegetables, lettuce and other greens, all with compost that I’ll receive from Iris.”

How It Works

Rich Reed cleans carts at 5Heart Earthworm Farm in Birch Run. Since 2016, the Iris Waste Diversion Specialists team has collected over 218,000 pounds of food scraps from environmentally conscious restaurants in Genesee and Saginaw counties. 

It’s easy and fast for Bay City and Saginaw residents to enroll in Iris’s food scrap collection program.

Iris also has a commercial food scrap collection in Genesee and Saginaw counties, where they currently travel onsite to retrieve food scraps from four businesses inside the Flint Farmers Market (Willow’s Garden Juice Bar, Penny’s Café, Flint Food Works, and Sweet Peaces Veggie Bistro), as well as the Flint Crepe Company, The Grafted Root in Grand Blanc and the House of Fortune in Saginaw.

“We’ve tried to make this experience simple, affordable and hassle-free,” Archer said. “We’re thrilled by the outpouring of support and sign-ups we’re getting from folks for both our commercial and residential food scrap collection services.”

Residential subscribers in Bay City and Saginaw can start by calling 855-2GO-ZERO (855-246-9376) or emailing info@iriswds.com to sign up. You can also visit www.iriswds.com for more details. Your personal information will remain confidential and will never be shared, Archer pledges. The monthly fee is $20.

Iris provides subscribers with two containers for managing food scraps. A kitchen pail is designed for countertop use when preparing food. When it’s full, you empty the contents of the kitchen pail into a 5-gallon bucket.

The 5-gallon bucket is to store food scraps between collection days. An easy-to-use lid is included with each bucket. The 5-gallon bucket is the container to set out on your pickup day, when Archer and her team arrive at your house or garage every week. Subscribers are responsible for maintaining the buckets’ cleanliness, but Iris also offers a swap-out service where they bring clean buckets for an extra $8 a month.

The scraps are delivered to 5Heart Earthworm Farm in Birch Run where Archer’s husband, Darrell Reed, processes the materials into worm castings, or manure. The worm castings are a natural alternative to fertilizer that improves soil health and boosts plant growth.

Darrell Reed inspects one of the worm bins used by 5Heart Earthworm Farm that contain castings, essentially worm poop, a nutrient-rich, chemical-free supplement that improves soil health.

Subscribers agree to participate in three surveys providing feedback about the service through the duration of the pilot campaign, which ends Feb. 28, 2023.

And, as a “thank-you” for completing the surveys, subscribers will receive 30 pounds of worm castings in a 5-gallon bucket at the program’s conclusion. The worm castings can be safely used on all plants, trees, shrubs and lawns. Instructions are included. You also have the option of designating your bucket of castings to your city parks department.

Food for Thought

There are many ways for Michiganders to compost that are applicable beyond the Iris service footprint.

Among the tips that Archer recommends to all composters is storing scrap food buckets in a low-light, dry location to reduce odors. To absorb liquids and make bucket cleaning easier, place a sheet of newspaper at the bottom of the bucket before adding scraps. And to keep insects out of the bucket, always keep the lid on when not in use.

Types of food scraps that are ideal for composting include raw fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds and filters, tea leaves and natural tea bags, banana peels, eggshells and outdated leftovers — all with produce stickers, rubber bands and twist ties, which are nonrecyclable, removed. Meat, dairy, fats, oils and grease, as well as salty foods, should go in the garbage, not into food scrap bins.

In addition, by visiting EGLE’s Home Composting Guide, Michiganders can quickly become do-it-yourselfers and learn how to compost in their own backyard. They can also contact local municipal offices to find if there is a community garden nearby that takes food scraps and organic materials.

The idea of starting a compost pile at home or the workplace can be a little intimidating to newcomers, Archer concedes. That’s why the compost advocacy experts at Iris are so valuable.

“The most common mistakes we see are non-compostable materials like plastic bags and plastic knives and forks getting mixed in with the food scraps,” Archer said. “The beauty of subscribing to Iris is that if you’re still unsure about how to compost, you can store your organic materials until we pick them up each week and ensure that they find a better use than just sending it to the landfill.”

‘It’s Cool to Compost’

Before this year, residential food scrap diversion programs were non-existent in the largely rural Great Lakes Bay Region.

EGLE announced a $194,000 grant to Iris Waste Diversion Specialists in early 2022 to help expand its food scrap collection infrastructure and processing capabilities while establishing the residential pickup service in partnership with the cities of Saginaw and Bay City and with approval from the Mid-Michigan Waste Authority Board.

“This pilot project is a labor of love – we’re really excited to expand composting in the Great Lakes Bay region,” Archer said. “Our vision is to help people learn it’s cool to compost.”

Established in 2004, Archer’s company has achieved national certification as a Women’s Business Enterprise and as a woman-owned small business through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, the nation’s largest third-party certifier of businesses owned and operated by women in the U.S.

The Iris grant is part of EGLE’s strategy to promote composting as a way to prevent food waste such as kitchen scraps, leftovers and other organic materials from going into Michigan landfills.

Michigan saw a total of 51.1 million cubic yards of solid waste enter the 67 landfills across the state in 2021, according to the annual solid waste report EGLE released in May. Food waste represents roughly 30% of that total — about 15 million cubic yards — that could find a better use like composting.

Composting produces what gardeners call “black gold,” a nutrient-rich soil supplement that holds moisture and helps gardens grow. The activity is especially good for the environment. Unlike landfills that can release methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, composting breaks down organic material without sending methane into the atmosphere.

"We're going to try to increase awareness about our program all summer," Archer said. "Not just our program, but composting in your backyard, if that's a better option for you.

“Our goal is to fill in the gap for people who can't compost outdoors. Not everyone can compost in their own yard. Someone who lives in a retirement home or an apartment complex may not have a yard, or may not have a yard where its conducive to composting. Our service provides them with an option to sustainably manage their food scraps."

Think green during spring cleaning by focusing on recycling and reusing

A recycling truck in a residential neighborhood is shown picking up a blue container containing paper materials.

Spring is considered a time of renewal — and Michigan recycling experts say that also goes for much of the unwanted stuff lying around the house.

“As the weather turns nicer and Michiganders are starting spring cleaning projects, we hope they’ll consider whether an item can be recycled or reused before they simply toss it in the trash,” said Tracy Purrenhage, recycling specialist for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). “To kind of turn a phrase, ‘What’s old can often become new again.’”

That sentiment is echoed by other recycling leaders throughout the state who are gearing up for an influx of materials at their sorting facilities.

“Spring cleaning is a big event each year, so we always see an uptick in recycling and a variety of different items,” said Katelyn Kikstra, resource recovery specialist for the Kent County Department of Public Works, whose Recycling & Education Center serves as the primary materials recovery facility for recyclables generated by West Michigan households.

At the same time, some of what spring cleaners place in their recycling bins doesn’t belong there — at least in its current condition. For example, containers that would be recyclable if empty are dangerous if they still contain chemicals such as bleach or drain cleaner that can mix and cause fires at recycling facilities, Kikstra said.

Other dangers for recycling center workers include batteries, aerosol cans and sharp metal objects.

Purrenhage said those are reasons why it’s so important to follow the rules that EGLE is promoting in its statewide “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign, which aims to increase both the quality and quantity of recycling in Michigan.

“One thing we stress is that you should always rinse and empty all containers before placing them in your recycling bin,” she said. “We also urge people to check with their local recycling service to learn exactly what materials they accept.”

When it comes to spring cleaning, that last bit of advice could apply to any number of items. Here’s some guidance on how to handle materials that are commonly encountered while decluttering during the spring.

Pieces of metal, such as old grills, rusty lawn mower blades or pots and pans

“Scrap metal is generally not accepted curbside, but some drop-off recycling centers will take it,” said SOCRRA General Manager Jeff McKeen, who oversees recycling services in 12 Oakland County communities. You also might get some cash for it if you find a scrapyard to take it, Purrenhage said.

Hazardous material containers (cleaners, fertilizers, paints, etc.)

Many counties and local governments host local collection events every spring and fall where residents can dispose of household hazardous waste. EGLE has a webpage devoted to hazardous waste, including a list of statewide collection sites. “It’s possible that some containers that once held cleaners or other household hazardous materials may be recyclable curbside, as long as they are clean and empty — just be sure to check with your local program first and ‘know it before your throw it,’” Purrenhage said.

Batteries

All batteries are recyclable, but they should never go in curbside bins because they can spark fires at recycling facilities. Depending on the type, you might find hazardous waste collection sites, auto parts stores or home improvement retailers such as Lowe’s and Home Depot to accept them. More information on battery recycling is available here.

Hoses, boat shrink wrap and other types of flexible plastics

Recycling facilities don’t want these materials because they can get tangled in their machinery, but they’re ripe for reuse, Kikstra said. “We try to encourage people to get one more use out of these items by repurposing them if possible,” she said. “Poking holes in a hose can turn it into a garden soaker, or use the shrink wrap as a painting drop cloth.” In addition, the Michigan Recycling Coalition and EGLE have partnered on a boat film plastic recycling program.


Plastic flowerpots and plant containers

Some recycling services will accept these materials curbside, provided they’re not full of dirt, McKeen said. You could also possibly reuse them or see if the retailer where you bought them will take them back. Home Depot stores and Meijer Garden Centers also collect them for recycling in partnership with East Jordan Plastics.


Plastic lawn chairs

“You can always donate these if they’re in good condition, and they can sometimes be recycled at drop-off locations,” Purrenhage said.

E-waste, such as old computers or TVs

Look for local drop-off centers or one-day collection events. Some electronics retailers will also take e-waste turned in by consumers. In addition, some manufacturers provide a takeback option for electronics like televisions and computers.

Clothing

Clothing and textiles should not go in curbside recycling. However, local thrift shops can find new uses for most donated garments. “Clothing is another reuse opportunity where it can be turned into cleaning rags in place of paper towels,” said Kikstra.

Mattresses

There may be local drop-off centers or one-day collection events for mattress disposal, Purrenhage said. If you have curbside waste services, you may also check with your service provider or local municipality regarding options for bulky waste pickup.

Supplies from the first cookout of the year after your spring cleanup is finished: paper plates, plastic plates and cups, straws, plastic utensils

Most of this should go in the trash because of food contamination, which is why it’s best to choose reusable or compostable options, Kikstra said. Exceptions are clean aluminum foil and plastic cups, which are often recyclable curbside, although foam containers are rarely accepted, McKeen said.

EGLE, Michigan Chamber of Commerce and more than 30 partners join with bipartisan lawmakers to announce NextCycle Michigan

Kickoff highlight includes EGLE’s award of record-setting combined total of $4.9 million in Renew Michigan recycling grants to 45 community, business and nonprofit recipients in almost every region of the state

LANSING – Leaders of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) joined today with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, bipartisan lawmakers and Meijer to announce NextCycle Michigan, hailed as the largest collaborative effort in state history to spark the state’s “recycling and recovery” economy.

As part of the NextCycle Michigan initiative, EGLE announced that already in 2020 and 2021, $97 million is being committed to recycling projects through partners that in addition to Meijer include: Henry Ford Health System, GFL Environmental, Carton Council of North America, Goodwill Industries, Keurig Dr Pepper, Foodservice Packaging Institute, U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development, Emterra Environmental, Washtenaw County, Great Lakes Tissue and more than 30 Michigan companies, organizations and nonprofits.

“The NextCycle Michigan Initiative and Renew Michigan grants marks the largest push in state history to promote recycling activities that divert materials from Michigan landfills, boost local economies, and support Gov. Whitmer’s climate change priorities through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” EGLE Director Liesl Clark said during a virtual press conference.

Emterra, for example, is opening this month a new $9 million recycling sorting facility built through a collaboration with the cities of Lansing and East Lansing. The facility will use state-of-the-art robotics to process recyclables from more than 676,000 households across 12 counties in and around the Capital-area, increasing access to recycling throughout the region and creating new jobs in Lansing. The materials from the Emterra facility will then go to businesses like Great Lakes Tissue, in Cheboygan, Michigan, which turns old cartons into toilet paper sold in grocery stores across the state, including Meijer.

In addition, to highlight NextCycle Michigan’s launch, EGLE announced a record-setting combined total of more than $4.9 million in Renew Michigan grants to recipients in 45 communities statewide that will support the initiative.

“The funding is part of EGLE’s strategy to support recycling infrastructure, improve the quality of recyclable materials, and promote market development using the Renew Michigan Fund, which was created in 2019 to bolster the state’s recycling efforts,” Clark said.

NextCycle Michigan represents “a first-of-its-kind partnership” that will help fund infrastructure investment to promote the development of markets for recycled materials and recycled products, including manufacturing, said EGLE Materials Management Division Director Liz Browne.

Michigan is among the first states in the U.S. to introduce this bold partnership that leverages state dollars with private investment to fund shovel-ready projects, state-of-the-art technology installation and innovation grants, Browne noted.

“Our aim is to spark the state’s “recycling and recovery” economy,” she said. “At EGLE, we know that recycling is one of the most important things you can do every day to make a positive difference for our environment and climate. But what many Michiganders often don’t realize is that recycling has become an essential tool in supporting our state’s local economies, businesses big and small, and major employers in the manufacturing sector.”

By turning waste materials into new products made in Michigan, EGLE and its partners plan to achieve the state’s goals of saving resources, protecting the climate and contributing to the prosperity of Michigan-based companies.

NextCycle Michigan is “uniquely exciting because this level of commitment and partnership to comprehensively promote recycling between Michigan’s private sector and state government has never happened before in our state’s history,” Browne said. “In fact, we believe NextCycle Michigan marks the greatest accomplishment in recycling since our state achieved its first-in-the-nation status by introducing the bottle bill law in 1976.”

Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studley praised EGLE for looking to build on that historic success by doing more than ever before with plastics, metal, paper and all forms of recyclable materials. Together with its partners, EGLE is planning to use public and private investment in Michigan's recycling system to put materials once destined for the landfill back into use in manufacturing.

“I am happy to speak today in support of the NextCycle initiative because this program will increase innovation, and overcome barriers that have traditionally hindered Michigan’s recycling rates in the past,” Studley said. “Our state decision-makers wisely understood that partnering with Michigan’s business community to help develop market driven solutions was critical to improving Michigan’s waste and materials management processes. The NextCycle initiative will be an important piece of accomplishing those goals.”

By helping to build-out domestic markets for recycled goods, Studley asserted that Michigan can help support key state industries like automotive, construction materials and paper product manufacturing, while also preserving the environment for the next generation. He pledged to encourage Michigan Chamber members to engage and collaborate across a diverse array of stakeholders to help regulators understand their needs, and bring solutions to the table.

“This is a great example of state policymakers from both sides of the aisle working together to support innovative technologies and solutions that will improve Michigan’s material management and increase the value of products that historically wound up in landfills,” Studley said.

Meijer routinely provides recycling solutions to its customers by offering plastic film recycling and drug-takeback programs, according to Vik Srinivasan, senior vice president for real estate and properties at Meijer. Every year, for example, Meijer keeps more than 100,000 tons of material from the landfill through recycling. Meijer also has food waste reduction programs in its stores and manufacturing facilities that recycle unused food into animal feed and compost.

“We’re proud to say that, since 2018, we’ve achieved more than a 95% waste diversion rate at our five food manufacturing facilities,” Srinivasan said. “But we still have a long way to go to reach our goals, which is why we’re excited to be partnering with EGLE in support of the NextCycle program.

“This program will help us find new ways to recycle some of the most challenging materials in our supply chain, which include packaged food waste from our stores and difficult-to-recycle materials in our distribution centers,” he added. “We look forward to our shared innovation not only to help us reach our sustainability goals, but also to help build the infrastructure for our successes to be replicated statewide.”

Gov. Whitmer and the state Legislature are committed to raising Michigan’s recycling rate to 30% by 2025 and ultimately reach 45% annually — Michigan’s current recycling rate is at 15%, the lowest in the Great Lakes region and among the nation’s lowest.

“To ensure we reach this goal, recycling across Michigan is receiving a major boost in 2021 through Renew Michigan grant funding,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, who serves the state’s 11th Congressional District in southeast Michigan.

Among the grants Stevens unveiled in her region of the state were:

  • Next Energy: $50,000 for an assessment of electric vehicle battery recycling system needs in Michigan.
  • Battery Solutions: $75,000 for battery sorting technology upgrades.
  • Schupan: $250,000 for equipment that empties packaging, allowing for additional containers to be recycled.
  • Recycle Livingston (City of Howell): $282,504.80 for Howell drop-off site upgrades that will improve collection and processing capacity and worker health and safety conditions.
  • City of Ypsilanti: $73,440 for recycling bins in downtown and public parks.
  • City of Detroit: $20,000 for residential recycling carts, part of multi-year, on-going EGLE support of City of Detroit recycling program.
  • Huron-Clinton Metroparks: $48,816 for plastic bottle recycling bins in Metroparks.
  • The Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County: $32,000 for Novi drop-off site upgrades.
  • MSU Recycling (MSU Recycling and Surplus Store): $170,000 for robotic sorting equipment that will improve drop-off recycling in the region, as well as worker health and safety conditions.
  • Vartega: $100,000 for the production of new recycled thermoplastics products.
  • Emterra Environmental: $250,000 for technology to produce cleaner glass material that will be used to make beverage containers and insulation.

The Legislature two years ago in a bipartisan move voted to increase EGLE’s funding for recycling projects from $2 million annually to $15 million per-year moving forward. The additional funds through Renew Michigan grants are being used to promote development of recycling markets, increase access to recycling opportunities, and support efforts to grow recycling at the local level, noted Republican state Sen. Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City.

“I was proud to be one of the members in the Michigan Legislature who voted to provide new funding to support recycling throughout our state,” Schmidt said. “Now, more than ever, Michigan residents view recycling as an essential public service.

“And during a time of social distancing because of COVID-19, when many nonessential employees are working remotely and commercial recycling is near an all-time low due to the coronavirus pandemic, producers see residential recycling programs as a critical part in the manufacturing supply chain so they can make their products from recycled content instead of new materials,” Schmidt said.

The Renew Michigan grant recipients in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula that Schmidt announced today include:

  • Great Lakes Tissue: $250,000 for technology that will recycle more types of containers into paper products.
  • GFL Environmental: $100,000 for technology needed for cart and cup recycling.
  • The Northeast Michigan Council of Governments: $55,000 to support collaborative efforts to secure a new recycling processing facility for the region.
  • Emmet County: $150,000 for expansion of the food scraps collection program.
  • Delta Solid Waste Management Authority: $600,000 for equipment needed to take advantage of the new recycling facility in Marquette that was built through a previous EGLE grant.
  • Three Upper Peninsula townships (Ishpeming/Neguanee/Marquette Charter): $167,791 for residential recycling carts for residents of those three townships, with materials going to the new recycling facility in Marquette.
  • Keweenaw Bay Indian Community: $20,000 for equipment to collect paper and cardboard needed by Michigan businesses like U.P. Paper.
  • City of Alpena: $58,080 for recycling bins in public parks and government buildings.
  • SEEDS: $75,000 for a study of how to optimize the organics recycling system in Northern Michigan.

EGLE is also announcing the launch of the next round of NextCycle Michigan Innovation Challenges and Renew Michigan recycling funding opportunities. Visit EGLE’s website at Michigan.gov/MIRecycles for details about recycling grants. Learn how to participate in NextCycle Michigan at NextCycle Michigan.

The NextCycle Michigan initiative and Renew Michigan grants align with EGLE’s national award-winning “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoon Squad. The aim of the campaign that began in 2019 is to increase recycling and promote best practices to reduce contaminated materials from going into recycling bins and drop-off sites.

Energize Your Recycling Know-How

This story was originally published by WDIV for "Live in the D."

More people are recycling in Michigan and across the country. Curbside pickup is a great convenience, but are you recycling the correct way? “Live in the D” host Jason Carr spoke with Sara Matthews, with EGLE, about how to recycle something that often brings up a lot of questions: batteries. Matthews explained that Battery Solutions, North America’s largest handler of post-consumer batteries for recycling, also processes alkaline at their location in Wixom, Michigan. Some batteries may release chemicals when they are pressed or cracked, so putting them in a garbage bin isn’t the safest option.

Recycling batteries is the best way to keep the environment safe and, Matthews says, the steel can go back into the steel market place to make new items like a kitchen sinks or even an airplane. If the battery has magnesium, it can be used to make fertilizer.

During Michigan’s battle against COVID-19, recycling is more important than ever

Empty wheeled garbage barrels and recycling containers are scattered/strewn near two opposite driveways along a suburban residential neighborhood street. Winter snow is on the ground and multiple slushy, messy tire tracks cris cross the driveways and the street. Must have been garbage/trash pickup day today.
With many businesses and offices closed or operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic, manufacturers that use recycled materials to make products such as boxes and toilet paper are relying on residential recyclers to pick up the slack.

Rich Elliott has never felt particularly heroic while placing his bin of recyclables out for collection each week.

“I’ve just always felt that it was basically the right thing to do to help the environment,”

said the Redford resident, 51. “My mom and dad always recycled when I was growing up, and I’ve continued the habit.”

But now, amid the lingering fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, what Elliott views as a simple routine has taken on added significance, recycling experts say.

One big change: With many offices and businesses closed or operating at diminished capacity, a primary supply of recycled paper and cardboard that toilet paper, box and other manufacturers have long relied on to make new products has dwindled – leaving it to residential recyclers like Elliott to help make up the difference.

“Recycling has always been environmentally and economically important, but market shifts in the wake of the pandemic have made it even more so,” said Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). “The consequence of less recycling by businesses is that fewer recyclables are in the supply chain for paper companies to make products like cardboard boxes and toilet paper.”

More than 75% of U.S. paper mills use recovered paper from recycling operations for their daily production needs, Flechter said.

“The bottom line: When you recycle properly, you are helping to supply manufacturers with the valuable materials they need,” he said. “At the same time, the new products they make help people who are stuck at home while we all work together to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.”

Essential service

Virtually all of Michigan’s recycling service providers have continued to operate during the pandemic, though a few suspended operations or changed their processes when the pandemic first hit. Residents are advised to check with their local provider on the current rules in their area. If recycling is temporarily unavailable, EGLE is encouraging households to store their recyclables – including rinsed and emptied metal and plastic containers – in a clean and dry place until service resumes.

But in general, curbside residential recycling has remained available as usual throughout Michigan because it’s considered an essential service.

Production of paper products – including toilet paper and boxes used for shipping – has also kept running in the state and nationwide.

Filling the void

Consider Pratt Industries Inc., a major cardboard box manufacturer with five paper mills in the U.S., including one each in Indiana and Ohio that are both supplied by Michigan recycled paper. In addition, Pratt has box plants in Livonia and Grand Rapids that ship to companies such as Amazon, Ford and General Motors.

Paul England, senior vice president for Pratt’s Midwest region, noted that all of the company’s boxes are made from recycled paper, including corrugated containers, cereal boxes, newspapers, magazines and junk mail.

“That’s our raw material – without that, we can’t make boxes,” he said, adding that demand for Pratt’s products has surged because of increased e-commerce shipments during the pandemic. “Items such as medical supplies, food and personal care items all ship in a box. Anybody that produces a box is just trying to keep up with demand right now.”

At the same time, in the pandemic’s immediate aftermath, recyclable paper supplied to box makers by commercial sources dropped by 30% after businesses started closing because of health and safety concerns, England said.

“What is interesting is that we’ve also seen a pretty significant uptick in curbside recycling as more goods are consumed at home,” he said. “So our advice to Michigan residents is that they can make a positive impact on the economy by continuing to recycle what’s recyclable so that we have the materials to continue making boxes for shipping.”

Know the rules

Residential recycling is also important for toilet paper manufacturers, including Great Lakes Tissue Co. in Cheboygan, which each month uses 2,100 tons of recycled raw material – half of which comes directly from recycling operations across the U.S. and Canada.

In March, toilet paper sales soared 112% nationwide as people stocked up amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The hoarding of toilet paper and paper towels largely eased after a few weeks, although there was another run on paper products when COVID-19 cases surged again in late fall.

As part of its ongoing Know It Before You Throw it statewide recycling education campaign, EGLE encourages Michigan curbside recyclers who want to help keep raw materials flowing through supply chains to check the rules for what recyclables are accepted in local programs.

Best practices statewide generally include:

  • •No need to remove staples, paper clips or plastic windows from envelopes.
  • •Keep it dry and free from liquid contaminants.
  • •Never put COVID-related personal protection equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves into your recycling bin. PPE should go into a trash container for proper disposal.
  • •Paper coffee cups are not usually accepted (the inside is typically coated in plastic to prevent leaks).
  • •Magazines and newspapers are usually recyclable.
  • •Paper towels, tissues, wipes and napkins aren’t usually recyclable and don’t belong in the bin.

Proper plastic practices

While paper has garnered the most attention, the coronavirus crisis has also affected other recyclable materials.

For example, shoppers have stockpiled bottled water and other supplies that come in plastic containers, like hand sanitizer and sanitary wipes.

EGLE notes that, while residents should always check with their local provider and follow its specific rules, those types of plastic bottles and containers are generally recyclable as long as they’re rinsed and emptied.

Plastic bag usage has also increased as consumers have groceries delivered rather than go to the store themselves and haul their items in reusable bags.

While plastic bags – as well as the plastic wrapping that toilet paper and paper towel comes in – is rarely recyclable curbside, retailers such as Meijer, Target and Walmart accept them at in-store drop-off stations. If your local outlet has temporarily halted collections, or you’ve stopped going there in person, EGLE urges you to store them for drop-off when normalcy resumes.

Keep the focus on recycling and reusing while decluttering

Make recycling and reusing — not throwing away — the focus of spring cleaning this year.

Sorters at Kent County Recycling & Education Center

This story was originally published on the Detroit Free Press.

As spring draws near, it’s time to ensure everything in your home is in the proper place — including the stuff that you simply want to get rid of.

“Rather than just automatically pitching unwanted items into the trash, we’re urging Michiganders to think in terms of recycling and reusing while they go about cleaning and decluttering their households,” said Elizabeth Garver, waste minimization and recycling specialist for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE.

That sentiment is echoed by other recycling leaders throughout the state who are gearing up for an influx of materials at their sorting facilities.

“We always see a variety of items come in because spring cleaning is so big,” said Katelyn Nettler, resource recovery specialist for the Kent County Department of Public Works, whose Recycling & Education Center serves as the primary materials recovery facility for recyclables generated by West Michigan households.

However, some of what spring cleaners place in their recycling bins doesn’t belong there — at least in its current condition. For example, containers that themselves are recyclable are dangerous if they still contain chemicals, such as bleach or drain cleaner, that can mix and cause fires at recycling facilities, Nettler said.

Garver said that’s one reason why it’s so important to follow the rules that EGLE is promoting in its statewide Know It Before You Throw It recycling education campaign, which aims to increase both the quality and quantity of recycling in Michigan.

“One thing we stress is that you should always rinse and empty all containers before placing them in your recycling bin,” she said. “We also urge people to check with their local recycling service to learn exactly what materials they accept.”

When it comes to spring cleaning, those rules could apply to any number of items. Here’s some guidance on how to handle materials that are commonly encountered during spring cleaning:

— Pieces of metal, such as old grills, rusty lawn mower blades, or pots and pans. “Scrap metal is generally not accepted curbside, but some drop-off recycling centers will take it,” said SOCRRA General Manager Jeff McKeen, who oversees recycling services in 12 Oakland County communities. You also might get some cash for it if you find a scrap yard that wants it, Garver said.

— Hazardous material containers, such as those for cleaners, fertilizers and paint. Many counties and local governments host local collection events every spring and fall where residents can dispose of hazardous waste. EGLE has a webpage devoted to household hazardous waste, including a list of statewide collection sites. “It’s possible that some containers that once held cleaners or other household hazardous materials may be recyclable curbside, as long as they are clean and empty — just be sure to check with your local program first, and ‘know it before you throw it,’” Garver said.

— Batteries. Batteries can pose a threat to employees at recycling facilities, as they are a fire risk. However, hazardous waste collection sites might accept certain types, such as car batteries, which some auto parts stores will also take. In addition, home improvement retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot accept drop-offs of rechargeable batteries.

— Hoses, boat shrink-wrap and other types of flexible plastics. Recycling facilities don’t want these materials because they can get tangled in their machinery, but they’re ripe for reuse, Nettler said. “You could poke holes in a hose and use it as a lawn soaker, or use the shrink-wrap as a painting dropcloth,” she suggested. In addition, the fledgling Recycling Run Program will pick up used shrink-wrap by appointment and find a new use for it.

— Plastic flowerpots and plant containers. Some recycling services will accept these materials curbside, provided they’re not full of dirt, McKeen said. You could also possibly reuse them or see if the retailer where you bought them will take them back. Home Depot stores and Meijer garden centers also collect them for recycling in partnership with East Jordan Plastics.

— Plastic lawn chairs. “You can always donate these if they’re in good condition, and they can sometimes be recycled at drop-off locations,” Garver said.

— Electronic-waste, such as old computers or TVs. Look for local drop-off centers or one-day collection events. Some electronics retailers will also take e-waste turned in by consumers. In addition, some manufacturers provide a takeback option for electronics like televisions and computers.

— Clothing. “This is a big no-no for curbside recycling,” Nettler said. However, local thrift shops can find new uses for most donated garments. You could also turn them into rags to use for cleaning in place of paper towels. Simple Recycling, a for-profit, Ohio-based company, provides curbside textile collections in 30 Michigan communities.

— Mattresses. There may be local drop-off centers or one-day collection events for mattress disposal, Garver said. If you have curbside waste services, check with your service provider or local municipality regarding options for bulky waste pickup.

— Supplies from the first cookout of the year after your spring cleanup is finished: paper plates, plastic plates and cups, straws, plastic utensils, etc. Most of this should go in the trash, which is why it’s best to choose reusable options, Nettler said. Exceptions are clean aluminum foil and plastic cups, which are often recyclable curbside, though foam containers are rarely accepted, McKeen said.

When it comes to recycling plastics, keep it clean – and know the rules

From car parts to trash carts to pop bottles: Recycled plastics have a number of uses.

A forklift works to move plastic materials at the Michigan State University Surplus Store and Recycling Center

This story was originally published on the Detroit Free Press.

Essentially, everything you need to know about recycling a piece of household plastic you learned in elementary school.

“While it’s possible to find a new use for virtually all plastics, several factors can affect an individual type’s recyclability,” said Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

Most important, he explains, is to recognize the item’s shape.

“Containers such as shampoo bottles, milk jugs and yogurt cups or similar food tubs are the easiest to recycle and are in highest demand by recycling centers and U.S. manufacturers,” Flechter said.

The bottom line for Michigan households, he said, is to follow the advice EGLE is stressing in its new “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign: “Ask your local recycling provider what kinds of plastics it accepts and make sure to put only those in your recycling container,” Flechter said.

The shape of things to come

But while shape and size primarily determine what ultimately happens to the item after it’s thrown in a recycling bin – and even whether people should put it there in the first place – basic numbers remain part of the story.

Many consumers believe the little digit surrounded by the recycling symbol found on each plastic container indicates that the bottle or container is recyclable.

“What many people don’t realize is that those numbers merely represent the type of resin the piece of plastic is made of,” Flechter said. “They were never intended to provide recycling direction, although that’s what people have come to believe over the years.”

In fact, guidance from many recycling services has promoted that misleading messaging, he said.

“What they’ll typically tell households is that they’ll accept some combination of Nos. 1 through 7 plastics in their curbside pickup,” he said. “It’s done with the best of intentions to make it easier for consumers to understand plastics recycling. But it’s really not the most precise advice, and providers increasingly are beginning to focus more on size and shape versus numbers.”

Leaving the digital age

In the meantime, however, the numbers can still serve as a rough rule of thumb to promote proper plastics recycling. In general, items labeled as Nos. 1 and 2 are in strongest demand, followed by No. 5, while other plastics are harder to recover and have weaker markets.

Typically, No. 1 plastics – including soft drink, juice and water bottles – are made from polyethylene terephthalate, or what is commonly referred to as PET. The containers are easily recycled back into bottles and are sometimes used to make carpet, luggage and polyester.

No. 2 plastics – typically high-density polyethylene, or HDPE – often include Items such as laundry and shampoo bottles. They commonly are returned to the same use, but can also find their way into new trash containers, buckets and floor tiles.

Additionally, there is demand for polypropylene (PP) plastic, commonly known as No. 5 plastic. It often is used in yogurt and margarine tubs that are remade into other food containers.

Recyclers should also know that their local recycling service has every incentive to find a company that will somehow reuse whatever it takes in, said Dave Smith, recycling coordinator for the Michigan State University Surplus Store and Recycling Center, which collects and sorts all recyclable material on the East Lansing campus.

“You hear people say, ‘Well, it’s just going in the landfill anyway,’” he said. “But if you think about it logically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a recycler to collect nonrecyclable items. Otherwise, we’re just paying the cost for it to go into landfills. So if there are communities taking the material, people should feel fairly confident that it’s actually getting recycled.”

Furthermore, some plastics that aren’t suitable for curbside collection – including plastic grocery bags and film overwraps – are sometimes accepted at drop-off locations, Flechter said.

International policies impact local recycling

Plastics that consumers recycle first go to a materials recovery facility (MRF) that separates them for marketing to manufacturers or processors that shred or grind them into pellets for use by the ultimate product makers.

Traditionally, nonbottle plastics have been less likely than PET and HDPE bottles and containers to enter the U.S. recycling stream because they’re relatively harder to recover and sort, said Darren McDunnough, owner, president and CEO of McDunnough Inc., a Fenton-based recycler and compounder of post-industrial plastic, which is typically waste produced during manufacturing processes.

Line workers sort recycleable materials at Michigan State University Surplus Store and Recycling Center

“It’s easy for workers who are doing the sorting at a MRF to identify a PET water bottle or [HDPE] detergent bottle,” McDunnough explained. “But [other resins are] more difficult to sort and separate. They’re products that are not readily identifiable visually when sorting by hand, so you have to implement and employ technology to segregate those materials.”

And the technology to separate many different types of plastic can prove expensive and raise the cost of accepting a broad range of plastics. That’s why most unsorted and nonbottle plastics recycled by U.S. consumers for years were shipped to China, which relied on low-wage hand sorting to separate recyclables.

But in 2018 China banned almost all plastic imports – prompting U.S. municipalities and other recycling service providers to invest in equipment such as infrared sensors that better identify each type of plastic.

It also gave rise to EGLE’s “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign, which beyond educating consumers about what can and can’t be recycled also stresses the importance of placing only clean items in recycling containers.

“Our ultimate goal is to create more jobs and a cleaner environment by bolstering Michigan’s recycling industry and infrastructure,” Flechter said. “Michigan residents can help make the system more efficient by properly recycling.”

Michigan manufacturers stepping up

Beyond recycling properly to support Michigan’s recycling businesses and collection programs, using consumer purchasing power to buy products made with recycled plastics will also bolster the demand for plastics collected at the curb in the long run, Flechter said.

Cascade Engineering, based outside Grand Rapids, is one company responding to the market shift by striving to incorporate more recycled material into its products.

In January, it unveiled its EcoCart, a waste container made of 10% post-consumer HDPE plastic - specifically bulky, rigid items recycled by U.S. consumers, such as laundry baskets that are picked up at the curb but are often difficult to recycle, said JoAnne Perkins, Cascade’s vice president of environmental systems and services.

Typically – other than their wheels, which are made of recycled containers – Cascade’s carts are manufactured from virgin, never-before-used plastic.

But Perkins was inspired to change that after hearing Brent Bell, a Waste Management executive, challenge attendees at a sustainability conference in Arizona last year to help find new uses for recyclable material that used to get shipped to China.

“It was effectively a challenge to create the ‘demand’ side of the recycling equation,” Perkins said. “With [China’s policies], we have a responsibility to create a demand for these products. I thought I could do more on my end.”

She tasked Cascade engineers with figuring out how much recyclable material could go into a cart without compromising cost or performance.

While they initially settled on 10%, the ultimate goal is to get to 25% recycled content, Perkins said.

“We’ve come a long way in a year, and I’m very proud of our engineers,” she said. “We’re starting to shift the market a little bit.”

‘Recycling never goes out of style’: Find new uses for your old clothes

Two orange Simple Recycling bags to the left of a green recycling bin

This story was originally published on the Detroit Free Press.

Behold those pit-stained T-shirts, socks with holes in the heels and out-of-style paisley-patterned dress shirts taking up space in your closet.

If ever there was a scenario where the cliché “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” was applicable, this is it.

“There is a value for most of even the rattiest of textiles that people tend to discard,” said Michael Csapo, general manager of the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County (RRRASOC), which manages recycling programs in nine metro Detroit communities.

Unfortunately, much of that value is never realized, even though charities and other collection organizations can find use for virtually any old piece of clothing, Csapo notes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 85% of textiles end up in landfills, and a 2018 study determined that clothing is one of the world’s fastest-growing waste streams.

Recycling advocates throughout Michigan are working to reverse that trend.

“Fashions might come and go, but reducing the amount of material that enters landfills never goes out of style,” said Emily Freeman, recycling specialist in the Material Management Division of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

Education is key

In June, EGLE launched “Know It Before You Throw It,” a campaign to improve both the quality and quantity of recycling in Michigan.

With the Recycling Raccoon Squad serving as campaign ambassadors, EGLE aims to inform Michiganders about best recycling practices while doubling the statewide recycling rate to 30% by 2025 and ultimately reaching 45% annually.

Although rules often vary by community, textiles are typically not accepted by traditional curbside recycling services, including RRRASOC.

Old clothing is, however, a welcomed and important revenue stream for Michigan charities that collect donations at drop-off facilities.

Piles of sorted clothing at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids are prepared for recycling

And when it comes to textiles, there’s one overriding message recycling specialists want to deliver: Leave the sorting to us.

While organizations that collect used textiles can’t take items such as gasoline-soaked rags, those holey sweaters and shirts bearing pizza grease stains are perfectly OK.

“The trickiest part is educating people that we really don’t care about the condition of their clothing that they want to give us, as long as it’s clean and dry,” said Nick Carlson, vice president of donated goods operations at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids and a director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition. “We ask them not to edit their donations. Trust us to get everything into the proper market.”

Although technology for turning old clothes into new garments is advancing rapidly, at this time it’s more a matter of reusing textiles than technically recycling them.

But like recycling, reusing also offers environmental and economic benefits.

The EPA estimates that textiles — mostly clothing but also items such as carpeting, furniture, sheets and towels — account for 8% of material going into landfills, providing a significant opportunity to conserve space.

“It’s also one of the higher-value items that goes into the waste stream,” said Adam Winfield, founder and president of Simple Recycling, a for-profit Ohio-based company that provides curbside textile collections in 30 Michigan communities — primarily in metro Detroit but also in Lansing and East Lansing.

Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, for example, in 2018 turned the 600,000 individual donations it received into $25 million in revenues from sales at its network of retail outlets, Carlson said. The proceeds went toward funding the charity’s various skills training and rehabilitation programs.

There’s also a personal perk to donating clothing. Taxpayers who itemize can claim a charitable deduction on their federal tax returns.

Worldwide market

There are essentially four markets for the used clothing that is collected by Simple Recycling and charities such as Goodwill.

Although figures can fluctuate, typically between 10% and 20% is considered top quality and is resold by American thrift stores.

The vast majority, however, is not resalable in the U.S. and is further sorted for international export or broken down for raw materials.

As much as 45% of the total collected is exported as secondhand clothing. Roughly 30% is converted into wiping rags for industrial or residential use, and around 20% is recycled into post-consumer fiber that goes into products such as home insulation, carpet padding or sound-deadening material for automobiles.

Only about 5% ends up as waste, Winfield said. “So you can see, clothing is a category of material that is highly recyclable and easily repurposed,” he said. “Our slogan is ‘Let your clothing be loved again.’”

Charitable endeavor

It was the lack of love shown to used apparel that gave rise to Simple Recycling, which test-marketed its concept in 2014 in South Lyon and Wixom, members of RRRASOC.

Usually, people must drop off their old garments at collection sites operated by charities or during special events staged by municipalities — an extra step that largely explains why most clothing is simply thrown in the trash, Csapo said.

Winfield figured that more residents would take the time to bundle clothing for reuse or recycling if they were offered the convenience of free curbside pickup — and the numbers have borne that out.

Simple Recycling now serves 250 communities in seven states, and in 2018, it collected 183 tons of material among the nine RRRASOC communities alone, which, beyond South Lyon and Wixom, are Farmington, Farmington Hills, Milford, Milford Township, Novi, Southfield and Walled Lake.

On residents’ standard recycling pickup days, Simple Recycling trucks follow behind RRRASOC vehicles to collect the clothing set out in bags supplied by the company and drop off additional bags for further collections.

“We make it simple and convenient,” Winfield said, adding that the service is free to communities. In fact, for every ton of materials it collects, Simple Recycling pays $20 to municipalities, which also benefit by sending less waste to landfills and therefore paying fewer fees.

Both Winfield and Csapo stress that Simple Recycling is meant to supplement, not replace, charitable giving.

“First and foremost, we want residents to donate clothing to charities,” Csapo said.

Said Winfield: “We’re after that 85% that otherwise would get thrown away, not the 15% that is donated to charities.”

Actually, Csapo said, there’s at least anecdotal evidence that charitable donations of clothing increase in areas where Simple Recycling operates because residents become educated about the market for old textiles.

“Folks see there’s an opportunity to make sure things go back into the value chain instead of into the trash,” he said.

Carlson echoes those sentiments.

“Looking at it as a member of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, anything that improves sustainability, I’m in favor of. But I’d really urge people to first consider donating their old clothes to a local charity because that helps boost the local economy,” he said, adding, “Material donations are the lifeblood of Goodwill.”

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