Recycled plastics gain new use

Recycling in Michigan is at an all-time high, but Michigan’s business and environmental leaders say the state can’t afford to rest on its laurels.

Now more than ever, companies in the Great Lakes State are desperately seeking to include recyclables in the manufacturing of new products, especially recycled plastics.

The challenge? Convincing Michiganders the materials they put into their curbside bins are actually being recycled and not dumped in a landfill.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what really happens in recycling,” said Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

“We need people to know recycling does make a difference and that their choices matter,” Flechter said.

Brian Miller, regional sales manager for Cascade Engineering, based outside Grand Rapids, is well aware of just how big of a difference recycled items, particularly plastics, can make for companies that rely on them as raw materials to fashion into new products.

In 2022, Cascade was able to use 3 million pounds of material recovered through curbside programs. Half of that total came from curbside materials that were used in production of its EcoCart, a curbside waste and recycling cart that is made partly with bulky rigid plastic taken directly from recycling programs and partners who contribute recyclable plastics from the automotive, furniture and custom compounding industries.

“And the reason it’s only 50% is because we can’t get enough (recycled) materials,” Miller said.

“If we had enough materials, we could go to 100% curbside materials in the production of our wheels, our carts and dash mats in our automotive plants,” he added. “We wouldn’t have to go to other sources. We can keep this material in the state of Michigan and utilize it in products manufactured here in Michigan.”

“In my 25 years, I’ve definitely seen an increase in recycled materials, so much that we’re putting it in silos now,” said Ronald Hoppa Jr., Cascade Engineering plant manager. “This way uses millions of pounds of recycled material a year.”

Recycling can also make a different in individual workers’ lives. Just ask Horace Cheney, a Cascade Engineering material handler.

“It’s a good place to work for and they give everybody the opportunity to learn and move up and progress — and impact the environment too,” he said.

Recycling in Michigan is at an all-time high

Recycling in Michigan is at an all-time high, state environmental leaders announced today during ‘Recycling State of the State’ virtual press conference coinciding with Earth Week

A waste disposal truck collects recycling from a residential neighbourhood.

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

EGLE also announced today record-setting $15.6 million in recycling infrastructure grants to communities, non-profits and businesses across the state, including funding support for major new projects on tap in Detroit, Flint, Greater Grand Rapids and Alpena

Lansing, Mich. – Recycling in the Great Lakes State is now at an all-time high, leaders with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) announced during a virtual “Recycling State of the State” press conference that coincides with today’s start of Earth Week 2023 (April 17-22).

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.

“We can all be proud that Michiganders are recycling now more than ever before,” EGLE Environmental Justice Public Advocate Regina Strong said this morning. “This equates to every person in Michigan recycling 124 pounds each year of cardboard boxes, milk cartons, soup cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles and jars, food waste, and other recyclable materials.”

In addition, EGLE today announced a record-setting combined total of nearly $16 million in grants through public-private partnerships including funding support for recycling infrastructure investments to help advance projects in DetroitFlintGrand Rapids and Alpena.

Strong was joined at the online news conference by Flint Mayor Sheldon NeeleyWM (formerly “Waste Management”) Great Lakes Area Vice President Aaron JohnsonKent County Department of Public Works Director Darwin Baas; Detroit-based VMX International Founder and CEO Vickie LewisAlpena Mayor Pro-Tem and Northeast Michigan Materials Management Authority Chair Cindy Johnson; and, EGLE Recycling Market Development Specialist Matt Flechter.

“This tremendous accomplishment in our recycling activities and infrastructure investments represent a bipartisan effort in a historic partnership with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature in combination with the nonprofit sector and business community that Michigan has never seen happen before,” Strong said.

“Equally important, EGLE and the Whitmer administration are introducing new opportunities to promote recycling, help support our climate change goals, and create new jobs in communities that have been historically underserved by our state,” she said.

EGLE data show more Michiganders than ever – 75% of the state’s population – have access to recycling services. Since 2021, EGLE in collaboration with national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership have rolled out 48,468 new curbside recycling carts to communities around the state.

The expanded access is helping Michigan to steadily increase its recycling rate from what was historically the lowest in the Great Lakes region. The rate has risen from 14.25% prior to 2019, to 19.3% last year and now exceeds 21%, based on EGLE’s new 2023 analysis.

EGLE’s total allocation of $15.6 million in 2023 grants across the state is more than Michigan has ever invested in recycling infrastructure and technology, more than doubling last year’s record $7 million of investments. Recycling, reuse, and remanufacturing industries in Michigan create 72,500 jobs and contribute more than $17 billion to the state’s total economic output, EGLE data shows.

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 the Legislature created in 2019 to bolster the state’s recycling efforts. Gov. 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%.

EGLE’s 2023 data analysis reflects the state’s improved recycling performance is helping Michigan advance toward the goals of the MI Healthy Climate Plan, commissioned by Gov. Whitmer as a broad-based roadmap to a sustainable, carbon-neutral Michigan economy by 2050. Carbon neutrality is the global science-based benchmark for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most devastating and costly impacts of climate change.

“These strategic investments by EGLE reflect the commitment of communities across Michigan to finding modern and scalable solutions across our entire recycling system,” EGLE’s Flechter said.

“It’s critical that EGLE continue to work together with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, our partners in the Michigan Legislature, the private sector, nonprofits like The Recycling Partnership, and at the federal and local levels to ensure we achieve our state’s goals for sustainable operations,” Flechter said.

Recycling infrastructure projects EGLE touted during today’s press conference include:

  • The new, state-of-the-art $35 million recycling processing facility WM (formerly known as Waste Management) is planning in Detroit, which has received a $465,000 EGLE grant. WM-commissioned research shows Detroit is one of five cities in North America that need capacity expansion and there is growing demand. WM plans to process up to 40 tons per hour and expects to receive recycled materials from residential, industrial and commercial properties. Upon completion, the WM facility in Detroit will be the largest of its kind in Michigan. This is a true hub and spoke model intended to open new opportunities for recycling across Michigan. Once opened, WM’s next steps will be to activate existing transload facilities in places like Traverse City, Kalamazoo, Tawas, Saginaw, Lansing, which will unlock the potential for curbside single stream recycling for residents. Outside the major metropolitan areas in Michigan today, most businesses only have the option for cardboard recycling. With WM’s new hub and spoke approach, all businesses will have the option for single-stream recycling.
  • The City of Flint is receiving a $1 million EGLE grant that Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley says will go toward providing all 34,000 households in the city with a free 96-gallon recycling cart. The national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership is also pledging to support the new cart project with a grant of up to $3.3 million in additional funding for Flint. The city’s current recycling program requires the resident to provide their own bin to contain recyclable material at the curbside. Currently, most of the bins being used in Flint do not have lids and the fly-away material is a concern for a city that is fighting blight. The new carts are projected to increase the amount of materials recycled in Flint from 624 tons per-year to 5,400 tons per year, as well as improve resident participation and enhance safety for sanitation workers.
  • The Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) $350 million future Sustainable Business Park in Kent and Allegan County. The Sustainable Business Park, planned for 250 acres adjacent to the South Kent Landfill in Byron Center will be built on land initially purchased by Kent County to create a new landfill. The $4 million in EGLE funding will go toward infrastructure improvements such as utilities, roads and stormwater to prepare it for tenants.
  • The Kent County DPW also received a $499,999 EGLE grant to purchase baler equipment to direct-bale old corrugated cardboard at its North Kent Transfer Station. That will eliminate the cost of transporting the old cardboard to be processed. The DPW is leveraging EGLE’s grant with $385,001 in federal funds to complete the $885,000 acquisition and installation in the existing transfer station building that is being converted to a recycling dropoff facility. The new dropoff site will improve recycling access, reduce double-handling of residential recyclables and reduce operational costs for residential and commercial recycling at the North Kent Station.
  • And, the Kent County DPW was awarded a $406,000 EGLE grant to help buy new robotic sorting equipment to automate line sorting at its Recycling & Education Center, which processes recyclable materials from the greater West Michigan area. Kent County’s DPW is leveraging the EGLE grant with $174,000 in federal funding to complete the $580,000 purchase. The state-of-the-art technology will address both chronic staffing shortages and the rising cost of temporary labor as well as improve workplace safety and enable DPW staff to more efficiently process residential recyclables. DPW projects the return on investment and cost savings will effectively pay for itself within 12 months or less.
  • Alpena County has received a new $2.7 million federal grant supported by EGLE and championed by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow that will help fund its proposed new $5.4 million regional dual-stream material recovery facility (MRF). The new facility will process recyclables from Alpena County and Northeast Michigan. Proponents say the project, which received a $1 million EGLE grant last yearwill serve as a model for rural recycling throughout Michigan and the United States. The new MRF will provide the capacity and capability of bringing materials from a six-county area, the majority of which is destined for landfill, to a processing facility where recyclable material will be sorted and sold to Michigan manufacturers for use as recycled content in their packaging or products.
  • Detroit-based VMX International is the recipient of a $100,000 small business development grant from EGLE. VMX is an environmental firm headquartered in Detroit that works with businesses across the nation to properly recycle and dispose of items ranging from office paper to batteries. The EGLE grant will support VMX’s plan to build a new $50 million lithium-ion battery recycling facility headquartered in the City of Detroit. VMX expects to create 50-75 new high-paying, high-tech jobs and the building is tentatively slated to open in 18-24 months. The state-of-the-art facility will separate, dismantle and shred materials utilizing innovative technology to recycle lithium-ion batteries by separating out the rare earth materials from the old batteries VMX collects to be brought back into the loop for manufacturing new lithium-ion batteries, creating a circular economy.

The results announced today come from a more than four-year review of statewide data by EGLE researchers that aligns with the 2019 launch of EGLE’s national award-winning “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoon Squad. The campaign’s aim is to increase recycling and promote best practices to reduce contamination of materials with unsuitable or non-recyclable items in recycling bins and at drop-off sites. EGLE data show four in five Michiganders report taking action and changing their recycling behavior for the better following EGLE’s campaign.

Flint Mayor Neeley, Genesee County state legislators and Flint business leaders celebrate grand opening of new recycled plastics processing facility

Flint-based company will become Michigan’s largest plastic film recycler and is looking to hire Flint workers to fill 25-30 good-paying jobs starting in May 2023

FLINT, Mich.  – Officials with the Michigan Dept. of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) today joined with Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley as well as Genesee County state legislators and business leaders to unveil Flint-based ACI Plastics new $10 million-plus plastics recycling facility.

“We are proud to welcome ACI Plastics’ new facility and congratulate their entire team on this milestone achievement,” Mayor Neeley said this morning during a press conference at the plant, located at 2000 Bagwell St. in Flint, between Lapeer St. and Lippincott Blvd.

“The company’s installation of state-of-the-art processing and cleaning technology will make ACI Plastics the largest processor of post-consumer recycled plastic film in Michigan,” Neeley said.

The firm is partnering with Luxembourg-based Ravago – the world’s largest distributor of plastic resins serving more than 55 countries across the globe – to ship its recycled plastic pellets to business customers throughout the United States. The plastic film, such as shrink wrap and bags used in product packaging, comes from companies such as Meijer, Amazon and Walmart.

The recycled pellets from ACI Plastics will be shipped and turned into new products by Michigan-based consumer goods and automotive companies, including Petoskey Plastics and Grand Rapids-based manufacturer Cascade Cart Solutions, which makes plastic recycling carts and bins.  

“We like going to sleep every night knowing that you’re not only doing something to help the environment but also providing a good living for many employees while enjoying a successful business,” said ACI Plastics President Scott Melton.

ACI Plastics employs about 120 workers at its four locales (two in Flint and one each in South Carolina and Nebraska). The company has received funding support for its investment through a $300,000 Renew Michigan EGLE infrastructure grant and a $150,000 Business Development Program performance-based grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Flint, Michigan was chosen for the project over a competing site in Ohio.

The Renew Michigan 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 the Legislature created in 2019 to bolster the state’s recycling efforts. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature are committed to raising Michigan’s recycling rate to 30% by 2025 and 45% by 2030, exceeding the national recycling rate of 32%.

“Michiganders are recycling now more than ever before, and it’s because of the technological advances and tremendous work being done by companies like ACI Plastics,” EGLE Acting Director Dan Eichinger said during the news conference.

“This progress represents a bipartisan effort in a historic partnership with the Michigan Legislature in combination with the nonprofit sector and business community that Michigan has never seen happen before,” Eichinger said.

Added EGLE Environmental Justice Public Advocate Regina Strong: “Equally important, EGLE and the Whitmer administration are introducing new opportunities to promote recycling, help support our climate change goals, and create new jobs in communities that have been historically underserved by our state, including Flint, as well as Detroit, Pontiac and Grand Rapids.”

At its peak later this year, ACI Plastics innovative recycling system will process 24 million pounds of post-consumer plastic film each year with the ability to increase capacity another 24 million pounds per-year if demand warrants.

ACI Plastics also is announcing it will create 25-30 new jobs to operate the plant with wages from $15-$20 per hour. The company is looking to hire its new employees beginning in May 2023 and is committed to prioritizing applications from City of Flint residents.

“I am extremely impressed by what we’re seeing happen here at ACI Plastics in Flint and across Michigan with regard to increasing investments in recycling,” said state Rep. Cynthia Neeley (D-Flint). “By helping to build out domestic markets for recycled goods, we help to support key Michigan industries like automotive, construction materials, and paper product manufacturing, while also preserving the environment for the next generation.”

ACI Plastics’ cutting-edge wash line will allow for the recycling of Michigan-produced recycled plastic content to be kept in the State of Michigan for reuse rather than be landfilled or shipped to other states/countries for recycling.

Maintaining the quality of recycled materials so that they can be used in manufacturing of new products is a persistent challenge. This challenge is being addressed by the investment of ACI plastics with the support of funds from EGLE and MEDC.

“I welcome public investment in businesses like ACI Plastics that divert materials from Michigan landfills, boost local economies, and support the largest push in state history to promote recycling activities,”said state Sen. John Cherry (D-Flint).

Each year, more than 380 million tons of plastics are produced globally. Less than 10% of these plastics are reused or recycled, leading to significant accumulation and waste as products are incinerated, dumped in landfills or lost in the environment. Investments like this to support a circular economy for plastics is a key part of Michigan’s work to reduce climate change and work toward the 45% recycling goal identified in the MI Healthy Climate Plan, the broad-based roadmap to a sustainable, carbon-neutral Michigan economy by 2050.

Many companies have made commitments to drastically increase their use of recycled content in their packaging or products including Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Keurig Dr. Pepper, Danone and Unilever. Using recycled content in packaging reduces life-cycle environmental impacts and helps to create markets for the material that Michigan residents recycle at the curb.

Here’s the challenge: There’s not enough plastic recycled for companies to meet mandates or their public commitments. That is why Michigan is investing in the NextCycle Michigan Initiative to attract innovative businesses to the state and form partnerships such as its collaboration with ACI Plastics to connect the recycled content supply chain – from the curb to new products made in Michigan.

The recycling process also helps ensure a steady supply of material for manufacturers to work with. ACI Plastics’ new approach will reduce carbon emissions and pollution by using waste plastic as a new source of raw material and transforming it into pellets that can be recycled repeatedly without loss of quality.

ACI Plastics represents the kind of business growth that helps Flint and Genesee County succeed, noted Flint & Genesee Economic Alliance Executive Director Tyler Rossmaessler.

“This project is an exciting win for Flint and for the entire state and underscores our region’s continued commitment to building a cleaner future. We are grateful that ACI Plastics has chosen to expand operations in Flint,” said Rossmaessler. “The Flint & Genesee Economic Alliance will continue to work side by side with our government partners and companies like ACI Plastics to see Flint and Genesee County grow.”

Recycling in Michigan has reached a new all-time high, up 35.4% from pre-2019 levels, according to a 2022 EGLE analysis. This equates to Michigan now capturing over 500,000 more tons of cardboard boxes, milk cartons, plastic bottles, organic material, and other recyclables, equating to more than 110 pounds per person each year.

Since 2019, the state has nearly doubled the number of households with available curbside recycling carts and drop-off sites. Nearly 3 million households — three-quarters of the state’s population — now have access to recycling in their communities.

EGLE statewide and regional data show Michiganders’ understanding of recycling best habits has increased in every corner of the state. EGLE leaders attribute much of Michigan’s improved recycling success to the state’s Know It Before You Throw It awareness push featuring the Recycling Raccoons that launched in 2019. The campaign was honored as the 2019 national “Campaign of the Year” by industry trade publication Waste Dive magazine.

Recycling and Romance Blooms in Metro Detroit

PONTIAC — Since they met for the first time at a church — and as they laughingly admit were instantly “smitten” — you could say the union of Damany Head and Shanell Weatherspoon was a match made in heaven.

Headshot image of a man and woman — husband and wife

So it’s no surprise that their love for the environment and running the successful minority-owned recycling company they co-founded together continues to fuel their romance.

But the dynamic duo who created Essential Recycling in Pontiac isn’t content to expand recycling opportunities in commercial sectors of Southeast Michigan by educating the construction and skilled trades industries on the value of returning materials beyond metal to the supply chain for reuse as new products.

They’re also improving the lives of metro Detroit’s Black youth by introducing graduating high school seniors to potential careers in the recycling industry.

‘Recycling Is Essential
Essential Recycling contracts with HVAC distributors, contractors, scrappers and property management companies to capture refrigerant, scrap metal, cardboard, wood pallets and other materials for recycling in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Container with trash sitting next to a large building

“We’ve defined pretty clearly our niche in the industry based on our belief that recycling is essential to building better communities,” said Head, who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio Northern University and worked as an engineer for General Motors in Pontiac before he and Weatherspoon started their firm in 2008.

“Small-business owners, especially in the HVAC market, don’t necessarily have enough labor resources to take care of the back end of their businesses,” Head said.

“We provide them with a unique solution to recycle their materials, which saves them and their employees a significant amount of time and gives back to communities by improving the environment so it doesn’t go to a landfill,” added Head, who serves on the Pontiac Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

New Life for Old HVAC Units
Essential Recycling crews began collecting recyclable material from heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractors and distributors in 2009.

Many HVAC parts can be recycled. Recyclable components include coils, motors, sheet metal, compressors, cardboard boxes, wood and plastic pallets, furnaces, copper tubing, brass fittings and metal ductwork.

It’s illegal to leave old residential or commercial HVAC systems in the trash because they contain chemicals that can harm the environment. Leftover refrigerant, for example, can deplete the ozone layer if allowed to evaporate. When installing a new system, responsible heating and air conditioning contractors will not only remove the old equipment but also haul it away from homes and workplaces.

All HVAC system materials require separating and sorting before going into individual bins for recycling and/or transporting to recycling centers. That’s a painstaking chore which represents unproductive time and energy by skilled HVAC installers who could better spend their time in service to more clients. 

That’s why environmentally friendly HVAC companies reach out to Essential Recycling to take over, explained Weatherspoon, who has a bachelor’s from Michigan State University and a master’s from the University of Michigan-Flint and who worked for General Motors from 2000 until 2019 before taking on more responsibilities at the family business.

“Our goal is to recycle or dispose these items with the planet in mind,” said Weatherspoon, adding that she experienced an “awakening” about protecting the environment when she was pregnant in 2008 with the first of the couple’s three children while living in Pontiac.

“I looked around my community and I did not see a lot of people recycling and that got me thinking about what we could do to save the planet for our child,” she said. “Damany and I started having conversations about our obligation to the earth, and that sparked our passion for recycling and sustainability.”

Metro Detroit, the most densely packed region of Michigan, has almost 2 million single-family homes and condominiums. With the HVAC sector slated to grow an estimated 6% over the next few years, Essential Recycling is poised to support an industry that is lacking a strong and diverse workforce pipeline.

“Damany and Shanell are rising stars in the recycling world,” said Matt Flechter, a recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), who coordinates the state’s effort to ensure materials put at the curb make their way into new products made in Michigan.

“They are bringing the knowledge, experience and perspective necessary to help Michigan reach new heights,” Flechter said.

“They also know that growing a diverse workforce is helping to create job opportunities from HVAC wastes that once were buried in the ground but now, because of their work, are creating value in Michigan’s economy.”

Promoting Recycling Workforce Diversity
Achieving diversity in the waste and recycling industry is no easy task.

Man and woman holding a plastic bottle

The most precise data available from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which covers the broader “waste management and remediation services” category — estimates 81% of the overall workforce is male and nearly 74% of executives or senior managers are white males. This compares with 52% and 59%, respectively, across the U.S. private sector workforce based on EEOC data.

The lack of diversity isn’t lost on the founders of Essential Recycling.

They’ve teamed with the Pontiac United Education Coalition, Oakland County Michigan Works! Pontiac, Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, the Pontiac Chamber and the Talent Development Coalition in Pontiac to work collaboratively with metro Detroit high schools to provide paid internships in recycling and to provide training and soft skills development for adults to obtain employment in the burgeoning recycling field.

“Recycling creates jobs by keeping materials once thought of as waste circulating in the economy, and it’s important to continue to grow these jobs in all communities, for all Michigan residents,” said Othalene Lawrence, EGLE’s Equity and Inclusion Officer.

“Shanell and Damany are making a positive difference in the lives of the students they mentor by showing them that they, and Michigan, can prosper by actively working to reduce waste, save resources and protect the climate,” Lawrence said.

The Essential Recycling initiative is supported with a $135,000 EGLE grant. The push to promote recycling education aligns with the goals of EGLE’s national award-winning Know It Before You Throw It recycling awareness campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoons.

“As a Black-owned company, living and operating in a legacy city like Pontiac, we are attempting to demonstrate the viability of participating in an accelerating growth industry such as recycling,” Head said. 

“We have invested a tremendous amount of time, money and resources into training and providing services to people of color over the last 10 years,” he added. “The investment in environmental justice around recycling has long been missing and people of color have not received equitable funding or technical assistance to build successful, scalable businesses that serve legacy cities.”

Hope for the Future
Dante Thomas, 21, a Pontiac native and 2019 graduate of West Bloomfield High School, is an emerging Essential Recycling trailblazer who credits Head for inspiring him to consider a career in recycling.

Man loading empty boxes in a truck

“Damany has been a very good role model for me and is helping me learn major key skills for life,” said Thomas, who has worked for the company since 2020 as a recycling specialist hauling and separating recyclable materials from HVAC companies, medical facilities and multifamily housing complexes.

“It’s funny, because growing up I was one of those kids who threw everything away even though we had recycling bins at school and at home,” Thomas said. “But once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to recycle and you’re helping the planet. I really plan on staying for a while at Essential.”

The Talent Development Coalition has about 65 high school students from across metro Detroit who are pursuing employment in skilled trades. Many are expressing interest in the recycling industry thanks to Head’s role as a mentor and business leader, according to Carlton Jones, a program coordinator. 

“Damany and Essential Recycling have been instrumental in supporting our effort to help people understand the hiring needs of the recycling industry,” Jones said.

“Most people, not just young people but also adults, don’t understand the opportunities that exist in the recycling profession,” he said. “Once we begin to educate them and they hear about all the exciting possibilities from Damany, you can see that lightbulb come on and they say, ‘Yeah, I can see myself doing that.’”

Ann Arbor’s new ‘SamurAI sorting robot’ is a plastics recycling game-changer

ANN ARBOR — Michigan is now one of the nation’s three best states for recycling plastics, according to a recent Wise Voter study.

And in Ann Arbor, recycling plastics is about to get easier thanks to the pending arrival of a state-of-the-art SamurAI sorting robot that will enable the city’s recycling agency to process and sell more plastic than ever before.

“This is a big, exciting deal — our new robot is a technological marvel that’s going to be a game-changer for how we can more safely recycle certain types of plastics in greater amounts and with more efficiency than we’ve ever previously experienced,” said Ukena, the CEO of Recycle Ann Arbor (RAA), a nationally acclaimed nonprofit credited with creating Michigan’s first curbside recycling program in 1978.

“At the same time, as more and more communities begin utilizing these SamurAI Sorting Robots moving forward, we can help address our nation’s plastics pollution crisis,” Ukena said.

RAA is already revitalizing recycling in Southeast Michigan with a new materials recovery facility (MRF) that ensures recyclable materials are sorted and sold to manufacturers for use in new products.

The MRF opened Dec. 1, 2021, at 4150 Platt Road in Ann Arbor, after 12 months of construction to complete a $7.25 million overhaul of the facility, which had been defunct since 2016. Its physical redesign and operating strategy are both driven by a zero-waste ethic with the aim of supporting an effective, sustainable recycling system. 

Flying With EGLE

The Material Recovery Facility presort station is the entry point for all materials sorted at the facility. Sorters remove items like trash, plastic bags and electronics to prevent them from damaging the equipment and contaminating the recyclables. Credit: Recycle Ann Arbor

The MRF construction project was supported by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)  with an $800,000 grant. It aligns with the goals of EGLE’s national award-winning Know It Before You Throw It recycling education campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoons that adorn street corner recycling bins throughout Ann Arbor. 

As a regional hub designed to process 34,000 tons annually with a single shift, the MRF provides much-needed recycling infrastructure in Southeast Michigan.

In addition to serving the city of Ann Arbor under a 10-year contract, RAA is processing materials from the city of Ypsilanti and the surrounding area. These cities had previously shipped recyclables out of state for sorting. Ann Arbor is saving $640,000 annually compared with the previous contract, under which materials were shipped long distances for processing. The RAA team anticipates the savings from processing materials on-site will continue to grow as the market for recyclables improves. 

Despite the overwhelming success of the new MRF, determining how to improve its plastics recycling performance remained a major obstacle that confronted RAA and continues to vex recyclers across the nation.

Problem Plastics

Recycle Ann Arbor's longtime staff, Michelle Moravcik and Diego Tambriz, sort out contamination from the facility's paper to help ensure the cleanest end materials possible. Credit: Recycle Ann Arbor

Plastic is a synthetic material that is cheap, strong and resistant. While its characteristics make it an appealing material for production and consumption, those same characteristics are problematic for the environment — mainly because it does not easily decompose and ends up in the ocean, landfills or littering streets.

At the Ann Arbor MRF, plastics are sorted into separate piles based on their melting temperatures.  Historically, RAA staff has manually sorted certain plastics for recycling but because they are hard to identify as they speed by on a conveyor belt, too much of their plastics ended up going to a landfill.

Enter the SamurAI sorting robot manufactured by Machinex Technologies.

The SamurAI Solution

Recycling plastics is about to get easier thanks to the pending arrival of a state-of-the-art SamurAI sorting robot that will enable the city’s recycling agency to process and sell more plastic than ever before. Credit: Recycle Ann Arbor

The machine is an adaptive robot powered by artificial intelligence to more accurately and efficiently identify specific types of plastics and other materials for safe, fast and effective sorting, especially in identifying and selecting polypropylene (PP) plastics. PP is the type of plastic labeled No. 5 on packaging for such grocery items as yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream and butter containers.

Now, with the introduction of its SamurAI robot, RAA is looking to increase its recycling capacity of PP to at least 360 tons annually and divert it from landfills.

Recycled PP is commonly used by manufacturers to make caps, cups, automotive parts, paint cans, transport packaging, housewares and other products. PP has been collected for recycling for less than a decade. But collection and sorting is growing, with MRFs across Michigan making major investments, some fueled by support from EGLE, national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership and other entities.

RAA’s SamurAI acquisition was funded through a $200,000 grant from EGLE and an additional $186,000 from the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, an initiative of The Recycling Partnership. 

Benefits of RAA’s SamurAI solution include its capabilities to:

  • Identify distinguishing features on recyclables in the same way as the human eye.
  • Recognize recyclable material in dirty, tangled and constantly changing conditions, including the introduction of new packaging and designs.
  • Continually improve and learn from operating experience.
  • Reach up to 70 processing “picks” per minute, which nearly doubles the average speed of a person who separates items by hand at a recycling processing center.
  • Remove small and light materials using a unique integrated suction system which reduces RAA’s daily operation costs.
  • Protect workers from handling dangerous items, such as batteries, needles, and household chemicals.

SamurAI’s Safety ROI

The importance of improved employee safety and better working conditions at the Ann Arbor MRF is especially significant, Ukena noted.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2020 Employer-Reported Workplace Injuries and Illness report showed the rate of injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers at materials recovery facilities rose from 3.6 in 2019 to 5.1in 2020.

“Processing recycled materials by hand is a dangerous profession for humans — you can get hepatitis from a needle stick, abrasions and cuts are common, hands get caught in the baling process and on conveyer belts. In many ways, it’s more dangerous work than being a firefighter,” Ukena said.

“It’s also important to know our SamurAI robot won’t replace workers. It just improves quality control and reduces safety risk in the workplace,” he added.

Profit Potential

Approximately 3.5 billion pounds of rigid polypropylene packaging is sold every year nationally, but only a very small fraction is recycled. RAA hopes to improve the recycling of PP at its new facility when the SamurAI robot becomes operable this fall.

“There is strong national growth in the sale and use of polypropylene, because it is a polymer

of choice for food service and packaging due to its positive health profile and potential for

recycling collection and recycled content,” said Matt Flechter, an EGLE recycling market development specialist.

Major retailers, dairy brands and quick-service restaurants are shifting from polystyrene – commonly referred to as Styrofoam – to PP, particularly in food and food service applications, because they seek a material that can be sorted by local MRFs.

RAA projects the SamurAI’s faster sorting speed will result in increased revenue from RAA’s sale of its recycled plastics. As a result, it expects to provide an average of $72,000 annually to city of Ann Arbor coffers and generate a new funding source for all its Washtenaw County municipality partners.

“We are confident there is going to be a high demand for recycled polypropylene for the foreseeable future, because being able to put that on a product label signals a commitment by name-brand companies that they’re using recycled materials in their product lines,” Ukena said.

How and what you can recycle depends on where you live and what you are trying to recycle. To learn more about recycling in Michigan, visit www.RecyclingRaccoons.org.

West Michigan composting king turns ‘worm poop’ into ‘black gold’

man gardening

GRAND RAPIDS — Luis Chen is Grand Rapids’ self-proclaimed “worm poop” king, and he couldn’t be more proud of the title.

Chen is the owner of Wormies, a composting business that specializes in vermicomposting (composting with worms) and serves more than 300 households and businesses in Michigan’s second-largest city.

Key to Chen’s operation is the production of “castings” — yes, worm manure — that are combined with food scraps to create organic, microbe-rich fertilizer and soil for farmers, gardeners and Michigan’s emerging industry of cannabis home-growers. He’s recently launched a new venture with the state’s legalized cannabis industry to provide enriched soil mixes and sustainable solutions for growers.

“My team’s mission is to change the way Greater Grand Rapids manages organic waste by achieving 100% diversion from landfills,” said the 42-year-old, who started Wormies in 2017 with help from family, friends and city government approval.

“Our vision is to see Wormies composting in every Grand Rapids neighborhood,” Chen said. “We want Grand Rapids to set the standard as the best stewards for responsible waste management in the United States.”

Food for Thought

man gardening

Wormies’ approach to composting is unique. While many large composting companies use only one or two raw inputs, like cow manure from large farms or yard waste, Wormies carefully sources its inputs to avoid pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and microplastics.

Chen’s select choice of soil ingredients range from food scraps, worm castings and other various animal manures to spent brewery grain and common mushroom substrates such as straw, hardwood sawdust and coffee grounds.

“Our process is painstakingly detailed and requires many steps,” Chen said. “It’s like making wine — the longer it takes, the better it gets.”

His firm has become so successful that Chen is looking to expand in 2022 from a current 1/4-acre location in Jenison to a new, 13-acre site in Cascade Township that will feature a state-of-the-art regenerative natural ecosystem farm, pollinator gardens and a biodiversity pond that will increase production of its highly sought-after premium soil product line.

Leaders of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) are so impressed with the quality of Chen’s work they awarded him a $275,000 Renew Michigan infrastructure grant this year to support his move to the new facility. In addition, EGLE’s NextCycle Michigan initiative provided private sector volunteer coaches and mentors who helped Wormies design the new site and began the process of getting local government building permit approval.

The NextCycle Michigan initiative and Renew Michigan infrastructure grants to Wormies and other Michigan recycling companies totaling a record-setting $7.3 million in 2022 mark the largest push in state history to promote activities that divert materials from Michigan landfills, boosts local economies, supports businesses owned by minorities, women, veterans and people with disabilities, and promotes Governor Whitmer’s climate change priorities through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Wormies’ efforts to inform and educate West Michigan residents about the benefits of composting align with EGLE’s Know It Before You Throw It awareness campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoons that highlights recycling best practices.

“Michigan is trending toward becoming more environmentally responsible,” said Aaron Hiday, EGLE’s Compost Program coordinator. “That’s because Michiganders are getting more knowledgeable about the importance of recycling properly and reducing the amount of food we routinely toss in the garbage instead of diverting or recycling for a better purpose.”

EGLE’s grant to Wormies is part of the state’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, Hiday noted.

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.

Keeping It Simple

man gardening

There are many ways to compost. 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, Hiday concedes. That’s why compost advocacy experts such as Chen are so valuable.

“Luis is a really good communicator, especially about tutoring people on what needs to go in and what should not go into their composting pile,” Hiday said. “Non-compostable materials like plastic bags and plastic knives and forks are the most common mistakes we see.

“People should feel confident that if they have a backyard or outdoor space, they can do it themselves. But the beauty of a business like Wormies is that if you’re still unsure about how to compost, you can send your organic materials to their professional composters to ensure that they find a better use than just sending it to the landfill.”

Wormies Works Wonders

“We understand it can be difficult for residents or businesses to compost in urban areas, and that is how this idea for Wormies was born,” Chen said. “Our goal is to make composting easy and convenient.”

He introduced a subscription service where members sign up for Wormies to arrive at homes and businesses and deliver a 5-gallon bucket that is used for collecting food scraps while cooking or for depositing uneaten food after a meal. Wormies then returns for a weekly or biweekly food scrap collection and brings the material back to its farm, where it feeds it to worms.

“The worms eat our scraps and their poop is used to make what we like to call ‘bio-intelligent soil,’” Chen said. “It’s soil that is composed of a wide range of microorganisms and nutrients, so it contains protozoa, nematodes, beneficial bacteria and fungi that are great for growing healthy produce.”

The composting service costs $8 for each pickup. Subscribers receive four 24-ounce bags of worm castings for every eight pickups. Customers also can choose, if they aren’t going to use their bag, to donate it to local organizations that partner with Wormies, including Our Kitchen TableDwelling PlaceMLK Freedom SchoolNew City Neighbors and many others.

In addition, Wormies provides expertise to the DIYers in Grand Rapids by offering consulting for households and businesses to help make waste streams clean and sustainable, ranging from designing a personalized compost bin for residential use that prevents stagnant piles to hosting workshops for employers, employees and clientele to learn about composting.

“We need to provide education on what good food is, increase access to growing your own food and create access to growing your own food with local soil and compost,” Chen said.

“When we buy soil from local garden stores, the soil we get is often shipped from outside Michigan. We need every Michigander to get on board and buy locally made soil from Michigan farmers and companies such as Wormies.”

Michiganders’ recycling rate up 35.4% to all-time high as access grows, new EGLE analysis shows

To continue the momentum of the national award-winning “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign, and coinciding with the start of Earth Week (April 18-22), EGLE also announced a record $7 million-plus in infrastructure and NextCycle Michigan grants in the largest-ever push to improve recycling opportunities across the state during 2022, particularly impacting Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, Grand Rapids, Alpena and the U.P.

LANSING – Recycling in Michigan has reached a new all-time high, up 35.4% from pre-2019 levels, according to a new analysis released today by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

EGLE also announced today more Michiganders than ever have access to recycling services. Since 2019, the state has nearly doubled the number of households with available curbside recycling carts and drop-off sites. Nearly 3 million households – three-quarters of the state’s population – now have access to recycling in their communities.

In addition, EGLE has announced grants to business and local government partners in communities across the state totaling over $7 million, more than Michigan has ever invested in recycling infrastructure and technology and far surpassing last year’s record $4.7 million. Among the communities benefitting from EGLE’s newest investments are Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, Grand Rapids, Alpena, Marquette and two Upper Peninsula townships.

“Michiganders are recycling now more than ever before,” EGLE Director Liesl Clark said during a virtual news conference this morning. “This tremendous accomplishment represents a bipartisan effort in a historic partnership with the Michigan Legislature in combination with the nonprofit sector and business community that Michigan has never seen happen before.

“Equally important, EGLE and the Whitmer administration are introducing new opportunities to promote recycling, help support our climate change goals, and create new jobs in communities that have been historically underserved by our state, including Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Grand Rapids,” Clark said.

The results come from a more than three-year review of statewide data by EGLE researchers that coincided with the launch of 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 contamination of materials with unsuitable or nonrecyclable items in recycling bins and at drop-off sites.

The data released today shows:

  • Michigan has steadily increased its recycling rate from what was historically the lowest in the Great Lakes region. The rate has risen 35.4%, from 14.25% prior to 2019 (a newly revised EGLE estimate from previous projections of 15%), and peaking to 19.3% now, based on the EGLE analysis.
  • This equates to Michigan now capturing over 500,000 more tons of cardboard boxes, milk cartons, plastic bottles, organic material and other recyclables equating to over 110 pounds per-person each year.
  • Michigan’s recycling industry is now processing 440,828 tons of material annually (not including organic materials, e.g. that explains the 60,000 ton discrepancy from the previous bullet) which Michigan businesses are using to put back into local economies. Sorted recyclable material from Michigan households and businesses feed into new more environmentally friendly products and support business models which are based on the use of recycled materials.
  • More Michiganders than ever have access to recycling opportunities. Roughly 75% of Michigan residents – approximately 2.9 million households – now have curbside recycling access or drop-off sites available.
  • More than $460 million has been invested in recycling for new technology, robotics with artificial intelligence, fleet maintenance improvements, equipment upgrades, and hiring new employees since 2019, with nearly 80% of that investment coming from local government, nonprofits, and businesses across the state.
  • For every $1 that EGLE provides in grants from its Renew Michigan and NextCycle Michigan recycling initiatives, the return on investment in additional spending by private businesses, local governments, and nonprofits is $10, which combined is helping drive Michigan’s plan to develop markets that will capture an ever-increasing stream of recycled content.

“The NextCycle Michigan and Renew Michigan grants announced today mark 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,” said EGLE Materials Management Division Director Liz Browne.

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 the Legislature created in 2019 to bolster the state’s recycling efforts. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature are committed to raising Michigan’s recycling rate to 30% by 2025 and 45% by 2030, exceeding the national recycling rate of 32%.

Today’s announcement by EGLE comes in advance of the release on Thursday, April 21, of the MI Healthy Climate Plan, commissioned by Gov. Whitmer as a broad-based roadmap to a sustainable, carbon-neutral Michigan economy by 2050. Carbon neutrality is the global science-based benchmark for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most devastating and costly impacts of climate change.

“State decision-makers wisely understood that partnering with Michigan’s nonprofit sector and business community to help develop market-driven solutions was critical to improving Michigan’s waste and materials management processes and advancing its climate change goals,” said Jill Martin, director of community programs for The Recycling Partnership, the national nonprofit teaming with EGLE and Michigan communities this year on recycling initiatives across the state.

“The Next Cycle initiative and Renew Michigan infrastructure grants are an important piece of accomplishing those goals,” Martin said. “We’re tremendously impressed by what we’re seeing happen in Michigan with regard to increasing its investment in recycling. By helping to build out domestic markets for recycled goods, we help to support key Michigan industries like automotive, construction materials, and paper product manufacturing, while also preserving the environment for the next generation.”

Highlights of the grants announced by EGLE today include:

  • Flint: A $300,000 Renew Michigan grant to support an $8 million project by Flint-based ACI Plastics to build a recycling system that will process 25 million pounds of postconsumer plastic film each year and create 25-30 new jobs to operate the plant with wages from $17-$20 per hour when it launches in 2023.
  • Detroit: A $202,000 Renew Michigan grant to make it easier than ever to recycle at all City of Detroit parks and some neighborhoods beginning this spring. It’s part of a roughly $300,000 effort by the City of Detroit to continue to expand its residential recycling program by providing 64-gallon curbside carts, and to boost recycling opportunities in public parks. The project will support environmental justice by benefitting an underserved community and provide increased access to recycling for all visitors at Detroit’s city parks and via expanded curbside collection for city residents.
  • Southeast Michigan: A $135,000 Renew Michigan grant to support a project that will expand recycling in commercial sectors of Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. This grant will enable minority-owned, Pontiac-based Essential Recycling to increase collection and tracking of recycled material recovered across the three counties. Educating the construction and skilled trades industries on the value of recycling is an important component of what Essential Recycling aims to achieve. Essential Recycling is partnering with the Pontiac United Education Coalition, Pontiac Chamber of Commerce, City of Pontiac, Oakland County, local governments in the tri-county region, and Michigan Works! to provide graduating high school seniors with career opportunities in the recycling industry.
  • Upper Peninsula: A $251,000 Renew Michigan grant that helps fund the largest expansion of residential recycling in the Upper Peninsula in 2022. The grant helps fund a total project budget of nearly $500,000 for the City of Marquette to provide 96-gallon curbside recycling carts to all single-family residences (6,100 households and 100 businesses), in place of the resident-provided containers currently in use. Residents in Ely Township and Michigamme Township also will receive 64-gallon curbside recycling carts with EGLE grants. Those three communities and EGLE will partner with The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit, which will provide additional funding for carts and promote an education campaign.
  • Alpena: The Alpena Resource Recovery Board of Directors and the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG) will be receiving a $1 million EGLE grant through Renew Michigan to support construction of a more than $5 million new recycling center near the Alpena County Regional Airport on Airport Road. Local stakeholders are now in discussions for a $1 million-$3 million loan request from national nonprofit Closed Loop Fund that, if approved, will leverage Closed Loop Fund’s support to capture committed match funding from national trade association leaders Carton Council of North America and the Food Packaging Institute that will finalize financing for the project.
  • Grand Rapids: A more than $275,000 EGLE grant with support from NextCycle Michigan to Grand Rapids-based Wormies, a composting business founded in 2017 specializing in vermicomposting (composting with worms) serving the Grand Rapids community. At the core of its operation is the production of castings (worm poop) for farm and garden use. Wormies’ mission is to change the way the Grand Rapids community manages organic waste by achieving a 100% diversion from landfills. Its vision is to see Wormies composting in every neighborhood and for Grand Rapids to set the standard nationwide for responsible waste management. The EGLE grant is supporting Wormies’ plan to move from its current 1/4-acre location in Jenison to a new 13-acre site in Cascade Township that will feature a state-of-the-art regenerative natural ecosystem farm, pollinator gardens and a biodiversity pond that will increase production of its highly sought-after premium soil product line.

“These strategic investments EGLE has announced today reflect the commitment of communities across Michigan to finding modern and scalable solutions across our entire recycling system,” Clark said. “It is critical that EGLE continue to work together with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, our partners in the Michigan Legislature, the private sector, nonprofits like The Recycling Partnership, and at the federal and local levels to ensure we achieve our state’s goals for sustainable operations.”

EGLE also announced today new findings from an EGLE-commissioned survey conducted August-September 2021. The statewide and regional data show Michiganders’ understanding of recycling best habits has increased in every corner of the state. EGLE leaders attribute much of Michigan’s improved recycling success to the state’s “Know It Before You Throw It” awareness push. The survey results show:

  • 58% increase in knowledge that food residue ruins recycling. In the U.P., the increase was 124%.
  • 47% increase in knowledge that “tanglers” can ruin a recycling load.
  • 25% decrease in the belief that it’s OK to place nonrecyclable items in recycling because someone will sort out nonrecyclable items later.
  • 51% decrease in Central Michigan, and 38% decrease in West Michigan, in the belief among residents with curbside recycling that plastic bags are accepted at the curb.
  • 47% of Michiganders – and up to 54% in the U.P., 55% in the Lansing area, and 64% in Northern Michigan – recognize the Recycling Raccoons campaign.
  • 78% of people who recalled the campaign said it made them more mindful of their recycling behavior or changed a recycling behavior. That figure was as high as 87% in Metro Detroit and 89% in Northern Michigan.
  • 7 in 10 Michiganders say they learned something new from the ads.

Two examples of how the Know It Before You Throw It Recycling Raccoons’ message is having a positive impact in every region of the state come from data that shows increased knowledge that food residue ruins recycling and that plastic bags should not be included in curbside recycling bins or at drop-off sites.

Statewide, there has been a 58% increase in knowledge that food residue ruins recycling. That includes:

  • A 48% increase in Southeast Michigan.
  • A 67% increase in East Michigan.
  • A 57% increase in West Michigan.
  • A 64% increase in Central Michigan and the Lansing-Jackson area.
  • A 59% increase in Northern Michigan, and
  • A 124% increase in the Upper Peninsula.

Statewide, there also has been a 14% decrease in the mistaken belief among residents with curbside recycling that plastic bags are accepted at the curb. That includes in:

  • Southeast Michigan, where half of Metro Detroit households report recycling plastic bags in their curbside bins or carts – which is a no-no for all recycling programs across southeast Michigan.
  • West Michigan, which has seen a 38% decrease in belief among residents with curbside recycling that plastic bags are accepted at the curb.
  • East Michigan, which has seen a 19% decrease in belief among residents with curbside recycling that plastic bags are accepted at the curb.
  • And in Central Michigan, there’s been a 51% decrease in belief among residents with curbside recycling that plastic bags are accepted at the curb.

How EGLE is working to reduce waste in our landfills

 

This story was originally published by FOX17 for "Morning Mix."

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is dedicated to reducing waste that ends up in landfills. The department recently acquired grant money to renovate and update one of the recycling facilities in Grand Rapids, which will allow them to achieve their goal of recycling even more waste.

The facility's updates will allow people to dispose of chemicals, as well as increase the value of recycling glass and certain types of plastics. While the recycling drop-off will be closed at the Wealthy Street location, there are 23 other companies that will allow people to drop off recyclables or pick up curbside.

The recycling center's renovations are part of their overall goal to reduce waste in Kent County's landfills by 90 percent by 2030. To learn more about how to help reduce landfill waste, head to reimaginetrash.org.

Recycling industry will be key to building back Michigan economy

Recycling not only is good for the environment, but it also has a wide-ranging economic impact

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of recycling in Michigan and put a greater emphasis on increasing the quality of the state’s recyclable materials for end-market use.

“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 such as cardboard boxes and toilet paper.”

Suggestions to achieve high levels of recovery and support robust end markets are outlined in an EGLE report, “Michigan Recycling Impact & Recycled Commodities Market Assessment.” In part, these efforts include education and engagement, policies and public-private coordination.

Ultimately, this is a call to action that will have a wide-ranging economic impact in the state of Michigan.

“When you hear about recycling, you mostly hear about how it’s good for the environment,” Flechter said. “But recycling can boost job growth in Michigan and make us a beacon to attract talent from around the world.”

Bigger than tourism

EGLE’s “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign is aimed at increasing the state’s recycling rate from 15%, currently the lowest in the Great Lakes, to 30% by 2025. The goal is to eventually reach 45%, and according to the report, the economic impact of achieving that would support 138,000 new jobs in Michigan’s recycling, reuse and recovery (RRR) sector. That increase would also provide $9 billion in annual labor income and $33.8 billion in economic output.

Moreover, at that rate, the RRR industry would account for 3.3% of Michigan’s total economic output, overtaking both transportation and tourism volume. Put another way, if all direct or indirect RRR sector jobs were in the same city, they would create the third-largest municipality in the state. And that’s all based on materials that enter the recycling stream rather than go into a landfill.

“It’s important to recognize that the items we discard on a weekly basis from our homes represent resources,” said Mike Csapo, general manager of the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County (RRRASOC). “Those materials can be part of an economic equation that feeds a critical supply chain for manufacturing. And that means jobs.”

RRRASOC helps make waste and recycling programs convenient, cost-effective and environmentally responsible for more than a quarter of a million people in its member communities of Farmington, Farmington Hills, Milford, Milford Township, Novi, South Lyon, Southfield, Walled Lake and Wixom. And these programs – which include recycling drop-off centers, curbside collection schedules and household hazardous waste collection events – benefit employment across the state.

“For every job that can be generated by throwing something away, 10 more can be created in the supply chain to repurpose that material,” Csapo said. “When we have systems in place that can treat recyclable items in a way that allows for continued value-added activity, we’re playing an important role in keeping the engines of the economy running.”

Igniting a new workforce pipeline

Recycling doesn’t just mean new jobs – it also offers new pathways into the workforce.

In Muskegon County, for example, the Goodwill LifeLaunch: Ignite Reentry Program recently launched with the aim of introducing new workers to careers in recycling and other manufacturing professions.

The two-year program is a partnership between Goodwill Industries of West Michigan and Padnos Recycling and Scrap Management, and it consists of two parts: recycling certification training for young adults who have had interactions with the criminal justice system, and a more rigorous system of diverting recyclable materials – such as packaging and electronics – from landfills. The goal is to grow the supply of recycled materials for high-demand markets, reduce recycling costs, increase market participation and – crucially – create jobs.

“This program can connect these individuals with marketable skills and give them work experience,” said Dina Butler, program manager at Goodwill of West Michigan. “We want to be able to help them set future goals and give them the skills training to get a good job or continue their education.”

EGLE sparked the Ignite program with a $200,000 Recycling Market Development grant, which served as a catalyst to the more than $820,000 in funding that came from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. The Department of Labor grant is part of a $4.5 million grant that is being shared with Goodwill organizations in Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Louisville. The EGLE and federal money covers 93% of the program’s operating costs, with Goodwill itself contributing the remaining $325,000.

Goodwill, a nonprofit known mostly as a place to sell and purchase used clothing and home furnishings, provides job training, employment placement services and other community-based programs benefiting those who may face barriers to employment. It also has a well-honed recycling program ingrained into its structure.

Butler said Ignite is set to run through December 2022 (with a one-year follow-up period), and although the first batch of cohorts is only four, eventually she sees 100 more being part of the first wave.

“Ultimately, we hope this becomes a self-sustaining program that will continue long after the grant ends,” Butler said.

As part of the program, Muskegon Community College will host a 10-week manufacturing training course, during which participants will also engage in work training at Goodwill. The goal is to give participants “transferrable skills,” such as blueprint reading, manufacturing machinery operation and supply chain management experience. Once training is over, these individuals will then be paired with manufacturing positions around the state where they can put their new abilities to work.

A legacy of recycling benefits

The history of the recycling movement has its origins right here in the Wolverine State – fittingly, in Ann Arbor, the home of the University of Michigan Wolverines. The nation’s very first curbside recycling program got its start there in 1978.

Three years later, a similar program started in New Jersey, and throughout the ’80s curbside programs popped up around the country and the number of drop-off stations grew. However, it wasn’t until 1987, when a shipping vessel loaded with 3,100 tons of trash from New York City was refused by every port it neared, that the United States welcomed a national conversation about waste issues.

“That really helped people visualize the trash problem we were facing, and it led to the creation of recycling programs and legislation that continue to this day,” Flechter said. “This is an environmental issue above, beyond and before an economic issue.”

Investment in innovation continues today with projects like EGLE’s NextCycle Michigan initiative, which aims to develop waste and recycling recovery projects that will grow the state’s recycled materials supply chain and end markets. The initiative recently named 17 inaugural partners who are committed to job creation and industry growth by recovering materials destined for the landfill.

“So we have to really ask ourselves,” Flechter said, “do we want to extract new materials and process them into something and then just put it in a hole in the ground, or do we want to keep using those materials and, in doing so, create jobs right here in Michigan? Recycling is important not just to Michigan’s environment, but also its economy.”

Michigan aims to double recycling rate by 2025

This story was originally published by WOOD-TV for "eightWest".

So many events are now using completely recyclable cups and containers.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is commending Fabri-Kal and their recycling efforts. Fabri-Kal is a leading provider of plastic foodservice and custom thermoformed packaging solutions

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy campaign, “Know It Before You Throw It,” is designed to educate and encourage people to recycle. The hope is to double the state’s recycling rate by 2025.

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