Major challenges to current recycling efforts

April 23, 2019

 

Weeks before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing began, factories in the city and surrounding areas were ordered closed in an effort to reduce air pollution. Automobile restrictions were put in place more than two weeks before the Olympic flame was lit. The measures were some of the first notable efforts by the world's most populous country to acknowledge its growing pollution problem.

 

Less than a decade after the games, China took new measures to clean up its act by banning the import of virtually all non-industrial waste, rejecting recyclables with contamination rates higher than .5 percent. Previously, China had accepted recyclables with contamination rates as high as three to five percent from around the United States.

 

As the largest importer of recyclable materials, China had the majority of domestic recyclables, and had imported 45 percent of the world's exported plastic waste since 1992. Today, the country takes in about five percent of the United States domestic recyclables.

 

The policy has sent a tsunami wave-sized ripple effect through plastic commodities markets and the recycling industry throughout the world, including Oakland County and the Birmingham/Bloomfield area.

 

“Markets have collapsed. They've just collapsed,” said Joe Munem, director of government affairs and public relations for GFL Environmental Inc. “The time of looking at this from a distance is over. If people want to continue to recycle as previously, they are going to have to pay more to do that. This isn't like a bad day on the stock market where everything gets better the next day.”

 

As one of the main waste haulers in the metro Detroit region, GFL contracts with at least 65 communities in the tri-county area to provide curbside recycling services. 

 

In February, GFL sent letters to about 65 communities for which it provides curbside recycling services, including Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills, outlining the situation and proposing an increase in fees. The letters reveal the new policy has less to do with China's efforts to reduce pollution and more to do with political trade wars. 

 

“For decades, North American collectors and processors have relied almost exclusively on China to be the end market for many recyclables collected from local residents, businesses and institutional generators, including mixed paper and post-consumer plastics (including difficult to recycle types number 3 to number 7),” the company said in a letter from GFL Regional Vice President Lou Berardicurti. “Triggered by the escalating trade actions taken by the USA against China, in March of this year, China adopted a contamination limit (.5 percent) that effectively prohibits the import of most of the types of plastics and mixed paper that have historically been shipped there. China has made it clear that they do not intend to reverse these policies anytime in the near term. Alternate markets in South Asia, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, do not have the capacity to accept volume or types of materials that were previously shipped to China.”

 

Contamination Berardicurti is referring to could include other materials that gets mixed into a bale of specific recyclables which can spoil the whole bale – for instance, food waste and liquids touching recyclable material, as well as non-recyclable plastic bags, styrofoam or other materials. That can mean if there is grease or cheese stuck to a pizza box, and it gets mixed into a bale, it contaminates the entire bale and cannot be recycled. Paper that becomes moldy from moisture is also considered contaminated.

 

Locally, material recovery facilities (MRFs) –  pronounced murph – that process recyclable materials are designed to remove up to 97 percent of contaminants, but have trouble removing the 99.5 percent, as required by the new Chinese policy.

 

Further, local MRFs don't have enough capacity to take on all the excess materials that had previously been shipped to China. While GFL hauls both trash and recyclables, the company doesn't operate MRFs in the metro Detroit area. That means processing services are contracted out by GFL, specifically in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. As such, the company is grappling with increased costs for processing that will soon, if not already, be passed along to the customer communities.

 

“In an effort to produce recyclables that are capable of being sold to an end market, these MRFs have hired more employees and are running their sorting equipment at a much slower rate to be able to pick out more contaminated and non-recyclable materials from those being processed,” GFL said in the letter. “MRFs have passed on their resulting higher operating costs to collectors like GFL, resulting in an over 60-percent increase in processing fees, as well as the rejection and/or landfilling of a significant volume of materials that are collected and delivered to these MRFs.”

 

The letter concluded by proposing changes to existing municipal contracts based on the market shifts and contamination rates responsible for increased processing fees. For communities that wish to keep recyclable materials headed to MRFs for processing, GFL is proposing a rate increase of $2.09 per household per month. The hauler also offered to continue collection of recyclable materials without any rate increases, but with those items to be diverted to the Detroit Renewable Power's Incinerator.

 

“The incinerator, which uses waste to generate both steam heating/cooling and electrical energy, offers a green disposal alternative to landfills,” GFL said in the letter. “There would be no increase in the rates charged to your community under this alternative.”

 

Munem said about half of the communities approached indicated they were leaning toward the incinerator option.

 

“In talking with the majority of communities, some have gone with paying more and some have gone with waste energy. It's sort of an ongoing process,” Munem said. “Most communities understand that recycling markets are in crisis. I know there's nobody out there arguing that point.”

 

In approaching communities, the intent was to keep waste from entering landfills. However, it's doubtful many officials familiar with the Detroit Renewable Power Incinerator consider burning of waste intended for recycling to be an environmentally-friendly alternative, even when considering some recapture of energy. That point was made evident on March 27, when Detroit Renewable Power announced the incinerator would close that day, after years of violations and complaints. The closure was expected to impact about 150 workers.

 

The abrupt announcement left GFL and other companies and communities scrambling to find new options for their trash disposal. However, as of the publication of this article, no solution had been identified. 

 

“It's a major disruption. This has been a huge fly in the ointment,” Munem said. “Since this has happened, we have been working very hard to find an alternative.”

 

Meanwhile, news of the closure was praised by environmentalists and others, including Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit, Romulus, Westland, Dearborn Heights) who joined residents in Westland and Detroit in February to oppose Westland's intent to send its recyclable materials to the incinerator in the face of steep increases.

 

“Burning trash hurts us all,” Tlaib said in a February 19 Facebook post. “Tonight's Westland City Council will be voting to have their recycling sent to Detroit's incinerator to be burned. WE MUST STOP THIS!! Our community's health depends on it.”

 

Tlaib, whose office failed to respond to multiple requests for comment, tweeted to express her pleasure with the closure of the plant.

 

“After years of hard work and grassroots organizing by some of Detroit's most committed activists and environmental warriors, the incinerator is shutting down,” Tlaib tweeted. “Celebrate this victory, and BREATHE FREE DETROIT!”

 

Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie said the township has about four years remaining on its contract with GLF for curbside recycling services.

 

“We were contacted about three or four months ago. … knowing our community and the feedback we have gotten from a number of people, we value the recycling of waste products as much as possible,” Savoie said. “From an elected official perspective, we understand the position that GFL is in, but we have a contract and feel if we hold to it that GFL will hold to it.”

 

Municipalities holding existing contracts with waste haulers may have additional leverage to negotiate long-term contracts that would soften increases in future service rates.

 

“Looking at the bidding, there's only been two companies that are bidding on these contracts,” Savoie said. “If we can work on something to extend the contract, we think the board might consider it. The last thing we want is to be caught with a major provider going out of business, then when it comes to renew this four years from now, everyone is held hostage to economic conditions.”

 

Residents in Bloomfield Township pay for recycling services through a quarterly service fee. Savoie said township residents are strong supporters of recycling, and would likely be opposed to diverting those materials to an incinerator or landfill.

 

Bloomfield Hills City Manager Dave Hendrickson also said the city was contacted by its waste hauler, GFL, in February in hopes of discussing its existing contract regarding curbside recycling, which expires in 2023. He presented the information to the city commission on March 12 for direction.

Bloomfield Hills City Attorney Derk Beckerleg (who also represents Bloomfield Township) said at the time that it appeared GFL was approaching several communities to seek an equitable approach to minimize harm to themselves. However, he said Bloomfield Hills doesn't have to agree to change their contract. The city commission directed Hendrickson to meet with a representative from GFL in the future to see if any benefits could be gained on the city's behalf.

 

Recycling data provided to Bloomfield Hills by GFL showed the net value of recyclable materials collected in the city dropped from about $13.62 per ton in 2017, where they were receiving a credit, to incurring a cost of $52.41 in 2018. Costs continued to increase in early 2019, with the average cost per ton being about $86.33. Those values are based on both diminished values per ton collected and processing costs. For instance, the gross value per ton in 2017 was listed at $85.22 per ton, with processing costs averaging $71.60 per ton, for a net value of $13.62. In 2018, the gross value per ton was $40.62, with processing costs rising to $93.03, for a net value of  negative $52.41.

 

Overall, the curbside recycling program in Bloomfield Hills collects about 393 tons of materials each year. Based on the data provided to the city from GFL, the program, which includes 1,356 homes, went from providing an annual rebate of $5,351 in 2017 to costing $20,597 in 2018. Under the proposed rates by GFL, that cost would increase to about $33,929 in 2019 for the city as a whole.

 

The proposed increases are essentially a passthrough fee for the company to cover increased costs it is paying to dispose of the recyclable materials it hauls, as GFL doesn't own or operate any materials recovery facilities in Michigan.

 

“We used to get paid (for materials) and now we are paying them to take it. We used to get $40 or $20 per ton, but now we are paying $80,” Munem said of GFL, which contracts with Republic Services for recyclables in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne Counties. “When we go to these communities to talk about this stuff, we aren't trying to capitalize on the situation.”

 

Birmingham Communications Director Kevin Byrnes said the city is a member of the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority (SOCRRA), which operates its own materials recovery facility. He said there have been no discussions of increased fees for curbside recycling in Birmingham.

 

Jeff McKeen, general manager of SOCRRA, said the authority hasn't suffered any major disruptions from China's new policy that would cause materials to be sent to landfills or other facilities.

 

“We are able to recycle everything we receive,” McKeen said. “We aren't getting the prices I would like to get, but we are having no problems moving materials. Nothing we process has gone to China, but the China market does effect domestic markets, and it has had an adverse effect on markets.”

 

SOCRRA provides curbside recycling to Birmingham, Berkley, Beverly Hills, Clawson, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Lathrup Village, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak and Troy. In January 2018, the authority opened an updated facility on Coolidge Highway in Troy. The new facility allows for faster processing of materials, as well as the capability for customers to use larger recycling carts, rather than smaller bins.

 

“The new facility allows the use of a larger bin, and that goes into a single stream that is co-mingled with other materials,” McKeen said. “The old facility had a dual stream system where truck drivers were doing sorting at the curb. Now our facility is designed to do that.”

 

McKeen said the larger bins have led to a volume increase of about 30 percent in the amount of materials received.

 

“It was a significant improvement,” he said. “The carts have a lot to do with that. The more capacity customers have, the less chance of stuff being thrown away once the bin is full.”

Materials entering the facility are sorted into individual types of materials. For example, milk jugs and laundry detergent jugs are both #2 plastics, with clear jugs kept separate from colored plastics. Once processed and compressed into bales,  number 1 and number 2 plastics are sold to Clean Tech Recycling, in Dundee. Some other mixed plastics are sold to a manufacturer in Sarnia. Paper, which can be sorted into mixed products and other categories, are typically sold to Royal Oak Recycling.

 

“It's a commodities market, so it's a commodity-by-commodity basis,” McKeen said. “Steel prices have been good, plastic does well, paper not so well. Glass: we have to pay to get that recycled at the moment, and that goes to a place in Indiana for recycling.”

 

General commodity prices provided by GFL to local communities show descriptions by McKeen hold true across specific markets. For example, a ton of old newsprint paper in 2017 fetched an average of $87.41 per ton. That same ton in 2018 was selling for about $33.20. Old corrugated container and kraft pulp sold for about $152 a ton in 2017 and dropped to $75 a ton in 2018. Mixed papers dropped from about $66 a ton in 2017 to $9.74 in 2018. Meanwhile, plastics rose from about $264 a ton to $319 a ton.

 

Clean Tech Recycling in Dundee was founded in 1989 and has since become one of the nation's largest recyclers of post-consumer plastics and packaging, specializing in polyethylene plastics, specially high-density polyethylene (number 2 HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Nearly all recycling centers in Michigan sell plastic to Clean Tech, with the company using PET and HDPE bales from more than 350 recycling centers across the country.

 

“Our business is to convert bales back into bottle grade material, and we produce a post-consumer resin, which includes high-density polyethylene and PET,” said Jim Kulp, operations manager for Clean Tech's facility in Dundee. “The high density goes back into soap and detergent bottles. The PET we take back to a food grade product. That's used for post-consumer resin content for beverage bottles and other food products. We supply bottle manufacturers across the United States.”

 

Jim Kulp said the Chinese policy hasn't had much of a dramatic impact on the local market for plastics. However, the business has seen an increase in the amount of product lost due to cross contamination and other unacceptable materials included in bales.

 

“For PET and high-density polyethylene, if anything, it has held down bale prices a little, but those are fairly good markets and there are plenty of people looking for those products,” Kulp said. “The real problem it created is that some of the lower end quality items are more difficult to get rid of. And it has increased some of the loss rates we see coming through the bales we purchase.”

Kulp said that prior to the Chinese restrictions going into place, Clean Tech would see a loss rate of 20 to 30 percent. That has since increased to 30 to 40 percent. Loss rates, he said, are due to contamination, labels, caps and cross contaminants, like paper, cardboard and other plastics that have to be removed to make the next product.

 

“If the rate is too high or there's too much contamination, we try to work with the material recovery facility to make changes, or we would stop purchasing from them,” he said. “There have been occasions we have stopped purchasing because their quality wasn't high enough, more in the past couple of years. 

 

“Some of that did have to do with China. Some were selling the lower grade products to China and their systems aren't as robust as others. For them to compete without having that market available, it's more difficult for them.”

 

While the virtual closure of the Chinese market has brought new challenges to the recycling centers accepting curbside recycling, Kulp said there is opportunity in domestic markets.

 

“There's a lot of potential for growth in the marketplace,” he said. “A lot of consumer product companies have announced high rates of usage for our post-consumer resins. For that to be successful, there has to be more collected. That's the message that needs to be out there. We need more material of the right kind back into the market. As more people pay attention to what is going into the system, there is going to be opportunity for growth.”

 

On April 4, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced it was making $2 million in funding available to support the growth of recycling markets in Michigan. The money is part of the department's 2019 Recycling Market Development Grants available to non-profit and for-profit businesses and organizations in Michigan.

 

The grants will support research of new uses for recycled materials, commercialization of technologies to replace materials with recycled content and increase the demand of recycled materials needed for manufacturing or other uses. Projects may include, but aren't limited to, materials testing and specification development, market analyses, marketing of products, usage guidance, research and development of new products using recycled content, processing equipment, use trials and other activities that will increase use of recycled materials.

 

Matt Fletcher, recycling market development specialist with the DEQ, said materials aren't truly recycled until they are transformed into a new product for use. Those uses, he said, save energy, reduce water consumption, decrease greenhouse gasses and conserve resources while creating jobs and growing the economy.

 

“There are two main things we are doing at the DEQ to weather the storm,” Fletcher said. “First, the primary cause of why China said 'no more' to our stuff is that it was just too dang dirty. It had too much stuff in it that they didn't want. They were trying to clean up the environment ahead of the Olympics. There was really a feeling of harm that was being done by global pollution and developing countries exporting pollution. That tells us that we need to make sure that we are putting only the right things in the bin, and making sure residents know what goes in the bin and what doesn't. The second thing is that we are growing local markets. Why are we sending our resources halfway around the world when we can support the economy here in the United States and in Michigan?”

 

The answer to the export question goes back to the original entry of China into the recyclable materials market, and the impact it had on domestic markets.

 

“About 15 years ago, not a lot of material was going to China,” said Kerrin O'Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition. “In the past 15 years, the market in China increased by a factor of seven. That caused us to move our investment from domestic market development and making sure we were getting high volumes of diverse material, and that's how the single-stream process started to dominate the market place.”

 

In single-stream recycling, all kinds of recyclable products are put into single bin by consumers and picked up at the curb by a hauling company. Those materials, including paper, plastic, metal, glass and others, are sorted in a single stream at the materials recovery facility.

 

“Previous to single stream, everyone had an open bin at their house, and the truck would come by and those would get separated on a recycling truck,” O'Brien said. “That was kind of inefficient and took longer. Those were 18 gallon or 30 gallon bins.

 

“When the Chinese market took off, the larger companies realized they could make more money. They focused on larger collections, like those 90-gallon carts, and the material is dumped into one compartment, so you can expand the number and types of materials. They can accept more plastics and different metals, and bigger plastic items. It allows us to expand the volume of materials and the stop at each house is about 20 or 30 seconds. The efficiencies at the curb also benefitted municipalities.”

 

O'Brien said that when China entered the market, it wasn't very picky about the items they were accepting, so MRF's were able to move the items quickly through a facility, focusing on quantity of materials, rather than quality, which in turn led to an increase in contamination.

 

“In the heyday when prices were good, those revenues weren't shared with the municipalities,” O'Brien said. “But now, when prices get depressed and there are no revenues, there are costs to share, and the municipalities weren't prepared for the bottom to fall out of the market.”

 

As municipal recycling programs are caught paying for new costs, some communities are harder hit than others.

 

Mike Garfield, executive director for the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, said communities holding long-term contracts with service providers and those that have pooled resources with neighboring communities are better suited to rising costs to recycling programs.

 

“The recycling business, like many businesses, has its ups and downs, and the market right now is in a down cycle,” Garfield said. “The communities that haven't planned for this are feeling the brunt of the recycling downturn. The ones who have are going through it OK.”

 

In Westland, recycling has had a 78-percent participation rate among residents. The city had been paying about $18 per ton to RECommunity, of New Boston. That company was later purchased by Republic Services. In February, the city announced the cost of recycling would spike to $80 per ton. 

 

“We were under a long-term contract to landfill trash, but we had a month-to-month contract on recycling,” said Westland Mayor William Wild. “We got a 30-day notice back in February. On an annual basis, that increase would be $310,000.”

 

Wild said the increased cost would easily exceed the city's budget for waste removal, which is based on a dedicated millage for all solid waste, including recycling.

 

“The additional cost would have exceeded our millage, and that would have had to been subsidized by the general fund,” he said. “We were hit harder than other communities because on the recycling side we had a month-to-month contract, while a lot of others have long-term contracts. We contracted directly with the MRF.”

 

Wild said the city had previously had a longterm contract with the MRF owner. Republic continued to honor the contract, but only on a month-to-month basis.

 

“I don't think it's in anyone's best interest to have a month-to-month contract,” he pointed out.

Republic Services currently operates two MRFs in southeast Michigan, including the New Boston facility, which it owns. The other facility is located in Southfield, which is owned by the Resource and Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County (RRRASOC) and operated by Republic. The company also owns a third facility in Roseville which has been taken offline and closed for operation.

 

Founded in 1989, RRRASOC member communities include Farmington, Farmington Hills, Milford Village, Milford Township, Novi, South Lyon, Southfield, Walled Lake and Wixom. Those communities make up about a quarter of the MRF's capacity, with Republic Service municipal contracts making up the remaining capacity. 

 

Scott Cabauatan, municipal services manager for Republic said a third facility in Roseville was recently closed due to “operational synergies.” Those synergies, he said, arose after heavy restrictions in the Chinese market and increased costs to operate MRFs.

 

“As an industry, we are reliant on global markets for recyclables. Locally, the sourcing is more domestic than global, but overall the industry is based on the global market,” Cabauatan said. “So when the market in China decided to change residual specifications – they changed from about three or five percent to a half percent (contamination) – there is increased processing time that is required to meet that specification. More materials that are going in have to be scrutinized and rejected, and contamination rates have gone up.

 

“To meet that challenge of a half percent, as people demand high quality materials coming out of the MRFs, we are now forced to spend more time and labor costs doing that quality control activity. That involves slowing down the lines, and maybe not processing as much material in an eight-hour shift. And, you have communities that are bringing more materials into the facility, so you may need to add some extra shifts in order to process the same amount of material.”

Cabauatan said as costs to process materials increase, lightweight materials are being more often utilized by packaging companies, resulting in more materials needed to make a single bale of a commodity. “Water bottles have been a heavy grade plastic, but now those have become paper thin,” he said. “That goes back to cost. There's a cost associated with processing that. When baling water bottles, what used to be 45,000 bottles in a bale is now about 96,000. So, the light weighting efforts by manufacturers in the packaging community also impact the cost.”

 

To deal with the increased prices in Westland, the city initially considered sending recyclable materials to the incinerator in Detroit. However, public opposition to fueling the controversial facility led city council members to opt to landfill the materials until a solution could be found.

 

Wild said the city is encouraging residents to continue separating recyclables, even though they will go to a landfill until a solution is found for the issue. 

 

“We wanted to be transparent, and we have asked the community, while it will go to a landfill in the short term, we asked them not to change their behavior,” Wild said. “We will continue to pick up with separate trucks. To their credit, they have done that that. Volumes have stayed about the same. We are fortunate for that behavior.”

 

Wild said Westland is able to continue with the curbside pickups, in part, because the city owns its own trucks and buys its own fuel each week. He said by continuing the curbside recycling practice, it's hoped that residents won't fall out of habit with the practice.

 

“It will cost more than just landfilling until the market corrects itself, but we think it's still a worthwhile effort to pursue an avenue to recycle.”

 

To address the issue, Wild said the city is looking at different options, including talking with other communities to possibly pool resources.

 

Mike Csaspo, executive director of RRRASOC, said the authority began seeing disruptions in the market about two years ago.

 

“It's an old story for those of us who are close to it,” he said. “Recycling organizations are talking with (news organizations) and pinning the problems on contamination, which is part of the problem.

 

“We spend a lot on labels, cards and social media, mobile apps, cable, news and print stories. We've been trying to share the message of recycling, and recycling right for years. In some communities it does very well, in others maybe they aren't doing as good as a job as others. In some cases, that could be the hauling company.”

 

In terms of the amount of material diverted to recycling MRFs that would otherwise be landfilled, Csaspo said SOCRRA is a top-notch organization.

 

“They probably stack up with the best programs in the country, and I like to think ours is very much the same,” he said. “We both have low contamination rates from the community. We still get plastic bags and styrofoam and things that wrap up our equipment and cause delays, and that effects maintenance costs. Those are some of the challenges we are confronted with.

 

“Consumers are somewhat stuck in the middle. Homeowners are presented with an ever-changing mix of products and product packaging, and many are labeled as recyclables when they aren't recyclable.”

 

As an example, Csaspo said resin-coated paper products may have arrows with a number in the middle that resemble recyclable materials, when it's not actually recyclable by most MRFs. 

 

“When you have a capital intensive system with $6 million in equipment, that gets designed with a certain mix of products in mind,” he said. As products change, we have to accommodate that with updates to equipment. The best example is print media. Years ago, we had a lot of newspapers coming in that were made into new newspaper. We don't get as much newsprint now, but we still get a high level of paper material.”

 

Mike Garfield, with the Ecology Center, said the packaging is a big challenge for recyclers.

 

“If you were designing this system from scratch, you would make sure the packaging would be reused or recycled. In other countries they do that, but not in the US. In the United States, we have stuck local units of governments and households with getting rid of the trash, and it's an expensive proposition in general,” Garfield said. “Recycling has been integrated fully into the way communities deal with this in some parts of the country, and some states have been proactive to promote recycling. That's not the case in Michigan. We have some of the worst laws on the books when it comes to recycling, and how we deal with trash.”

 

Solid waste disposal in Michigan is guided by the state's Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, created in 1994, specifically Part 115 and Part 175. Elizabeth Garver, recycling and waste minimization specialist with the Michigan DEQ, said state law regulates only some items that are restricted from entering landfills, including refundable beverage containers and yard clippings. The state doesn't prohibit items collected by recycling programs from entering landfills.

 

“It's really up the landfills to enforce what's coming in,” Garver said. “It's not unlawful for them to accept it completely, but it can't be more than a 'de minimis' amount, under the law. They have their own procedures for inspecting that. We have inspectors also, and we look for items like yard waste, which are easy to find. There could be other items, like asbestos or other things they could be looking for.”

 

Garfield said the problem in Michigan is that there has been more emphasis and investment in landfills than recycling centers because landfills are far more profitable to run.

 

“We have far more landfills in Michigan than we need. The proof of that is to compare the price to dispose of trash in Michigan compared to other states,” he said. “We are a lot cheaper than other states, and that's the primary reason Toronto and other Ontario communities have sent their trash here. At one point, all of Toronto and all of its suburbs were sending us their trash. The financial incentive is strong. If you're a business in the waste hauling industry, you have an incentive to dump trash in a landfill.

 

“As a result of that, there have been very few commercial recycling facilities developed in the state of Michigan. In other areas of the country, you'll find many other MRFs that are commercial MRFs. In some places they compete for business. We don't have any competing. The comparative price for landfilling makes it unfavorable. Communities that want to recycle have essentially gone and done it themselves. … if you don't have one in your region, you'll really be at the mercy of the market, and the market isn't good right now.”

 

In terms of trash being sent to landfills, Michigan landfills in 2018 reported taking in 52,445,215 cubic yards of waste, an increase of about 1,840,523 cubic yards (3.6 percent) from 2017, according to the DEQ's annual solid waste landfill reports. Of the total amount, 39,932,328 cubic yards were generated in Michigan in 2018, with the rest imported from other states and Canada. Canadian waste accounted for 18.6 percent of all waste disposed of Michigan landfills, with other states and Canada accounting for 23.9 percent.

 

Overall, municipal waste is the largest category of trash imported by Michigan landfills, accounting for more than 8.1 million cubic yards of the total waste sent to the state. Other waste includes industrial waste and commercial and development waste. In all, Michigan in 2018 imported waste from Canada, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Counties that imported the most out-of-state waste include Macomb, Wayne, Monroe and Genesee. Oakland County didn't import any out-of-state waste.

 

The DEQ report shows that not only is Michigan importing a large amount of solid waste to its landfills, but the practice is common between counties. For instance, 4,314,899 cubic tons of waste that were disposed of in landfills in 2018 came from Oakland County, with landfills in the county taking in 2,454,559 cubic tons.

 

Trash from Oakland County in 2018 was sent to Advance Disposal Services Arbor Hills landfill in Washtenaw County; Brent Run landfill, in Genesee County; Carelton Farms landfill, in Wayne County; Citizens Disposal, in Genesee County; Eagle Valley, in Orion Township; Granger Grand River landfill, in Clinton County; Matlin Road landfill, in Monroe County; Oakland Heights landfill, in Auburn Hills; Pine Tree Acres in Macomb County; Riverview Land Preserve, in Wayne County; Sauk Trail Hills landfill in Wayne County; Tri-City Recycling and Disposal, in Sanilac County; Venice Park Recycling and Disposal in Shiawassee County; and Woodland Meadows, in Wayne County.

 

Local area facilities that took in the most waste in 2018 include Advanced Disposal Services Arbor Hills landfill in Northville (4,990,699 cubic yards); Carleton Farms Landfill in New Boston (6,154,116 cubic yards); and Pine Tree Acres in Lenox (6,178,232 cubic yards).

 

Landfills in Oakland County include Eagle Valley Recycle and Disposal Facility in Orion Township (1,528,130 cubic yards), and Oakland Heights Development in Auburn Hills (926,429 cubic yards).

Cabauatan with Republic Services said while some communities have opted to landfill their recyclables, there has yet to be an influx of materials with Republic communities in Michigan. However, the closure of the incinerator in Detroit and upcoming contract negotiations may change that.

 

“Many communities are out to bid or in discussions in the next 12 months. We have also had communities that don't recycle that have looked into it and chosen not to because of the current dynamics of recycling. They are finding it cost prohibitive to them,” he said. “The closure of the incinerator does have an impact. It was a large waste consumer in the metro Detroit area, so it does create an impact on the transportation side, as there are haulers in the area that thought that was an appropriate means for disposal.”

 

Looking forward, Cabauatan and others are stressing the importance of recycling education – that is knowing what should and should not be recycled in their specific community.

 

“For those that have recycling programs in place, there needs to be a continued emphasis on education,” Cabauatan said. “That goes back to residuals. We are battling materials every day and the ill-effects of good-intended people.”

 

To help, Republic has launched its “Empty. Clean. Dry” campaign, which focuses on reducing moisture content and food contaminants in materials that can effect cardboard and other papers.  That includes old or spoiled food that gets tossed with recyclable packaging. Overall, the goal is to have customers empty recyclables of all contents; clean them of any residue; and dry them before placing them in a recycling container.

 

Republic has also launched a website – www.recyclingsimplified.com – to better help their customers. Likewise, GFL and SOCRRA  provide information on their websites about what items are acceptable and what are problematic, such as thin plastic bags and plastic grocery bags, which are considered some of the most problematic for MRFs.

 

Katie Deska, education coordinator with Michigan State University's Recycling Center, said the on-campus center has a 55-percent diversion rate, meaning that 55 percent of waste is diverted from landfills to the recycling center. Michigan as a state has a diversion rate of about 15 percent.

 

“Everything on campus goes through the MRF,” she said. “We work with staff and faculty because they are a constant here, whereas students are coming and going. We are also starting a 'waste warriors' program to recruit staff and faculty to sign up for services.”

 

 Deska said while the program focuses on campus facilities, off-campus recycling is more of a challenge, as it's harder to reach students and residents. The most challenging and important part of education is knowing whether or not a particular recycler takes the materials you're trying to dispose.

 

“Most curbside recycling programs don't accept plastic bags. The mechanical sorters at the MRFs can't handle plastic bags and they jam up the sorting equipment and get stuck in the rollers,” she said. “So, the people operating them have to shut it down and cut them off. That takes time and resources to stop the line and deal with something that shouldn't be in there in the first place.

 

“The education piece is a challenge. It's taken years to get people to recycle these items, so to up and tell people to stop – when it's just a phase – isn't desirable. All that education can be lost.”

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