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Civic duty of recycling comes with a cost

For years municipal recycling programs operated under the sentiment that “one man's trash is another man's treasure,” but times have changed, and local municipalities and their residents need to recognize those changes, and the costs they bear.

We've grown used to recycling, and the benefits they reap. The items we throw away each week have had value to others – but now, politics and trade wars are playing a hand in our recycling habits. Recyclable materials like used milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, tin cans and old newspapers are suddenly being held hostage somewhere halfway around the world.

Today, the old cliché might be revised to read “one person's trash is another's increased fees.” The change reflects policy changes in China that have essentially stopped the flow in the Asian market which had previously bought nearly half the world's recyclable paper and plastics.

As waste haulers and material recovery facilities serving as recycling centers make adjustments to their operations to adjust to the market collapse caused by China's new policies, some of the companies are asking local residents to shoulder the increased costs. For those that receive curbside recycling services from GFL Environmental, including Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills, the company is asking for an additional $2.09 per household per month.

Township and city administration have said they aren't obligated to accept any increases for years, as both are locked in long-term service contracts prior to the market changes. Both expressed reluctance to alter their existing contracts, but said they are open to discussions.

Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills officials – as well as other communities with long-term contracts – should be encouraged to be open to negotiating with GFL or other service providers, as doing so now not only gives communities leverage in discussions, but ensures recycling programs remain healthy and receive continued participation into the future, something residents increasingly value.

Local communities must be honest about the role they play in the waste stream. As waste haulers are caught paying more for moving recyclables, refusal to accept increased costs could ultimately lead to those materials ending up in landfills in southeast Michigan. Landfills that are already permitted to have massive amounts of capacity beyond that of many neighboring states and have led to Michigan being a dumping grounds for other's trash.

GFL had given communities the option to pay additional costs for recycling or send those materials to the massive incinerator in Detroit, which is no longer an option –having suddenly closed in late March.

While GFL officials said they are looking for alternatives, we don't need a crystal ball to know those communities unwilling to pay will end up seeing their trash go to landfills. Likewise, it's unlikely GFL or other providers will continue to eat the increased costs for long before simply ending recycling services.

At the same time, municipalities should take steps to find long-term solutions and encourage their service providers do the same. Partnering with neighboring communities and service providers not only helps to keep costs under control, but to support domestic markets instead of relying solely on overseas markets.

The success of municipally-owned waste hauling and recycling authorities, such as SOCRRA, which provides service to Birmingham, along with 11 other communities, and the Resource and Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County, the latter which is operated by Republic Services, is a strong model. Those partnerships have helped to keep member communities from taking on large service fee increases. Likewise, both authorities have continued to invest in their facilities and improve operations.

Residents in the Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and surrounding communities have long fostered a culture of recycling, with Birmingham being one of the top recycling communities in SOCRRA. While community demographics, such as income and education have long been believed to be determining factors on residential recycling rates, an ongoing study by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) suggests those factors are less important than recycling education on the part of the service providers.

Residential support of recycling programs in those communities with the highest rates has taken decades to achieve. We don't want communities to lose such important support by sending their once-recycled materials to landfills.

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