• Kevin Elliott

Major challenges to current recycling efforts

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.