Recycling gets positive reviews as green groups press for more action


GLE Solutions logo. Image: Audrey Richardson

By Morgan Womack

Local government officials in the state generally feel positive about the benefits of recycling, according to a public policy survey report from the University of Michigan.

But environmental organizations say that while local officials felt upbeat, they should still be pushed to encourage more recycling.

Deborah Stewart Anderson, the acting director of Zero Waste Detroit, said recycling — along with reducing, reusing and composting — is key to building an infrastructure for a circular economy: a system that gives incentives to reuse products rather than waste them.

Statewide, 20% of local leaders “strongly agreed” that recycling can benefit the economy and 27% said they “somewhat agree.” While 30% of participants reported no opinion, the remaining few disagreed or answered “don’t know.”

The survey took place in fall 2021, and U-M’s latest report is the third in a series on recycling issues.

Stewart Anderson said the survey results sounded promising, but she hasn’t seen much action as a result.

“It just makes me wonder, where are all of these officials?” Stewart Anderson said. “Money, dollars, have to be pumped into the community for some of these things to happen.”

Shanna Draheim is the policy director of the Michigan Municipal League. She said the league works with U-M by giving feedback on survey questions and encouraging its member cities and other local governments to participate.

The league, based in Ann Arbor, partners with Michigan Green Communities. The organization holds an annual “challenge” for communities to measure their progress toward advancing sustainability.

The 2022 challenge closed on March 31, and Draheim said three of the most popular actions that have been completed were recycling-related.

Those completed actions included giving residents more information about recycling, collecting more traditional curbside recycling materials and providing drop-off centers for non-traditional materials, such as electronics.

Communities that achieved more than half of their recycling-related goals in 2022 include Holland, Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Ludington, Lansing, Detroit and Oakland County.

Percentage of local officials who agree that recycling efforts boost the economy. Image: Center for Local, State and Urban Policy, University of Michigan.

The project not only allows communities to track their own goals but also points them “toward some basic and then some more advanced activities,” Draheim said.

Kerrin O’Brien, the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, said to reap the benefits of recycling, waste systems need to be redeveloped for “more productive management of materials.”

She said people already recycle valuable materials that can be sold on the open market, like aluminum, glass, metal and paper products.

“We don’t have to spend money to get these resources out of the environment or out of the landfill,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said local leaders play an essential role in recycling by keeping curbside pickup service prices low. After seeing the survey results, she said some local officials better understand the value of recycling services, but are hesitant to implement them because of the cost.

“It means that we’re going to have to do better at educating local officials and residents about the costs and benefits of our recycling programs,” O’Brien said.

Michigan Environmental Council communications coordinator Beau Brockett said the responses from local leaders were expected, but still fulfilling.

“It’s proof that recycling is really an inherent, intrinsic value of Michigan,” Brockett said. “The bottle deposit system is just second nature to us. Taking out recycling bins is just second nature to us.”

Michigan’s container deposit law provides an incentive for consumers to return beverage containers to recoup their 10-cent-per-container deposit.

Michigan ranks eighth in the nation for its recycling rates, in part because of the deposit law, according to a 2021 report by a UK-based environmental consulting agency, Eunomia. Its report said the state’s recycling rate for common containers and packing materials is 48%.

Brockett said aside from jobs being created, a boost in recycling could change how and where residents live.

“Would you want to live in a place that has a giant landfill on the outskirts?” Brockett said. “Or would you rather have a place where you have a recycling facility instead? There’s some subtle values of having a recycling-first economy.”

Morgan Womack reports for Capital News Service. 

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