Northern Michigan pioneers effort to reduce food waste

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By Bridget Bush

LANSING — Emmet County’s recycling program has been recognized as one of four model programs in the state for having a high quality service that matches the needs of the community.

The Michigan Profile of Recycling Programs and Potential Recycling studied recycling programs across the state, concluding that the level of participation among residents and businesses is a strong social cue to encourage others to recycle. The study was done by the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments with a grant from the Department of Environmental Quality.

Under a recent law signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, beginning October 1, establishments that recycle 100 tons or more per year must collect data and report their activities to the state. The law requires the Department of Environmental Quality to operate a statewide database of recycling efforts, exclusive of food waste, by the facilities, which will be published annually online.

The study identified successful communities as those with participation rates of at least 65 percent of residential customers and 25 percent of commercial customers. Four communities were chosen as model systems–two counties (Emmet and Benzie) and two cities (Farmington Hills and Grand Rapids)–and studied to identify elements that could be replicated in other communities.

It concluded that recycling programs with high-quality service must focus on matching the community’s preferences, aspirations and circumstances. Kate Melby, communications coordinator for Emmet County Recycling, said long-term local policies dating back to 1991 built a system that earned the governor’s Leadership in Recycling award in 2015.

Emmet County has a recycling program that’s a model for statewide initiatives, Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, said. But there’s no magic policy every county should adopt.

“It doesn’t matter how communities tackle recycling, but that they tackle recycling,” she said. Local governments must find leaders with the skills and vision to innovate their programs.

While the new law’s reporting requirement doesn’t address food waste as a concern for measurement, Emmet County’s does. Elisa Seltzer, director of Emmet County Recycling for more than 25 years, is leading a pilot program that tests cutting edge approaches to recycling.

For two years, Emmet County gave about three dozen local restaurants carts to store food waste for weekly curbside pickup services, Melby said. The only difference in 2016 is that Emmet County Recycling charges a fee to the businesses it provides service.

Expanding the collection of curbside food waste pickup in residential areas is part of the Emmet County plan, but logistical wrinkles, such as how to deal with frozen waste during the winter months, are still being ironed out, Melby said. This project was inspired by similar efforts in San Francisco and Toronto, where food and other organic waste are both picked up from residents curbside service-style.

“Nearly 40 percent of food produced goes to waste, whether it’s lost on the farm, in preparation, during transportation, at the store, or in the home,” Melby said.

The average household throws 25 percent of the food it buys into the garbage, she said. These numbers add up to be the second largest category of waste to enter landfills, weighing 1.7 tons and 21.3 percent, according to the same study.

Emmet County’s ingenuity is “a process of always being ready to try the next thing, which means constantly educating ourselves by attending Michigan Recycling Coalition and national conferences,” Melby said.

Seltzer has dedicated her career to these objectives. “Other communities will often call us, asking how to apply our best practices in their hometowns,” Melby said.
A regular response to Emmet County Recycling’s advice is “that won’t work in our city,” she said.

The 83 counties that make up Michigan all face different challenges, connected to their politics, geography and resources, O’Brien said. Beyond funding, recycling efforts are constrained by the lack of numbers measuring recycling activity. Emmet County Recycling hopes the information to be gathered under the new law will help Michigan communities–big and small, urban and rural–tailor their programs to meet local concerns and provide a platform for recycling advances.

“There is no standard of service that should be applied to everyone,” O’Brien said. A better measurement that the local government can analyze and use as a policy basis is important, she said.

This story first appeared in Capital News Service

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