MEC uses panel appointment to push for more recycling and composting, less landfilling

Michigan's landfill-first approach to waste management is getting a much-needed overhaul, and MEC is helping to lead the charge.

For more than a year, Deputy Policy Director Sean Hammond has served on the state's Solid Waste and Sustainability Advisory Panel (SWSAP), created by the Department of Environmental Quality to review Part 115 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, which regulates solid waste management. The SWSAP also includes Kerrin O'Brien, executive director of MEC member group Michigan Recycling Coalition, along with local governments, waste industry representatives and others. While it is different from the Governor's Recycling Council created a year earlier specifically to increase residential recycling rates, the groups play complimentary roles in moving recycling forward in Michigan.

The 13-member panel put forward its draft recommendations for input from Michigan residents. The Department of Environmental Quality accepted public comment on the proposal until August 1. After incorporating those comments, the SWSAP presented its formal recommendations to DEQ Director Heidi Grether in late October. Based on feedback from that meeting, legislation will be developed early in the new session as we work to have a new Part 115 in place in the next two years.

Michigan's oversupply of landfills hides true cost of trashing materials

In our view, Michigan has been too reliant on landfills to manage our waste stream. That's because the last time the state updated its solid waste policy, in the 1990s, there were concerns that we were running out of landfill capacity. As a result, Michigan built more landfills than we needed, which in turn created extraordinarily low costs for disposal. Today there are more than 45 landfills statewide.

And those landfills are filled with valuable materials. In 2015, a consortium of university and business interests, lead by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum Waste Task Force, researched the contents and value of the material landfilled. Their findings:

  • Michigan landfills contain an estimated $368 million worth of recyclable and compostable material.
  • 35 percent of landfilled garbage is organic material that can be composted or digested for energy development and soil enhancement.
  • 41 percent of the materials we throw out are recyclable and have market value, including all standard recyclable commodities except glass, plus textiles.

Through the SWSAP, we are working to adapt current policies to capture more of that value and conserve resources by encouraging recycling, composting and electricity generation (via anaerobic digestion) so discarded materials can be put to their best, highest use.

Below are some highlights from the SWSAP's recommendations for Michigan's solid waste policy.

"Materials" have value, "solid waste" is trash

The panel's first draft recommendation is a change of terminology. The proposal calls for replacing the term "solid waste planning" with "materials management planning" to reflect a shift away from the landfill-first approach and toward an emphasis on recycling and composting. The proposal also says that materials management plans–which each county is required to file with the DEQ–should include goals for reclaiming reusable materials and metrics for monitoring the county's progress toward those targets.

Boost composting

Turning food waste and other organic matter into valuable compost makes good environmental and economic sense, and composting provides many jobs in Michigan. Unfortunately, although composting facilities have been required to register with the DEQ since 2008, minimal oversight has allowed a few bad actors to give the industry a black eye by producing nuisance odors and otherwise being un-neighborly. Those conflicts have made it difficult to find appropriate sites for composting facilities.

The draft recommendations call for driving out bad actors by providing a more robust regulatory framework for composting–one that includes general permits, routine inspections, and enhanced requirements for site plans, operating and training.

The proposal also notes that Michigan should continue its ban on landfilling yard waste, a valuable source of nutrients that should be composted.

Protect taxpayers

Landfill operators are required to provide financial assurance so the DEQ and Michigan taxpayers aren't on the hook for cleanups, maintenance or other costs if the company goes out of business. However, those financial assurances aren't always enough to cover all costs.

The SWSAP proposal calls for increasing the financial assurance requirement such that the DEQ is able to contract with a third party to properly close and maintain a landfill. The same goes for all solid waste facilities. It also recommends raising fees or adding new funding sources to grow the state's account for the perpetual care of retired sites.

Pay for the program

Of course, the DEQ and local governments will need adequate funding to administer the materials management program and enforce regulations that protect human health and the environment. We are happy to have a seat at the SWSAP table and look forward to finalizing these recommendations. Keep an eye out for more updates as we move forward with this plan to conserve resources and create a more sustainable Michigan.

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Recycle, Michigan

Recycle, Michigan is MEC member group Michigan Recycling Coalition's statewide recycling outreach campaign. Connect your program to the statewide effort to raise awareness about the value of recycling and move Michiganders to recycle at home, at work, and at play. Contact the MRC office to get a digital copy of the logo for inclusion in your outreach materials, to purchase an indoor/outdoor sign for display at your recycling center, and to become a Recycle, Michigan Partner and receive other campaign social media tools at (517) 974-3672.

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