Talking trash: overhauling Michigan’s landfill-first waste policy

From Faygo to Vernors, Michigan is great at making beverages. We’re also a leader at recycling those bottles.

Michigan launched its bottle deposit program in 1976 to protect our rivers and streams from litter, and it’s been a huge success. Ninety percent of the pop and beer cans and bottles sold in the state are recycled, but that’s where the buck stops with recycling in Michigan.

Aside from bottles and cans, our recycling rate is abysmal.

We have the lowest recycling rate in the Great Lakes region — that’s right, Ohio has us beat.

Actually, most states have us beat. Only Mississippi and Oklahoma rank lower.

Grocery bags, tin cans, paper — all can be recycled and add value to our economy, but in Michigan they primarily wind up in landfills. Governor Snyder recognized the problem (and imperative that we always be better than Ohio) and made it a priority to double Michigan’s recycling rate, upping us to 30% — the national average.

To achieve that goal we’ve worked to revamp Part 115 — the law that governs Michigan’s approach to waste management. Part 115 was written back in the 1990s when we were worried about running out of landfill space. In response, we eased the regulatory brakes and made it easier to build landfills — maybe too easy.

Fast forward 20 years: we have too many landfills, so we’re importing trash from Canada

Wait, what?

That’s right — it’s cheaper for Canadians to drive from Toronto, cross the bridge, go through customs and dump their trash in Pure Michigan — what kind of garbage is that?

At current waste disposal rates, the state estimates that we have 27 years of landfill capacity. Our research puts the figure closer to 100 years or more. When combined with our low waste disposal fees, we’ve made burying waste the cheapest option for Michigan (and apparently Canada).

Recycling has a lot of pros. The environmental ones — saving trees, protecting groundwater and reducing our carbon footprint — are obvious, but there are lesser-known perks, too.

Every year we dump $400 million worth of material that could be reclaimed and recycled. Often these materials — like plastic water bottles and aluminum —  are in high demand from companies like Ford and GM. Plus, recycling these products would create processing and sorting jobs throughout the state.

But we’re cleaning up our act, hopefully

After years of work with numerous stakeholders and the support from the Department of Environmental Quality and Governor Snyder, we’re on the verge of overhauling Michigan’s waste management policy and making our state better than Ohio a recycling leader.

If passed, the revamped Part 115 would completely rework Michigan’s waste management landscape. Instead of planning for landfills, Michigan counties would set waste utilization goals, including goals for recycling.

But if we really want to boost recycling rates, we’ll have to improve access to recycling programs.

Many people want to recycle, but can’t because their communities don’t offer it. One example: It wasn’t until 2014 that Detroit — our largest city — started a curbside recycling program. The new Part 115 would boost recycling access by setting statewide benchmarks that all counties must meet to be eligible for grant funds.

Our new waste management law also includes ways to handle food waste — one of Michigan’s largest sources of waste. The new law promotes composting food waste instead of dumping it in landfills. Compost can help revitalize damaged soil, reducing the need for fertilizer and pesticides which can run off farm fields and fuel toxic algae blooms.

We are excited about the future of recycling in Michigan and hope that one day we will never need to bury or burn another piece of trash — including Canada’s.

How can you help? Join our email list and we will keep you informed of our progress and how you can help!


By Katie Parrish, MEC

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