Michigan remains a state known for its vast environmental splendor, but ranks in the bottom half of the country for recycling rates.
For decades, much of the state’s household waste stream has simply gone to landfill, but improving technology and the promise of a robust market for post-consumer materials have prompted regulators in the State to review the regulations in force. Officials say Michiganders are recycling more than ever and it’s time to update the state’s solid waste law.
A multi-year effort under the last and current administration to overhaul how Michigan handles its waste has resulted in an extensive invoice package to revamp solid waste legislation and improve recycling, composting and reuse of materials.
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“We know that the material we pay to throw away every day has a market value. Some Michigan companies can’t get enough recycled raw materials to make their products,” said Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.
This non-profit organization estimates that Michigan residents pay more than $1 billion annually to manage their waste, and within this waste stream, $600 million worth of recyclable materials are lost to landfills each year.
Pending state legislation would establish a policy framework for counties to develop recycling and materials programs as economic drivers by updating county plans and encouraging regional collaboration to develop landfills, facilities recycling and composting. There would be benchmark recycling standards, such as curbside service in larger communities and convenient drop-off sites for counties.
experts estimate If Michigan increased its recycling rate from 19% to a more impressive 45%, the state would benefit from an estimated 138,000 jobs, $9 billion in labor income and a whopping $33 billion in economic output. . Environmental benefits would include a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to nearly 1.5 million passenger vehicles driven each year.
the existing law includes decades-old regulations that described the growth of landfills, but not how to efficiently extract valuable materials from the waste stream as recycling became more efficient and manufacturers found ways to use what people threw away. Michigan has been left with ample and inexpensive landfill capacity and few incentives for recycling, even despite economic opportunities from years of business innovation.
Individually developed recycling programs, leading to a patchwork of rules about what can be recycled in which communities. Some places do not offer any public recycling service.
The pending bills would allow Michigan communities to improve the state’s circular economy, said Mike Aliamo, director of environmental and energy affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
The market for recycled materials can be volatile, he said, and the legislation would help close supply gaps and build a national supply chain in Michigan.
“I think there are a lot of synergies you can create just by having your endpoint for these materials close to where they are originally used or even manufactured. So we want to help fill those gaps,” Aliamo said.
Bills have been drafted to update existing regulations; The multi-year effort was supported by state regulators, legislators and a diverse group of stakeholders including local governments, environmental groups, recycling advocates and trade groups representing manufacturers, waste haulers, landfill owners, etc.
Tripling Michigan’s recycling rate is among the goals of the state’s next climate plan that Governor Gretchen Whitmer has asked state officials to write, setting goals to collectively make Michigan’s economy carbon neutral. by 2050. Recycling is among the ways society can strive to reduce carbon emissions, say climate scientists.
The overall environmental benefits of the proposed update to the solid waste law come from actively promoting the reuse of disposed items rather than starting with virgin materials, said Liz Browne, director of the waste management division. materials for the State Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
“If we are successful in generating the materials in Michigan and having the markets for them in Michigan, we will significantly reduce our transportation impacts. If we manage our organics in something other than the landfill space, we will greatly minimize the generation of gases and the impacts of our landfills. So, yes, we see a lot of benefits to this package, both on the recycling side but also just in terms of managing, in particular, materials in landfills,” she said.
Emmet County is leading by example statewide, said Browne, operating a self-employed business recycling program selling reusable materials across Michigan and the Midwest and operating its own waste transfer station as a regional hub for surrounding areas.
Up-North program leaders said the community focused on recycling decades ago and built the program from there. The program even hired more full-time employees during the pandemic rather than continuing with mostly temporary workers.
“Recycling is free for residents. Garbage is not, so there is a natural incentive to recycle. So in and of itself, that really gave residents some sort of reason to recycle, to buy to recycle,” said Andi Tolzdorf, county recycling program manager.
“It’s just part of the culture here in northern Michigan. And I think that’s because it’s convenient, comprehensive, and cost-effective. It’s easy for everyone to do it. And companies do. The locals do. Everyone has access to it. And there’s really no reason not to. And I think that could be replicated across the state. People just need access right now; the biggest problem is that there is a lack of access to recycling across the state,” Tolzdorf said.
The pending legislation includes other elements – more than just recycling. Among the package is a bill it would increase landfill bonds to prevent costly environmental cleanups from becoming problems for taxpayers.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, said it would ensure that any necessary cleanups would take place even after the landfills were removed, and taxpayers would not foot the bill.
“It’s a matter of fairness to taxpayers. This is to ensure that the taxpayers of the State of Michigan are not overburdened, that the people who live around these landfills are not unnecessarily burdened,” he said.
The bill would also set standards for landfill gas control and changes to landfill closure schedules on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, local officials would have more control over the aesthetics and hours of operation of landfills, recycling and composting facilities.
State regulators have said they also want the comprehensive overhaul to pass this year because the changed rules would help them better enforce regulations and hold landfill operators accountable.
Browne cited the example of Arbor Hills Landfill on the Washtenaw and Oakland county border as the “poster child” for landfill issues. Last year, regulators reached a $2.3 million settlement with the landfill operator on charges of violating state and federal laws and endangering public health.
The negotiated bill package is the best possible update for waste management in Michigan with a compromise from all players, Browne said.
“I will say the things that might have kept the staff awake at night are addressed in the package,” she said.
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