Two approaches to recycling in northwest Michigan

Northern Michigan communities are working hard to improve recycling rates.

Two northern Michigan recycling sites, one operated by a private sector company and the other by a county, hosted tours by county commissioners and other staff in 2013. Guests are representatives to the Michigan Northern Counties Association (MNCA), a group of commissioners who meet regularly to learn about and discuss issues of importance to counties. As an educator for Michigan State University Extension, I assist the MNCA with arrangements for educational programs.

American Waste, located in Traverse City, Mich., and the Emmet County Recycling Center, near Harbor Springs, Mich., were the two host sites. Both are successful recycling efforts, returning large volumes of waste to be processed and reused. There are significant differences, though.

American Waste uses a combination of a single-stream process, and what most in the industry call a “dirty MRF.” MRF is an acronym for several names, such as “materials recovery facility” or “materials recycling facility.” The dirty MRF sorts recyclables from the normal waste stream, while single-stream asks users to put all recyclables together in a separate container from their regular waste container.

Emmet County focuses on a dual-stream approach. In a dual-stream system, recyclables are not only sorted from other trash, but the recyclables are sorted into two groups, paper and containers, such as plastic, metal, etc. Each has advantages. Dirty MRF and single-stream are easier for residents, since they do less sorting, and there may be cost-saving on collection. Dual-stream results in a cleaner end product, which has a higher value to purchasers and results in more revenue to cover costs.

Both have ways to handle hazardous products, like tires, batteries, motor oil and paints. Emmet County provides a central drop-off site for these items, open six days a week, with fees for some items. American Waste utilizes a partnership with Grand Traverse County and a website called the “Take it Back” recycling program to connect individuals with local businesses that recycle those products, with a drop-off program offered two times per year, also with fees for some items.

Both rely on generated revenue to run the programs with all costs covered by users through fees including trash pickup and drop-off fees. Emmet County uses no general fund dollars to support the program. Emmet County’s program is entirely county-owned and operated with strong public-private partnerships and serves residents in four counties, while American Waste is a privately-owned firm serving the recycling needs of 5 counties from the Traverse City location.

Rapid and frequent changes in recycled commodity prices require both to utilize an aggressive management effort to maximize revenue to cover the costs of providing the recycling service. While it appears the recycling business is easier to break even than in the past due to more consumer interest, larger volumes, higher prices for commodities, and a more consistent supply and demand chain for the products, it remains a complex and challenging venture.

Recycling creates jobs. Emmet County’s recycling guide points out that “burying 10,000 tons of garbage in a landfill creates 1 job”, while “recycling 10,000 tons of materials creates 10 jobs.” American Waste pointed out that it costs $100 million to bury $400 million worth of resources that should be recycled.

Both have excellent websites with much more information about their recycling efforts at American Waste (hover your mouse over the recycling tab) and Emmet County Recycling.

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