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Recycling Grand Rapids - changes and challenges

How does Grand Rapids adapt to changes to the recycling processes and recycling goals for the next decade?
Recycling and Education Center

Recycling and Education Center /Department of Public Works

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For residents of Grand Rapids, it’s become commonplace; the sight of the yellow and blue single stream recycling bins lining the city streets. It’s a testament to just how far recycling has become accepted. Something that was inconceivable 25 years ago when Kent County began processing recycled materials.  

Implemented in 2010, single stream recycling is a fairly recent innovation, but one that makes recycling infinitely easier for residents. The Recycle Kent website explains the convenience of single stream recycling: “This significant change enables you (the recycler) to mix all your clean plastic jugs, metal cans, glass bottles and paper products together in one container. No more sorting!”

So, after the materials are placed in the bin and the lid is closed, where do the materials go and who does the sorting? The recyclables are brought to the Kent County Recycling Center where according to the “What Happens to Recyclables” portion of the website they are “baled and sent to the next processor where they may be cleaned, shredded or melted (depending on the material) to become new products.”

The Kent County Recycling Center opened in 2010 at 977 Wealthy St. SW. However, in 2017, the demands of recycling in Kent County have increased exponentially. As recycling continues to become more and more accepted as a common municipal practice and community need, so too does the need for infrastructure and technology to meet that increased demand.

Changes in the packaging industry and purchasing habits directly affect the recycling industry. Kristen Weiland, Communications & Marketing Manager for the Department of Public Works elaborated on this ever changing landscape;

“The packaging story is integral to the recycling story. As consumers change their purchasing habits and purchase goods online, in bulk and in packages that increase the shelf-life of food items (like cartons), it directly impacts the recycling industry.

“Consider the water bottle. In the past several years, the plastic in water bottles has gotten so thin that it almost crumples in your hand as you try to break the seal on the cap. That’s great because it takes a lot less natural resources to make the bottle. It changes everything for the recycling processors, though, because we still handle the same number of bottles but it takes many more to make the same number of bales that we used to make,” she explained.

The changes have forced the Recycling Center to adapt to changes on the fly. The increase in online shopping the last decade has directly resulted in an exponential increase of the cardboard packaging from online purchases. An increase the Recycling Center didn’t necessarily anticipate.  

“Because there is so much online shopping that results in increased cardboard being placed in curbside recycling bins (instead of at the retail location), we are considering the addition of equipment specifically to help us sort that commodity,” Weiland said. 

When it comes to recycling, Michiganders are more likely to recycle glass than other materials. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Michigan’s Recycling Plan of Action; “It’s about more than taking the bottles and cans back to the store. Michiganders are great at recycling our returnables, returning more than 90 percent of our bottles and cans. But returnables only make up two percent of all waste.

“On every other reusable product – glass, paper, plastics, metals, organics – Michigan has fallen behind. Our residential recycling rate is only 14.5 percent, lower than every other Great Lakes state, and one of the lowest in the country.”

Michigan consumers are in the habit of recycling glass due in large part to the ten cent return deposit on bottles and cans that was implemented in 1976 in a statewide effort to reduce littering and protect the Great Lakes. Moreover, Michigan ranks lower than the other Great Lakes states in recycling overall.

A VISION FOR THE FUTURE: Meeting Challenges and Changes

At this point in time, with the nearly unanimous consensus among climate scientists and the world’s foremost authorities on climate change make the need for local citizen action impossible to ignore. Organizations such as the Solutions Project and their vision of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 has specific, goal oriented outlines that are making such ideas a reality. 

In addition, a 2016 study by the Harvard Business Review found that solar energy jobs could easily absorb coal industry layoffs over the next fifteen years and offer full time careers in the photovoltaic industry. So how do these global initiatives relate to the future of recycling in Grand Rapids?

In May of 2016, the Department of Public Works issued a new vision statement – to reduce landfill waste 20 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 3030. This vision statement is modeled after the top ranked progressive cities in America.

According to the website; “West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and Grand Valley State University worked with Michigan recyclers and waste companies to analyze the composition of municipal solid waste currently land filled and incinerated in West Michigan and Michigan, and the economic value of this material. The report can be viewed here.

Currently it is estimated that Grand Rapids recycles about 15 percent of its potentially recycled materials. 

What can residents do better to reach the goal of 20 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030?

Weiland said it comes down to educating educate people on what is recyclable and to strive for recycling consistency as well as increasing community awareness about sustainable practices such as composting. Additionally, The Kent County Recycling Center is planning to roll out a new marketing campaign in June aptly titled “Recycle More/Recycle Right” in the hopes to raise public awareness in the community about the importance of recycling.

Education is the key to any paradigm shift and there is no better way to accomplish a shift in cultural practices than to start with youth. The facility offers educational tours and field trips throughout the school year as well as outreach programs in the local schools. 

Weiland explained that the changes to packaging also bring up challenges on how to educate the public on new recycling best practices; “Another example is cartons, like milk cartons and juice boxes. Cartons have changed and in many ways improved the way we consume milk, soup, juice and many other items. The way that cartons are made, though, is so complex that they can’t be sorted into a simple category like paper or plastics. Cartons have forced the recycling industry to look differently at how we sort, how we market and how we educate consumers on what is and is not recyclable.”

Knowing what can’t be recycled is just as important as what can be.  A good place to start is by familiarizing oneself with the Recycling Guide on top of the recycling bins. Guides are also available in English and Spanish here. Hazardous Materials and electronics can be brought to places that specialize in recycling those materials, such as Comprenew. A list of organizations that offer electronics recycling is available here. Keep in mind, that some of these places may charge a small fee to recycle some items such as old television sets.  

Pizza boxes are a problem as some people think that the cardboard is recyclable, however the grease and food remnants that can stick to the box, make it unusable. 

Paying attention to what goes in the recycle bin can make the process more efficient down the line. So, remember next time you’re about to toss that used Pizza box in the bin; there are actual people who are sorting through these materials. It’s more than just throwing something in a bin and feel that you’ve done your part. 

“Recycling seems simple but it’s a really complex and dynamic industry,” Weiland said.

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