Flint does have a recycling program, but not a lot of people use it

Jan 28, 2016

Donations of bottled water have been flooding into Flint.

Making sure people have safe drinking water is the top priority in Flint right now. But some people are wondering about one side effect of the water crisis: where all those empty bottles are ending up.

This construction skiff, set up outside Young's Environmental Services, functions as a recycling bin for empty water bottles.
Credit Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Khalid Iqbal helps run the Flint Muslim Food Pantry. He gives food and bottled water to anyone who needs it in Flint.

Last weekend, Iqbal went around door to door handing out water.

But he says he and many others were concerned about where the empty water bottles would end up. He says he asked residents what they planned to do with the empty bottles.

“And they have no clue, no answer,” he says. “And I’m afraid it’s going to end up in the dumpsters.”

Iqbal tapes signs on the cases of water he gives out. They say, “Please recycle empty plastic bottle. Do not throw in trash.”

He says his food pantry is taking empty bottles back to recycle if people bring them in.

Cases of water at the Flint Muslim Food Pantry
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Dispelling the rumors

There have been some rumors flying around – some people have been saying Flint doesn’t have a recycling program.

But that’s not true. Flint does have a curbside recycling program. If you live in Flint and you pay for garbage services, you’re already paying for recycling.

But the problem is – not everyone knows about it.

Gary Hicks is with Republic Services, the company that handles Flint’s waste and recycling.

“I guess I really can’t give you a definitive answer as to why it’s never taken off,” he says. “Keep in mind, we’re starting a program from the ground up.”

That’s because the curbside recycling program only got started a couple of years ago. Before that, he says, there was no curbside pickup in Flint at all.

“Now, two years later, I would say somewhere around 13-16% of the city is participating, so we are gaining ground,” he says.

But it’s not automatic – you do have to call the company to sign up for the recycling program and then they’ll send you a bin.

Hicks says if you sign up for recycling and have too many water bottles to fit in your bin, you can make your own extra bin.

“We do have recycle stickers, so if you’ve got a plastic tote, you can simply either write ‘recycle’ on it; you can put a recycle sticker on it,” he says. “As long as we know that it’s recycling and it’s placed near the recycle bin, we will collect it.”

Hicks says they sent out about 20,000 mailers last year to let people know about the program. 

You've got to spend money to get people to recycle

One consultant says public education is key in getting people to recycle – and in this case – just making sure people in Flint know there is a program.

Steve Montle is with Resource Recycling Systems, a group that works with local governments, schools and industries on their recycling programs. Montle says you have to spend money to get more people to recycle.

"Unfortunately, public education is usually the last item that is considered, but probably the most important for keeping a quality system going." — Steve Montle, Resource Recycling Systems

“Unfortunately, public education is usually the last item that is considered, but probably the most important for keeping a quality system going,” he says. “You know, it can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars a year to tens of thousands of dollars a year.”

Montle says Flint’s recycling rate is far lower than most developed programs in Michigan (he says typical well established programs have recycling rates of 40-50% or higher). But he says if more people start recycling, it shouldn’t be a problem to handle all those water bottles. 

“It’s not overwhelming,” Montle says. “It’s more of a challenge on the residential side, where residents have to get used to putting these bottles into their bins and make sure they have enough bins for the collection, but from the hauler side, I can’t imagine Republic Services is going to have any trouble handling or delivering these materials to an end market.”

In fact, he says adding all those bottles to the recycling system will make it more financially viable.

“The more material you have coming in, the more valuable your truckloads are and it just makes more financial sense, from the economy of scale.”

How to sign up

If you live in Flint and you want to sign up for curbside recycling, you can call 1-800-438-0966

In a statement, Republic Services said. "Flint residents who elect to participate in the City's recycling program will promptly receive recycling containers upon enrollment. We ask that residents have their name, address, and phone number ready when calling to enroll."

Steve Carmody contributed reporting to this story.