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Study in West Michigan looks to learn how much money we're throwing away

Jul 21, 2015

Michigan has a 15% residential recycling rate, compared to 30% in neighboring states
Credit flickr user Redwin Law / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

There’s a first-of-its-kind study happening in West Michigan that hopes to determine if we’re throwing away money each time we haul the trash to the curb.

Researchers are picking through landfills in Kent, Muskegon, and Ottawa counties, searching for recyclables that are getting tossed in the trash.

Kristen Wieland is with the Kent County Department of Public Works, and she tells us that the Sustainable Business Forum has found some “very excited interns” from local universities to do the dirty work of picking through the samples of trash.

Daniel Schoonmaker, director of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, explains that the search involves hauling in and sorting through samples of trash.

“We have a randomly selected sample of compactor trucks that come through each day,” he says, “and then we pull about a 300-pound sample of material … and then we sort it into a dozen different categories of commodities.”

Wieland tells us that they don’t expect to be surprised by the findings.

“We know that our recycling rate is really poor in the state, and we know that in Kent County we’re not doing everything that we can to really make the recyclables end up in the right place,” she says. “We know that there’s a lot that’s being wasted.”

Michigan has around a 15% residential recycling rate, about half that of other Great Lake states.

There are any number of factors that contribute to that, but Wieland tells us that one big piece of the puzzle is that Michigan’s low tipping fee, how much it costs companies to dump trash in landfills, is relatively low when compared to the rest of the country.

“It’s just more cost effective to throw it away than it is to recycle it,” Schoonmaker says.

Wieland looks to Grand Rapids for a unique example of how to handle trash and recycling. She explains that Grand Rapids utilizes a “pay as you throw” model, only requiring residents to pay for trash collection when they actually put out the trash.

She says the idea is to incentivize residents to recycle more frequently and more carefully so that they will have to put trash out for collection less often.

It’s not a perfect system, she admits, as it’s also appealing to some residents to put more items in the recycling bin that don’t belong there because they’re not paying for it, “but generally speaking it’s a really cool model.”

Schoonmaker tells us he doesn’t think the problem is in convincing people to recycle. “It seems like there’s definitely a significant interest,” he says. “[The solution is] providing that infrastructure for them to do it in a cost-effective manner.”

“I think other states have just sort of gone ahead of us as far as recycling goes, so we just need kind of a fire lit as far as getting recycling back in the forefront of people’s minds,” Wieland says. “So I’m hoping that just the discussion alone will encourage more people and just bring to light the importance of recycling in our economy.”

Schoonmaker expects that as this study continues, they will gather the kind of data needed to take the conversation to the next level.

-- Ryan Grimes, Stateside