Last month, staff from MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center joined industry leaders and recycling advocates for the annual Michigan Recycling Coalition Conference. MRC is a Lansing-based nonprofit that represents recycling and composting interests statewide through education and political advocacy. The annual event helps catalyze new partnerships, elevate conversations about the dynamic nature of materials management, and facilitate idea sharing.
This year’s conference included presentations on the importance of recycling in a “circular economy” and the role that big-name companies can play to increase popularity of manufacturing with recycled content. Educational break-out sessions were led by the Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes, and Environment (formerly DEQ), the Ecology Center, and the Recycling Partnership, among others. Attendees also got a chance to tour the Ann Arbor Compost Center, which receives U of M’s food waste, and processes upwards of 15,000 tons of organics annually.
A handful of student employees earned a scholarship to attend the conference to broaden their knowledge and expand their connections within the Michigan recycling community. Here are a few takeaways from their perspective...
Summarized by Kate Gislason & Lea Dyga, student staff on the Recycling Outreach Team
What is the circular economy?
Steph Kersten-Johnston from The Recycling Partnership talked about how the circular economy is not the same as sustainability:
- Our current economy is linear, a make-take-waste system. A circular economy seeks to turn the "waste" step into "collect," which allows materials to reenter the economy.
- Recycling is the first line of defense but should be the last resort – we need to prioritize reduction and reuse.
- Sustainability in other words is a “resource diet” where we reduce as much as possible before dealing with other forms of management and disposal.
What’s up with manufacturing with recycled materials?
A representative from Cascade Engineering, an original equipment manufacturer, talked about their work using post-consumer recycled plastic to create various car parts and shared some of the challenges.
- Original Equipment manufacturers (OEM’s) have restrictions on using recycled content in their products because of the concern about performance and impacts on branding. Since some companies have specific brands and colors, they are sometimes strict on color which means there is a very low tolerance for color shifting.
- Many products made from PCR are black because of the mixing of colors that occurs when the content gets recycled. With co-injection, a stronger material is made by combining a colored virgin material “shell” and the inside filled with PCR.
What does the nation think about recycling?
Skumatz Economic Research Associates presented key findings from a recent national survey:
- 72% of people would use organics programs if it was available.
- 13% of households do not recycle nationwide.
- About 20% say it costs more to recycle where they live
- There is a large controversy over the topic of banning or imposing a fee on plastic bags. In the national recycling survey, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement “There should be a bag fee/ban,” 53% agreed and 47% disagreed.
What is the state government focusing on when it comes to recycling education?
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) assessed general knowledge on recyclables and surveyed the public’s confidence regarding what should and should not go into the recycling bin. They discovered that the more items people put in the bin, the more confident they said they were about what they were putting in. This correlation is problematic because “wish-cycling” (putting questionable items in the recycling bin because you aren’t sure), and the contamination it often causes, can adversely impact diversion.
EGLE is preparing to roll out a new recycling educational campaign which will focus on the three messages:
1. Understanding the clear-cut rules
2. Understanding how contaminants impact recycling
3. Understanding how specific contaminants could impact a load
EGLE wants you to “Know before you throw." If you’re interested, sign up for their communication materials at join-the-squad.org.
Maddy Pugh, Office Assistant
Major: Environmental Studies and Sustainability
Having a sustainability approach is like going on a resource diet. It doesn’t solve the problem -- it slows down the rate at which it is problematic. Kersten Steph-Johnston said this at the MRC conference this year and it had the most impact on what I took away. Hearing that companies are pledging all their packaging materials to be recyclable or reusable by 2025 just angers me. It’s not going to solve problems, but only slow down the rate at which plastic is problematic. AMCOR spoke at the conference and mentioned that of the 78 billion tons of plastic recycled annually, only 2% of it is reused. Having packaging materials be recyclable is great, but how does it guarantee an increase of reused materials? I’m sure they are hoping that it will decrease the number of aspirational recyclers (who throw items in recycling bins hoping they are recyclable), but there is still an issue with contamination to worry about. Overall, the easy solution would be better mass education. I learned that most companies and local recycling centers have had great success using social media to inform their community members about what their recycling centers accept. However, I still think we need a major reduction of plastic packaging. AMCOR doesn’t think the production of plastic is leaving the packaging business anytime soon, since it saves them $400 billion, but having more material be recyclable isn’t going to remove all the plastic infiltrating marine life, contaminating ground water, or littering landfills. And with their data, if only 2% makes its way to be a new product, that’s a lot leftover being sold to other distributors, and a majority not being used at all. The easiest solution in my opinion is, when buying something encased in plastic, ask yourself, "Is killing the environment is worth paying for?"
Mitch Hankerd, Co-pilot
During my time at the MRC conference, I was mainly interested in learning more about compositing. The first day of the conference, I got to tour a commercial composting facility and learned about how product is converted from raw material into the final product that is ready to be sold. While I was there, I was thinking to myself that composting is a no brainer! Why don’t more farmers use compost instead of fertilizer/manure? During the second day of the conference I learned that there really isn’t a whole lot of solid data providing evidence that compost is a better option than fertilizer/manure for large farming operations. Most of the evidence is anecdotal, which is why I believe some of the farmers are reluctant to make the switch. Also, compost is a more expensive option than manure, so the farmers need to be persuaded that spending more money on compost will be of financial benefit in the long run. There’s also another side to composting that complicates things. Currently, a lot of the composting sites in Michigan haven’t been inspected in a while and the consequence of that is poor regulation. When something is hard to regulate, inconsistency in the final product can be of concern to consumers. Right now, the State of Michigan is really trying to inspect as many composting operations as possible to help regulate it. Once this is accomplished, I believe there will be more trust in the final product, and from there we can start to compile some good data on the benefits of compost for crop yield, which will start convincing farmers to make the switch, and make farming more sustainable.
Riley Davidson, Student Driver
Major: Environmental Studies & Sustainability
I attended the MRC conference on its second day, which was highlighted by various presentations by MRC members, international sustainability/recycling experts, and businesses in attendance. I spent the majority of my day sitting in on lectures revolving around the economic theory and application of the circular economy concerning recycling. The keynote speaker, Steph Kersten-Johnston, introduced how recycling can (and should) play a more significant role in this new(ish) approach to sustainability. Additionally, I attended Dennis Kittle’s in-depth discussion about current trends in the “Plastic” economy and the reality for businesses per corporate promises to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This promise, also made by corporations like Coca-Cola, Cisco, and Ikea, establishes goals to reach specific recycling standards by 2025. Together, these two talks helped instill in me real confidence about the future of recycling and sustainable efforts in the state of Michigan, and worldwide. The bare bones of a circular economy lean heavily on a nested system in which materials and recyclable commodities are used, reused, and repurposed into new/other materials. Essentially, this model shucks the linear system that we currently subscribe, which creates and reinforces waste on a monumental scale.
Emily Rice, Recycling Outreach Team
Major: Environmental Studies and Sustainability
I attended the second day of the Michigan Recycling Coalition Conference. It consisted of various workshops targeted towards educating and informing attendees about different methods of recycling, composting, legislation as well as other important topics in the recycling community. While attending I went to workshops including “Compost Heats Up,” “Taking Back the Takeback,” “The Growing Importance of Social Equity to Recycling & Sustainability Programs,” and the regional meeting for the Bay area. Some of the most interesting things I learned from the workshops were in the “Compost Heats Up” workshop and “Taking Back the Takeback.” In the first workshop we talked about the laws and regulations around large scale compost operations. I found it interesting how the regulations around composting are so generalized and completely based off size of operations. I also learned that there is a lack of education and enforcement around composting. Many composters don’t fully understand the laws or how to compost correctly, which can lead to more environmental issues especially with the lack of regulation at a state level. Over 75% of composting facilities don’t have record of their operation even though they’re required by law, and out of the 31 sites audited in 2018, only 6 complied with the law. When discussing alternatives to throwing used products out, composting often comes up as an option, which is great, but when it is not done correctly it can be more harmful then beneficial in the long run. In the “Taking Back the Takeback” workshop we discussed e-waste and how it is currently being recycled. I learned that, similar to the bottle bill, electronics producers are required by law to take back and recycle some of their products or reimburse other facilities to recycle their products for them. These laws are a step in the right direct to holding companies responsible for the waste they produce, but there are still many issues with them. For example, companies are only required to take back products like laptops, computers, TVs, and printers but they are not required to take back accessories like DVD players, cords, or keyboards. I also learned that the amount of money reimbursed for recycling their products is dependent on the state. In Michigan they only pay about 13 cents per pound which is pretty low compared to other states. In better news, many recycling operations are looking at other options to make e-waste recycling more accessible by investing in permanent drop-off location and mail-back programs. Overall this conference was very educational and informative, and I took a lot of valuable information away that I hope to use in my future career.