Behind the changing face of recycling in metro Detroit

Why consumer behavior must change and the future is local

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By Claire Charlton

Joyce Wiswell calls herself a “fanatical recycler.” She picks through her kitchen garbage to rescue containers her husband has casually tossed and meticulously cleans them for the single stream recycling bin she and her Royal Oak neighbors received as one of the 12 member communities serviced by recycling authority SOCRRA. 

“Drives me nuts to see [recyclable] containers in the trash!” she says. 

It’s a good thing for Wiswell that she doesn’t live in Harper Woods, where recycling was discontinued on June 30. Or Westland, where residents are encouraged to separate their recyclables from their trash before both are hauled straight to the landfill. 

Across metro Detroit, recycling, that everyday environmentally-friendly practice we all know and love, is changing. Some cities are scaling back, others are ramping up, and everyone is paying more to move cardboard, paper, yogurt containers, milk jugs, and everything else that ends up in the recycling bin to the materials recovery facility, or MRF (rhymes with “Smurf”), where it’s processed and sold, eventually to become something new.

But the market for recyclable materials is at a nine-year low, according to SOCRRA, and some materials just aren’t as valuable as they once were. Planet Detroit sifted through to learn what effect this market depression is likely to have on recycling in your own community.

Southeast Asia says 'enough' to our stuff 

It’s easy to pop a single-use water bottle in the bin and expect that it will be recycled locally. But that's rarely what happens, which is part of the problem, says Michael Csapo, general manager at the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County (RRRASOC), which services Farmington, Farmington Hills, Milford, Milford Township, Novi, South Lyon, Southfield, Walled Lake, and Wixom.

“The largest downstream recipient of recycled material has refused, or are putting such high demands on the material quality that it makes it impractical to send to them,” Csapo says. 

He’s talking about China and southeast Asian countries that for many years acted "like a sponge" for the recycling materials market. China was once the recipient of 45 percent of the world’s recyclable plastic--106 million metric tons since it started reporting data, according to NPR. In 2018, that all changed as China began banning the import of solid waste.

Around the same time, “Plastic China,” a documentary by Jiu-Liang Wang that outlines the lives of families who sort through mountains of imported trash to harvest and process usable raw material, revealed the human toll and impact on China’s environment of low-cost recycling.

“There are some pretty appalling things you witness when you watch that documentary,” says Csapo. “Many facilities, including ours, did a good job of shipping quality product, but there were some bad actors with a higher proportion of contamination than there should be.”

Today, southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand still accept recyclables, but at a much smaller volume. And what they do accept must be clean and pristine. In May, the Phillippines returned 69 shipping containers of trash to Canada after seven years. The containers were supposed to hold recyclable plastic, but instead held trash.

For this reason, expect to see a big educational push for cleaner recycling, and expect to put more effort into your own daily recycling practices. Westland’s mayor admits part of the problem in his city was “dirty” items making their way into recycling bins, and the city will be using their recycling break to re-educate residents.

“Food contamination can spoil an entire load,” says Wild. “We all understand the greasy pizza box, but we want people to rinse bottles and cans. Folks at the MRF tell us there are two types of recyclers. Those who are good about it and others who don’t give a darn.”

Communities and recycling authorities are joined by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s first statewide campaign to educate consumers on recycling best practices. 

With a “Know It Before You Throw It” slogan and some racoon ambassadors, the campaign’s goal is to double Michigan’s recycling rate to 30 percent by 2025, and to educate people about what cannot be recycled (plastic bags!) and provide tips on preparing what can be recycled (plastic milk containers, glass bottles, cans) by washing and drying them to avoid contamination.

When it takes more green to be green

In April, Harper Woods negotiated with solid waste service GFL Environmental for a one-year contract extension, but drew the line at the “substantial, nearly 50 percent” cost increase for recycling services, according to Harper Woods city manager Joe Rheker. 

“Locally, I can’t put a 50 percent increase on the backs of the taxpayers in Harper Woods when we have other things to consider including police and fire and streets,” he says. By discontinuing recycling, Harper Woods will save $154,381 annually, according to Rheker.

While some Harper Woods residents have expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, Rheker says they’re more likely to understand when dollars and cents become part of the conversation. He does not discount an eventual return to curbside recycling, when and if the market picks up. 

“When it takes more green to be green, it just doesn’t make sense,” he says.

Westland’s story is similar. The city’s own public works department picks up trash and recycling and delivers it to ReCommunity, a MRF in New Boston run by Republic Services. When the price to process recycling went from $18 per ton to $80 per ton, Westland opted to send recyclables from its 25,000 homes to the landfill instead, according to Westland Mayor Bill Wild. 

As Westland works to negotiate a more affordable deal, it encourages residents to continue their routines of separating recycling from trash. Wild says residents can always bring recyclables to the drop-off site designed for multifamily housing at Westland’s DPW yard, where they will be recycled, he says.

“We have seen an uptick at the drop-off, but we are still encouraging separation [from trash] so the new contract should be seamless,” says Wild.

Are these communities the first to change their practices, or just outliers? Time will tell, says Joseph Munem, director of government affairs & public relations at GFL Environmental USA, Inc., in Southfield.

“Harper Woods is perhaps the first that I’m aware of that has dropped recycling from their services,” he says. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe they will be the last. What it comes down to is that recycling is popular, but market studies that show everyone wants to recycle until it requires extra work or costs more.”

Detroit forges ahead with recycling expansion

On the flip side, the City of Detroit just announced a significant expansion to its recycling program, based on input from 6,800 residents, according to a news release. Designed to boost the 20 percent recycling participation rate for single-family homes, the city’s goal is to get additional 16,000 single-family homes, 1,500 multi-family and commercial buildings, and 150 public spaces like parks, basketball courts, and bus stops recycling. Within that goal is education for 30,000 households on what, where, how, and why to recycle.

City funding and grants of $1 million will pay for the expansion, which is part of the city's wider Sustainable Action Agenda. The overall goal is to have 35 percent of the city recycling within two to five years, says Joel Howrani Heeres, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability. He says despite a depressed recycling market, now is the right time to increase the city’s sustainability practices.

“We can’t just say, 'let’s stop and wait'. With the way the global markets are changing, the exogenous factors are always changing, and the important thing is being flexible and encouraging behavioral change,” says Howrani Heeres. 

In other words, a sustainable city is one that takes a long-term view. 

“Think about the economy of the next 50 years. It is driven by sustainability and we’re looking at, increasingly, resource scarcity, and the climate crisis that is upon us,” he says. “We need to develop technologies and encourage people to play an active part in that next economy that is coming. It’s inevitable that it is coming, and we need to be ahead of it.”

The future of recycling is… complicated, and likely more local

When every single-use packaging item bears some version of the arrow-chasing-arrow logo that has become synonymous with recycling, it’s easy to believe that everything can be recycled. The truth is recycling is a commodity market and currently, there is little demand for items that were once very easy to sell.

“Many of the materials that are part of our modern consumer economy are not necessarily recyclable,” says RRRASOC’s Michael Csapo. Single-use plastic packaging, cling wrap, and mixed paper goods--worth a fraction of what newsprint is worth--flood the consumer market, all marked with some form of the arrow logo, and this is confusing to consumers, Csapo says. 

“There are a lot of plastic products out there that folks portray as recyclable, and from a technological standpoint you can recycle darn near anything, but can you capture it in enough quantity to make sense and is there a downstream market for it?” he says, adding that misleading labeling is part of the “greenwashing” of consumer goods.

What has little to no recycling value simply costs more to move through the system, and that cost must either be absorbed or passed on to communities that recycle--or both.

“The impact is we have had lower prices for materials we are recycling, but will still recycle all we say we are going to recycle, says Jeff McKeen, general manager for SOCRRA. “We have increased our prices to member communities to cover that.” On July 1, SOCRRA member communities saw a 3 percent cost increase for all services, of which recycling is about 20 percent. No community has indicated the desire to withdraw from services, McKeen says.

To keep recycling affordable for communities, stakeholders want to see more materials recycled locally, or at least domestically. “[The market change] raises the onus on us to think about sourcing locally and materials reuse for more goods. This is something we are actively doing,” says Howrani Heeres. 

“I believe in American ingenuity,” says GFL’s Joe Munem. “Someone will figure out how to build a better mousetrap and make a buck on it. I believe it will happen here.”

Consumers should recognize their power in demanding more sustainable practices and by purchasing goods packaged in a way that is “more sensitive to the global environment,” says Csapo. “We need there to be a circular economy so when something is manufactured, it ends up back in the loop at some point, not in the landfill.”

In the meantime, individuals will increase the likelihood that their recyclables get processed by re-educating themselves on what is (and what is not) accepted by their MRF, and taking the effort to wash and dry their bottles, cans, and jugs. 

“It would help to make incoming recyclables as clean as possible,” says SOCRRA’s Jeff McKeen. “A big issue is plastic bags. If we could not have plastic bags, that’s the No. 1 one thing we could ask. It’s amazing how many we get.”