Recycling lags despite state's green push

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Capital News Service
LANSING- Even as the state strives to transition to a “green economy,” recycling doesn’t appear high on residents’ to-do lists, new data suggests.
Recycling rates in the state have fallen by 28 percent in the last 10 years — dropping from .36 tons per resident in 1998 to .26 last year, according to a report by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.
In contrast, Michigan’s 72 percent landfill rate is second only to Ohio among Great Lakes states.
William Rustem, president of the firm, said a renewed commitment to recycling initiatives could create between 6,000 to 12,000 jobs that “provide for new economic growth.”
Public Sector Consultants researches issues involving health, education, environment, economics and technology.
Boosting Michigan’s 20 percent recycling rate to the 30 percent combined average of Great Lakes states could generate as much as much as $300 million in income and $22 million in state taxes, according to the report.
Recycling businesses are more likely to create jobs than landfill operations, said Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.
For every 10,000 tons of waste handled, one job is created at a landfill while nine jobs are formed in the recycling industry, she said.
“If we want to see real progress, we have to fund market development and attract businesses that can use recycled materials,” O’Brien said. “We’re in a stagnant state. We don’t have a culture of recycling yet.”
Although some new jobs would require advanced training in waste management sciences at universities, Rustem said, other tasks such as collecting items, could be filled by displaced workers without formal education.
Recycling will pick up only if communities make a firm commitment to such programs and understand its economic advantages, Rustem said.
“The benefits would outweigh the costs. There isn’t any doubt,” Rustem said. “At the moment, it’s not a high priority.”
In 2006, Michigan had about 2,240 “recycling and reuse industry” businesses with a payroll of $2.06 billion that supported 61,700 employees, although Rustem said those numbers probably have dropped since then.
Rustem cited products such as thermal coats and carpeting as some of the useful items created from recycled material.
Steve Sliver, chief of the storage tank and solid waste section of the Department of Environmental Quality, said a statewide system measuring municipal solid waste is necessary to better monitor recycling performance.
According to the report, the state doesn’t record information such as handling, collection, transport and marketing of recyclable materials.
Compiling a recycling database would give the state the ability to see where adjustments need to be made, Sliver said.
“Businesses want to know how much of that material is out there, but we can’t give them more than an estimate,” Sliver said. “Many aspects of the waste stream aren’t measured. It puts us at a disadvantage for attracting recycling businesses.”
Items such as yard waste also can be broken down and sold to offset costs while “solid wastes can’t do that for us,” Sliver said.
Some cities cut their recycling programs because operating costs outweigh revenues, said Robert Ratz, director of the Wayne County Department of Environment’s Land Resource Management Division.
Ratz said it’s up to municipalities in his county to decide if they want recycling services or not.
Although statewide recycling rates are down, Ratz emphasized that recycling has been consistent in Wayne.
“In most cases, people don’t generate enough money to run the program,” Ratz said. “They have to decide if it’s a priority for them or not. A lot of it is cost avoidance.”
Meanwhile, the Tuscola County Recycling Center in Caro reports that between 30 and 50 people drop off paper, cardboard and plastic bottles each day, but yearly rates have fluctuated.
The drop-off facility is county-owned and operated.
The coalition’s O’Brien said recycling rates will improve if more people could use curbside recycling.
The Public Sector Consultants’ study found that only 37 percent of residents have access to curbside service.
“Not everyone has the same kind of access to recycling programs. It has to be easy and convenient for people,” O’Brien said. “I think there is a diehard contingent of people who believe in it, but there are still municipalities that aren’t well served.”
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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