By Alexander Smith
Listen Up Lansing Staff Reporter
If you’ve lived in Lansing long enough, you may remember the city’s old recycling trucks. Manned by two people, the trucks had seven bins on the side. Residents would leave their lime-green recycling bins on the curb, and one of the workers would hand-separate each type of recyclable into the truck bins. When full, the assembly would rise and dump the contents into holding chambers inside the truck.
Curbside separation was how the city sorted recyclables until 2010, when single-stream recycling was introduced. The lime-green bins were still used, but in 2012 the city tested out 96-gallon carts in select neighborhoods. The response was good, and in late 2013, the now-ubiquitous green recycling carts were rolled out citywide.
“Annual tonnage has risen up substantially with single-stream and more than doubled once we distributed the carts,” said City of Lansing Environmental Specialist Lori Welch. “What we anticipated and what became true is that if you give people a cart big enough, they’ll keep recycling.”
Small bins hindered residents because they would fill up quickly. With a 96-gallon cart, most people don’t have to worry about a lack of room for their recyclables. Single-stream recycling is also less of a headache for both the residents and the city.
When he lived in Lansing, Richard Fleming III always took his recycling to the MSU Recycling Center because he lived in a condo. He now lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where single-stream recycling is also done.
“I think a lot of places do [single-stream] because people wouldn’t want to separate it themselves,” said Fleming. “I think the more work required of an individual, the less people will do it. Here they just pick it up, you don’t have to separate it out.”
Turns out the added simplicity is a big reason behind Lansing’s increased annual tonnage and the main reason why more residents are recycling. The city has an easier time too.
“It’s doing well from the residents’ perspective because it’s easy, they don’t have to worry about sorting anything, they can just put it in one container and wheel it out,” said Welch. “From our perspective it’s better because it’s fully automated. Our drivers don’t have to get out and separate everything. The automated arm lifts it up into the truck and they’re off to their next stop.”
A fully automated truck means a quicker, safer and lighter workload. Recycling pickup was also switched from weekly to biweekly, with truck routes adjusted accordingly. Single-stream collection is much more efficient, but it still introduces one major problem.
“One of our biggest challenges is contamination of the recyclable materials,” said Superintendent of Operations Victor Rose. “Nationally, there’s been a spike, and it’s pretty much all from single-stream recycling because a lot of folks think everything is recyclable, they don’t take the time to make sure it is or isn’t. We are at the point where our vendors want to penalize us for excessive contamination.”
The transfer station for the city’s recyclables is across the street from Rose’s office at Lansing Operations and Maintenance. The trucks dump their load and a front end loader scoops the material into a compactor, which loads directly into a trailer. The compacted recycling is taken to ReCommunity Recycling in Ann Arbor, Michigan where it is separated out and sold to vendors. Facilities like ReCommunity Recycling are cracking down on the contamination rates, but Lansing hasn’t been penalized yet.
“We have never had a load rejected from our facility,” said Welch. “We know they’re watching them very closely, so we have to be careful.”
Too much contamination means load rejection and a hefty fine. Vendors reject or pay much less for contaminated loads, so recycling centers pass the cost down to cities who can’t keep the contamination rate in check. What happens to that rejected load?
“It goes straight to the landfill, the entire load, and all it takes are one or two carts out of 500 to contaminate an entire load,” said Rose. “When we find violations like baby diapers, needles, tires, stuff like that, we notify the resident right away with a violation and a threat to remove their cart. We have to take a hard line on contamination because it’s costly to us if a load gets rejected.”
Some contaminants are no-brainers, such as baby diapers and needles, but others are well-intentioned. You would think all plastics would be taken, but Type 3, Polyvinyl Chloride, is not accepted by the city. Dr. Susan Selke, Director of Michigan State University’s School of Packaging, said exclusions such as PVC are because they may not be economically viable to recycle.
“The biggest factor is what the next step in the chain is able and willing to take. In East Lansing the place that recyclables go to takes all plastic types,” said Selke. “It may not only depend on the kinds of plastics, but the forms of plastics. MSU does not take expanded polystyrene, the thing everyone incorrectly calls styrofoam. If no one wants to buy it, then there’s no other option than to dispose of it.”
Rose and Welch both said the most important way to curb contamination is education. The Capital Area Recycling and Trash Greensheet takes care of most of that by working with the best plastic sheet suppliers, listing collection times, recycling events, and dedicating a whole page to what can be put into recycling carts. Still, only a few carts have been taken away. Most people are happy to recycle responsibly.
“If we can recycle, we should,” said Fleming. “Since I’ve been recycling, I’ve had less garbage than recycling, so that makes me feel better about the amount of waste I produce.”