Top-Down Initiatives Motivate Michigans Recycling Stakeholders

Top-Down Initiatives Motivate Michigans Recycling Stakeholders

I’ve always been fond of Michigan. From the Motor City to Marquette, from Traverse City to Kalamazoo, and from Grand Rapids to Sault Ste. Marie, I like it all.  So when I was invited to do some training at the Michigan Recycling Coalition’s annual conference this May, I couldn’t resist.

Fueling my decision was a strong curiosity about Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent public confirmation of recycling’s importance in his state’s economy. The experience did not disappoint. In fact, I was largely ill-prepared for the profound effect Gov. Snyder has had on Michigan’s recycling community. The energy and enthusiasm at all levels was infectious.

It is important to put this new initiative in perspective, however. Michigan has not exactly been the poster child for recycling performance for some time. In fact, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state has one of the lowest participation rates in the nation and in the Great Lakes Region; only Indiana ranks lower when it comes to performance.

Perhaps a tendency to rest their laurels on what was one of the first legislated and historically the most successfully performing beverage container bills,  gave Michigan a false sense of overall achievement. The Michigan Beverage Container Act applies to beverage containers for beer, soft drinks, carbonated and mineral water, wine coolers (or canned cocktails), all of which are smaller than one gallon, made of metal, glass, paper, plastic or a combination of those materials.  

Michigan’s container deposit program is highly visible. The result of the deposit system is the recovery of clean and highly recyclable material. It requires a fair amount of direct personal interaction to handle the containers from purchase through redemption at local retail stores. It would be easy for folks to feel like they were doing their fair share to divert materials from disposal. However, the bill was enacted not with recycling but with litter prevention in mind. It was never intended to be the comprehensive answer to material recovery.

Because both purchased and redeemed containers must be tracked and reported, Michigan has a documentable redemption rate of approximately 95 percent of the applicable containers. These are impressive statistics by anybody’s standards. Unfortunately, it is probable that those very results are what gave Michigan a false sense of overall achievement for so long.

How can recovering 95 percent of something lead to a substandard recycling program? The problem is the deposit containers only represent about 2 percent of Michigan’s total municipal waste stream. Meanwhile, when it comes to the rest of the municipal waste, Michigan’s municipalities are still carting off somewhere between 78 to 84 percent for disposal.

Right now you may be asking, what is there to learn from this state on the bottom rungs? That answer is simple. Michigan has bravely and openly shared with us valuable lessons in how recycling programs can unwittingly fail, even under the best of intentions. It conducted an extensive examination, and then faced the truth. These issues include the failure to institute a consistent and reliable data management network; failure to dedicate the necessary resources to  grow the infrastructure; inattention to market development; misdirection of goals in the county planning process; minimal public education and technical assistance; and failure to incentivize private investment.

Many states, if they are honest, will find themselves guilty of the same omissions. After all, the nation’s recovery of materials has been rather stagnant for years. One state isn’t causing things to stall at that magnitude. Is it possible, though, that one leader in one state could motivate the rest of his peers to follow suit?  I am sure there is more than just a little interest. If for no other reason, what elected official wouldn’t want the growing positive response this Republican governor appears to be getting from a diverse spectrum of constituents due to his recycling initiative?

We can’t give him credit for identifying the problem. A myriad of studies and reports were generated on the issue in the decade leading up to this point. However, kudos to Gov. Snyder for using his position and powers to openly decree that recycling means business and Michigan needs jobs. If he can deliver, Michigan has nowhere to go but up. But what exactly is this administration doing to move the masses in the right direction?

First, the governor brought together public and private interests to offer practical solutions to address the situation. He also empowered the state regulatory agency to establish specific metrics and goals and provided them with additional resources to launch the initiative. His budget includes at least a million dollars to jump start things. Compared to other high performing states that isn’t much, but it is more than Michigan has seen in some time. Governors can’t do much more than lay the groundwork.

Will mandates, municipal contracts, and the much-needed purchase of equipment and facility development become a reality? It’s up to the legislators and elected officials at the county and municipal levels of government to follow through. Political will (or the lack of it) can make or break any program.

If you are familiar with Michigan sports, you know that the state is split in its loyalties between a certain “green” team and a certain “blue” team. However, what I saw at the Michigan Recycling Coalition Conference was a unified front. Recyclers throughout the United States and Canada will be watching and hoping that the state has the conviction for this plan to succeed. After all, it showcases the benefits we have all been preaching for years.  Putting all differences aside, we join you in a collective cheer: “Go Michigan–Let’s start Recycling.”  

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