As the roughly 100,000 residents of Flint, Mich. try to avoid drinking lead-tainted tap water, donations of millions of plastic bottles are flowing into the city. This has brought some relief, but also introduced a new problem: what to do with all the bottles?
The economically challenged city was taken over by the state some years ago. And officials switched water supply systems in a cost-saving move. Yet in the switch, they neglected to add chemicals that would keep lead pipes from leaching into the water. In October, residents were told not to drink, or even bathe, in the water after testing showed a potential link between high lead levels in the liquid and in the blood of local children.
Since then, families and businesses have struggled to meet water needs by a steady stream of trucked-in cases of water bottles. Hundreds of charities, and celebrities, are sending millions of bottles of water to the city. The state of Michigan alone reportedly delivered more than 176,000 cases of bottled water in January.
As the needs are met, however, the empties began to stack up. This has put recycling at the forefront in a city that had struggled to gain participation since starting its residential recycling program less than three years ago.
Republic Services has the current city contract for solid waste and recycling. Gary Hicks, the local manager of municipal services, says Flint has been a hard sell, growing from virtually no recycling at all in 2013 to about 12 percent participation near the end of 2015.
Most residents don’t even have recycle bins. Hicks’ office had been marketing the twice-weekly recycling pick-up to residents, but just didn’t have the resources or the inventory to hand out a bin to the roughly 40,000 homes, Hicks says. The bins were available on a walk-in basis to six stations around the city – but it had been slow going.
With the uptick in bottles now streaming in, Hicks says there was an immediate realization that the city’s recycling program could get overwhelmed or that residents would just end up throwing millions of bottles into the trash headed to the landfill.
“We were right away thinking, 'Uh oh, there’s going to be a whole lot of empty plastic bottles hitting the street, we better get prepared,'” he says.
Once the bottle pallets began arriving in the city, local businesses such as Republic and Young’s Environmental set up dumpster pick-up sites for people to haul in their empties. Stephanie Young, operation’s manager at the latter firm, says the first dumpster load her truck hauled away to a local recycling center contained more than 27,000 empty bottles. “We’ve got four more dumpsters about three quarters of the way full already,” she says.
Miraculously, Hicks says the crisis has pushed residents to sign up for his company’s recycling pick-ups in droves. He says Republic is getting about 125 to 150 calls per day from residents asking to sign up. “We also were on hand at a recent water bottle drop-off event with groups such as Michigan State University students on Feb. 5, and we probably signed up another 400 residents for new bins,” he says. “What’s great is that it was in a section of the city that had had barely any participation before.”
His firm is taking the recovered bottles along with the rest of the single-streamed recyclables to a materials recovery facility in New Boston, Michigan, on the other side of the state. He says he hopes that the water crisis is resolved soon, but he’s glad that the residents made a positive out of their current troubles.
“If we can stay out in front of this, and get people in the habit, we hope to boost up participation to more than 40 percent,” Hicks says. “We’d love to get this to be a fully sustainable program.”