HARBOR SPRINGS, MI – It all started in 1990 with two recycling drop-off sites in the most northwesterly county at the very tip of the Lower Peninsula, funded by a small, two-year tax.
Today, Emmet County’s high-tech recycling program has grown into a million-dollar revenue source for the community of 33,000-some residents, selling thousands of tons of recyclables to companies across Michigan and the Great Lakes region to be made into new products. They even found a way to recycle plastic shopping bags.
Experts say the three-decades-old program up north serves as a model for what an 8-bill package pending in the state Legislature could do to help Michigan counties establish ways to recycle more, landfill less waste, and develop inroads to the growing circular economy for recyclables and compostable organics.
“They’ve demonstrated that public investment in this type of infrastructure pays off – pays off in valued public services, as well as 90-some percent of the material that they collect through their recycling programs is actually sold to Michigan companies,” said Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of nonprofit organization Michigan Recycling Coalition.
Inside the facility in Harbor Springs, a robotic arm quickly sweeps across a moving conveyer belt and plucks high-grade plastics, glass, and aluminum, dropping them into sorted bins. The stream of mixed containers flows around and around until the robot pulls out all the recyclable items at a rate of 90 picks per minute; another line of materials in a separate room is where workers pluck papers, boxes, and bags by hand from a moving conveyor belt.
The system is the culmination of years of investment into a program that serves a multi-county region and which officials say built a local culture of active recycling in homes, businesses, and public places.
Michigan’s statewide recycling rate lags much of the nation at 19 percent, and boosting participation would ultimately drop overall carbon emissions, stepping closer to the state’s newly established climate goals. Science shows greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to global warming and climate changes.
Rules for what can be recycled where in Michigan is a patchwork of whether communities or private businesses set up programs and what materials they choose to accept. Some places take only certain plastics, others only brown cardboards, and certain communities offer no access to recycling whatsoever.
The difference between recycling efforts in Emmet County and elsewhere across Michigan is a matter of longevity and investment in both recycling infrastructure and long-term relationships with businesses that re-use the materials. Latex paint, used mattresses, and fluorescent lightbulbs have even found new uses, officials said.
“The people at the time that were running Emmet County were very forward thinking in trying to incentivize recycling,” said Andi Tolzdorf, program director. “They wrote recycling into their solid waste management plan, so from the beginning, Emmet County had intentions of recycling.”
The facility in Harbor Springs serves as both a waste transfer station through which trash is sent to a contracted landfill, as well as a dual-stream recycling center. A county ordinance requires all household garbage to come through the facility, and all waste haulers pay the same rate to landfill trash.
“Recycling is free to residents. Garbage is not, so there is the natural incentive to recycle. So that in itself really gave residents kind of reason to recycle – buy in for recycling,” Tolzdorf said.
Statistics show that in 2020, the facility handled 13,378 tons of recyclables that were baled up and loaded into semi-trucks, then shipped and sold to a roster of businesses to make use the stuff. The materials go on to become laundry detergent jugs, plant trays, water bottles, cereal boxes, and even toilet paper, among other new products.
Most of the companies that buy Emmet County’s recycled feedstock are in Michigan or other parts of the Great Lakes region.
Aluminum goes to a scrap service in Gaylord; Nos. 1 and 2 plastics go to an outfit in Dundee to make plastic pellets later turned into detergent and water bottles; cardboard and boxboard goes to a kraft paper plant in the Upper Peninsula and to a food packaging maker in Kalamazoo, among other places; paper cartons and cups go to a tissue maker in Cheboygan; motor oil gets re-refined in Saginaw; glass goes to a Chicago-based company to make bottles, insulation and abrasives; electronics are sent to a dismantling center in Wisconsin; and more places for other materials.
Program organizers even managed to find a place in Virginia that buys truckloads of plastic bags and film bales – notoriously difficult material to manage as it can entangle sorting machines. The plastic bags are manufactured into composite lumber for decking.
Tolzdorf said they make sure everything Emmet County Recycling accepts “is recyclable and is recycled.” They do not take anything that does not have a strong market, which she said means no Styrofoam.
“The recyclables are all based on the commodities market, so some years they’re high, some years they’re low. In 2020, we made about just over $500,000 on our sale of recyclables, and in 2021 we made over a million dollars,” Tolzdorf said.
“It shows that the markets definitely vary. They were down really low in 2020; they bounced back into a five-year high in 2021. So, we can’t base all of our financials on sale of recyclables but when they’re good, they’re good and they carry us, and when they’re not sometimes the transfer station will have to carry us and carry our financials.”
The county’s waste transfer station processed nearly 125,000 cubic yards of household trash in 2020 for nearly $2.8 million in revenue.
Tolzdorf said the robotic sorting machine added in 2020 boosted labor efficiency by 60 percent and increased capture of recyclables by 11 percent. That led to several of the program’s contracted temporary workers being hired into full-time jobs with county benefits.
A multi-year, bipartisan effort under the last and current administrations to revamp Michigan’s solid waste laws resulted in a legislative package designed to enhance recycling, composting, and materials reuse. The bills passed through the state House in spring 2021, but since stalled in the Senate without any committee discussion or hearings.
Multiple reports generated by the state studied the issue and estimate Michiganders collectively pay more than $1 billion each year to manage their waste. Within that flow of household trash is $600 million worth of recyclable materials annually lost to landfills.
Part of the pending legislation would require counties to update their existing solid waste plans to modernized materials management plans, setting recycling benchmarks, and fostering regional collaboration to site recycling and composting centers. The state would provide grant funding for those planning efforts.
Liz Browne, materials management division director for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, said good examples of regional efforts to provide services are both Marquette and Emmet counties. Other Michigan communities could similarly develop robust recycling and composting programs that would benefit both the economy and the environment, she said.
“Putting something back into reuse is less impactful than starting with the virgin materials. If we are successful in generating the materials within Michigan and having the markets for them within Michigan, we’re going to decrease our transportation impacts significantly,” Browne said.
Both Browne and O’Brien said some Michigan companies cannot get enough recycled feedstock within state boundaries. They must buy those materials from other states and even Canada.
Capturing more recyclables from the waste stream within Michigan would absolutely benefit businesses that depend on buying post-consumer materials for their own productions, said Karl Hatopp, supply chain manager for Dundee-based TABB Packaging Solutions. He said Emmet County has been selling the operation Nos. 1 and 2 plastics for 20 years, and they also began to buy feedstock from recycling centers in Marquette and Ann Arbor.
The recyclable plastics are broken down into a type of post-consumer resin or “pellets,” Hatopp said, and then sold to manufacturers in Westland, and others in Ohio and Illinois, where they are manufactured into products like laundry detergent jugs and Absopure water bottles.
“The more material we can be sold (from within) Michigan, the better off we are,” he said. “If we were able to buy more in Michigan, we could buy less in, say California or Texas or Winnipeg.”
The company works with other businesses in Dundee that grew out of the recycling industry. One is Clean Tech Incorporated where Hatopp said he worked for decades.
“Clean Tech started with four employees and we’re at over 150 right now. So really, it’s a success story,” he said. “The more we recycle, the more jobs we create here in the state of Michigan that stay in the state of Michigan. So, as far as we’re concerned, it’s good to increase recycling.”
Among the goals within the newly completed MI Healthy Climate Plan is to boost recycling rates to at least 45 percent and cut food waste in half by 2030. The measures are among the ways the plan calls for Michigan to reach a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.