Traverse City News and Events

How Much Northern Michigan Trash Really Gets Recycled?

By Beth Milligan | Dec. 10, 2018

Depending on where you live, you might have curbside recycling, or you might have to drive to a drop-off location. In some places, you might have to drive to a nearby township to properly get rid of your recyclable paper and plastic and metal debris; what’s accepted varies from place to place.

As Patrick Sullivan writes in this week's Northern Express - sister publication of The Ticker - the rate of recycling around the North is as high as above 40 percent of waste in Emmet County, and as low as below 15 percent in Manistee County. Hard and fast numbers are hard to come by because the State of Michigan doesn’t keep track. That might change by the end of the year — if a proposed bill is passed into law in the lame duck session. Sullivan talked to some of the people in charge of recycling throughout our region, in an attempt to sort out the real state of recycling Up North and discover what’s on the horizon.

Emmet County Recycling is considered one of the best programs in Michigan. The county recycles more than 40 percent of its trash, compared to the state average of 15 percent. Emmet County never sent any of its waste to China, which until recently accepted tons of waste from other areas around America, but Emmet County Recycling offers a good explanation on its website of how China came to shut the door: “The upshot was that some “recyclables” exported to China were so contaminated they were essentially trash. And just like Michiganders have protested being a dumping ground for garbage from neighboring states and provinces, the Chinese didn’t want to take the world’s trash anymore.”

So the market for some kinds of plastic has deteriorated or collapsed. Andy Gale, president and general manager of Bay Are Recycling for Charities in Traverse City, says the exports to China were bad for the world’s environment, but finding a way to manage troublesome plastic is going to be a challenge for recyclers now that China is no longer an option. “A lot of the stuff will soon start getting landfilled if we don’t do things today to figure out our way out of this conundrum,” Gale says.

Gale says he discovered a possible use for that challenging, undesirable, no-longer-welcome-in-China plastic — he wants to burn it in a vacuum chamber and turn it into methane, and then use the methane to power an internal combustion engine to make electricity that could be returned to the grid. Gale says that energy would count as “renewable” because it’s produced from waste.

Read more about potential future innovations of recycling technology, the current state of recycling programs across northern Michigan, and legislative bills that might boost more recycling in Michigan in this week's Northern Express story, "How Much Northern Michigan Trash Really Gets Recycled?" The Northern Express is available to read online, or pick up a free copy at one of nearly 700 spots in 14 counties across northern Michigan.

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