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State addresses what waste law overhaul means for Michigan recycling

Mike Krebs, Traverse City Record Eagle

The Emmet County Recycling Facility is a happening spot.

People and machines sort and separate recyclables, which are broken down, baled, and shipped out.

The facility handles more than 13,000 tons of materials a year that are sold to Michigan companies to make water bottles, laundry detergent jugs, cereal boxes, and toilet paper.

Emmet County recycling director Andi Tolzdorf and I agree: we could watch this all day.

But besides being captivating, the robots and conveyor belts are part of a larger system that has made recycling accessible in the county. The facility recovers 40% of Emmet County’s waste - and it’s profitable, cashing in nearly $2.5 million dollars in revenue in 2021.

Emmet County’s success has earned its title as a “model” for the state. Tolzdorf said it’s exciting to be seen as a leader, and the county’s system could be replicated in other communities.

“Whenever we're making decisions about our program, we want them to be convenient, comprehensive, and cost-effective," Toldzorf said. "We want it to be easy to use, as much as possible to be recycled, and we want everyone to be able to use our programs.”

But Emmet County is kind of an exception in the state. Less than 20 percent of the state’s waste is recycled - that’s lower than the national average.

Now, after a 7-year battle to update Michigan’s waste laws, recycling advocates got an unexpected victory with the passage of an 8-bill package last year in the final hours of lame duck.

The legislation aims to update the state’s statute on solid waste management (Part 115) – and create a new policy framework with an emphasis on “materials management.”

The change in language from “solid waste” to “materials” is intentional. It’s meant to reflect a shift in how we view what we toss... Essentially, “one consumer’s trash is another industry’s treasure.”

“Any material can be recyclable if there’s a market and use for it,” said Kerrin O’Brien, the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

O'Brien was involved in the bills’ passage. She said when Part 115 was first implemented in the 90s, it focused on ensuring that all Michigan counties had enough space to dispose of their waste for the next five years.

“That policy has inadvertently given way to the development of lots of disposal capacity in Michigan,” O'Brien said.

It’s why Michigan has more landfills than any of the other Great Lakes states – why landfill tipping is so low – and why the state imports so much trash. Meanwhile, recycling and composting investment has lagged.

But it doesn’t make much environmental or economic sense to throw away materials that could be repurposed and sold on the market. O’Brien said updating the law was long overdue.

“I look forward to a day when recycling services are on par with waste services, and nobody bats an eye," O'Brien said. "...Because this fits the circular economy.”

The new law requires all counties to review their solid waste management plans and develop a new, “materials management” plan. This process varies regionally but it means county planners will need to take inventory of their county’s waste landscape and identify potential opportunities.

Christina Miller is the materials management planning specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. She addressed county planners at the Upper Peninsula Materials Management Conference April 27.

“All the [new materials management] plans will have an implementation strategy in there to help meet the goals," Miller said. "And you’ll be required to show progress to receive funding going forward.”

Miller said EGLE has created county profiles to help with the planning process, and counties will also be required to work with other counties in their region.

The state will call for county plans early next year. Miller said she recognizes the process is time-consuming for county governments, but she said pre-planning - like setting up committees and communicating with neighboring counties early on - will help.

“That freaks people out when I tell them all that stuff," Miller said. "There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done and quickly ... We are going to initiate this process in the coming months. It would behoove you to really start looking at this now.”

Back at the Emmet County Recycling Facility, Andi Tolzdorf said the policy change isn’t likely to affect day-to-day operations, but the county will be updating its 20-year-old plan.

She said there’s room to create new programs and collaborate across the region to divert more waste

"The opportunities are endless," Tolzdorf said. "It's just a matter of what we physically can do and what the planning group decides.”

And while county governments figure out how to realistically achieve a circular economy, the Emmet County Recycling Facility will keep humming away.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corp Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She is covering rural environmental issues, public health and Michigan commerce. Homsi has a bachelor’s from Central Michigan University in environmental studies, journalism and anthropology. During her undergraduate, she was a beat reporter for CMU’s student newspaper Central Michigan Life and interned for the Huron Daily Tribune. She has also interned for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in the superfund section. *Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms, more info at
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