Late last year, the Michigan Legislature approved $15 million in annual funding for recycling programs. To learn more about this initiative, FLOW interviewed Matt Flechter, Recycling Market Development Specialist at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. Flechter assists recycling programs by growing the Michigan supply chain so the valuable commodities that businesses need make their way from the curb to new products. He is a longtime member of the Michigan Recycling Coalition board of directors and the former chair of the Mid-America Council of Recycling Officials. Flechter completed the Great Lakes Leadership Academy Advanced Leader program in 2017. Flechter is a graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Lyman Briggs and is always surprised by the number of other Peace Corps volunteers in the recycling world. For 19 years, he has worked to transform materials once thought of as waste into jobs, energy savings, and improved quality of life. He has always viewed recycling, as a gateway to greater environmental, economic, and social sustainability where individuals can see the positive impact of their daily decisions.
How important is the recycling funding approved by the Legislature?
The recycling funding included in Renew Michigan is vitally important. For over 20 years, the Michigan recycling industry has watched other states pass us by with strong recycling market development, education, and infrastructure initiatives. Now that long-term, stable funding is secured, we can begin the process of building upon our long history as a leader in managing materials in an economically and environmentally sound way.
But while the funding is important, Michiganders spend over $1 billion annually on waste management, so $15 million is only a small part of a much larger system. Furthermore, while it is a significant increase from years past, it still is lower than what other states spend, especially states with leading recycling programs. For example, Pennsylvania spends $37 million per year and Minnesota spends $65 million per year.
In what categories is the $15 million divided?
The $15 million in annual funding is allocated to support local recycling collection, processing, and end-use activities. A special focus on strong planning and recycling market development activities is noted. The funding goes to:
- Materials management planning, including grants to counties, regional planning agencies, municipalities, and other entities responsible for preparing, implementing, and maintaining materials management plans.
- Local recycling programs, including grants to local units of government and nonprofit and for-profit entities for recycling infrastructure, local recycling outreach campaigns, and other costs necessary to support increased recycling.
- Market development, including grants to local units of government and nonprofit and for-profit entities for purchasing equipment, research and development, or associated activities to provide new or increased use of recycled materials to support the development of recycling markets.
Recycled materials market development has been a need for a long time. What have we learned works and doesn’t work and how will this money be used differently from the past?
Recycling and using recycled materials is not just about using fewer new materials and saving landfill space. Recycling is about protecting the environment and growing the economy through expanding job opportunities, reducing greenhouse gasses, protecting air and water quality, and supporting healthy communities. The best market development initiatives understand that increasing the use of recycled materials hit on all of these metrics. Selecting projects must be done thoughtfully, while looking at the big picture impacts they will have. Further, the best market development programs recognize the importance of measuring the life cycle impacts of materials choices throughout a product’s useful life, not just end of life disposal. It is our goal to use the market development funds to encourage the circular thinking that is beginning to take hold in industry.
We’ve heard a lot about the China market for recycled materials shutting down. How big a problem is this for Michigan? How will your strategy address this?
The turmoil facing global recycling markets precipitated by China’s import restrictions has struck a blow to sustainable materials management everywhere. Fortunately, for Michigan, we have access to strong regional markets for our paper, metal, plastic, and other materials collected at our loading docks and curbs. Michigan industry still needs those materials, and in most cases could use even more than we are sending to them. For example, CleanTech in Dundee, Michigan, imports plastic bottles from as far away as Texas to use in their manufacturing process to make new bottles. Meanwhile far too many detergent bottles and water bottles are being landfilled in Michigan because a lack of convenient recycling opportunities. While we may have strong markets, the price received by recycling programs for their recyclables has dropped dramatically because of restricted demand in China. Recycling programs are feeling this economic pinch and are adjusting as best they can.
The Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy is focusing on two main areas to address these global market challenges. First, we are working to improve the quality of the recyclable materials collected. We are expanding our efforts to help communities and recycling service providers reduce contamination by helping to inform residents and businesses on how to properly use their recycling collection system. Less Christmas lights, bagged recyclables, half-full ketchup bottles, and other common contaminants in the recycling bin help improve the marketability of collected materials and decrease costs for recycling operations.
Second, we are focusing on growing domestic markets for recycled materials. The more end-markets we have for our recyclables the lower our transportation costs—both economically and environmentally speaking. Furthermore, keeping materials closer to home means more jobs for Michigan residents.
Do you have goals for recycling percentages that you hope to achieve with the new funding?
Michigan’s recycling rate is still at the bottom at around 15% where the national average is around 34%. We know that by adopting best practices in residential single-family and multi-family recycling, organics collection, public space recycling, event recycling, waste reduction, and business/commercial recycling, we can achieve a leading recycling program that triples our current recycling rate. We are beginning to see progress. It is the goal of Michigan to achieve a 45% recycling rate, and as an interim step a 30% recycling rate by 2025.
Are there other recycling policy needs?
In addition to the long-needed funding support recently received, Michigan needs accompanying policy changes if we are to achieve the goal of returning our state to a leadership position in recycling. Our agency has worked for over three years with a large group of stakeholders to rewrite Michigan’s solid waste laws to refocus our efforts on materials management rather than just disposal. The policy changes address local planning needs, facility oversite, and establish benchmark recycling standards that will set Michigan on the path to improved management of waste resources. The leading states in recycling recognize that both strong guiding policy and goals, along with stable funding, are the keys to success. It is our hope that the legislature acts on the policy recommendations yet this legislative session.
What can a Michigan citizen do to help with the recycling cause that he or she may not be already doing?
Recycling is a very personal act that is also very visible. Individuals can immediately see the difference they are making for the economy and the environment. When someone chooses to seek out a recycling bin, they are making a real difference. But it must be done correctly, or the entire system breaks down—as we are currently seeing with the China import restrictions. If there is one thing an individual can do, it is to actively research what can and cannot go in their recycling bin. Ask their hauler or community for answers—then tell their neighbors, their brother in-law, their mother—together we can all ensure recycling continues to be successful for years to come.