Tag: Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy

Speak Up for the Great Lakes at EGLE’s Line 5 Tunnel Hearings Starting Tuesday

enbridges-line-5-under-the-straits-of-mackinac-4f9997139d321d60

Starting Tuesday, Sept. 29, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) will host four online public hearings and receive public comment on the expected wetland and wastewater impacts of constructing and operating Enbridge’s proposed, roughly four mile-long oil tunnel under the Great Lakes. The tunnel would house a new Line 5 pipeline to continue carrying up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids a day through the public trust bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.

It’s important for the members of the public—including individuals, families, business owners, community leaders, and others—to sign up ASAP to comment at these online public hearings using the links below because public comment during the meetings likely will be first-come, first-served.

To assist you, FLOW is providing guidance below on the public hearing schedule that runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 8, how to sign up to comment, key points to consider making, and a template email you can tailor and submit as your written comment too by the Oct. 19 written comment deadline.

Hearing Schedule—Click a link below to register via Zoom and select “Yes” where it asks, “Would you like to make an official comment at this hearing?”:

Points to Make in Public Comments at the Public Hearings — FLOW is providing this content for you to draw from and supplement with your own information and perspective. EGLE will provide up to 3 minutes for each public comment. Start by stating your name, where you live, and if you are representing an organization, indicate which one. Here’s our guidance:

Not in Support:

  • I urge EGLE and the state of Michigan to deny Enbridge’s wetlands resource and NPDES wastewater permit requests to build a tunnel for the Line 5 oil pipeline through the public trust bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac for the following reasons: 1. Enbridge’s application and project description is too narrow, and does not consider the cumulative effects, the existence of alternatives to the tunnel and wetlands related project purpose pursuant to Sections 303011(1) and 30311(4)(b) of the Wetland Protection Act.

Not Lawful:

  • Not authorized — The new easement (December 2018) granted by the former Snyder administration to the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority and assigned to Enbridge for the proposed tunnel is invalid because it has not been authorized based on the required determinations of the Part 325 of the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and/or section 2129 of the public utility easement in bottomlands of Great Lakes law, MCL 324.2129.

Not a Solution, nor the Best Alternative:

  • It is clear that taking 5-10 more years to study, seek permits, and build a crude oil tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac is not a solution because it fails to address Line 5’s immediate threat to the Great Lakes and Pure Michigan economy and the risk posed by the pipeline’s more than 400 stream and river crossings in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. 
  • Enbridge’s proposal to allow electrical lines and other infrastructure to occupy the proposed oil pipeline tunnel is a bad idea that poses an explosion risk.

Not Fully Disclosed:

  • Enbridge has indicated that the size of the proposed tunnel will increase from a 10 ft diameter to an 18-21 foot diameter, yet Enbridge continues to use the original estimate of $500 million. Since consumers will ultimately pay for the tunnel, it is important to determine the new estimated cost.  
  • The announcement by EGLE that it will defer to other agencies or the MPSC to consider the likely effects and alternatives of the proposed tunnel project is contrary to the law of Michigan under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). MCL 324.1701 and applicable court decisions.

Not Acceptable — Wastewater and Wetland Impacts:

  • Enbridge is requesting to release up to 5 million gallons/day of treated wastewater back into Lake Michigan on the south shore and up to 14 million gallons daily during storm events. What chemicals will be used in the tunneling process and how will the wastewater be treated to remove those chemicals? 
  • If the waters of the Straits are contaminated, there would be extremely negative impacts to fish populations, tribal fishing rights, and communities who rely on drinking water from the lake and tourism business. How can EGLE consider this permit without having the full details about treatment plans and what chemicals will be used?
  • Doubling the tunnel diameter also results in quadrupling the volume, with four times as much excavated materials to be removed, staged, and disposed of. What are the increased environmental risks associated with the excavation, staging and disposition of these materials?
  • Michigan courts have consistently recognized that the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) imposes additional environmental review requirements that are supplemental to existing administrative and statutory requirements. Is EGLE conducting a thorough review under MEPA?

Not in the Public Interest:

  • A permit under Part 303 Wetland Protection “shall not be approved unless the department determines that the issuance of a permit is in the public interest… In determining whether the activity is in the public interest, the benefit which reasonably may be expected to accrue from the proposal shall be balanced against the reasonably foreseeable detriments of the activity.” Clearly this project is not in the public interest when considering the impacts to public surface waters, public bottomlands, public drinking water supplies, the climate, and economy.
  • A permit under Part 303 Wetland Protection Act “shall not be approved” unless the applicant demonstrates the “need” for the project; clearly, this project is not needed given the obvious decline in demand for oil in the U.S. and world, and because Enbridge’s and Michigan’s future needs for crude oil can be satisfied by the existing crude oil pipeline system in North American and the U.S; and, because the design capacity of Line 6b (now 78) across southern Michigan from Indiana to Sarnia and Detroit or Toledo was doubled when replaced in 2012-2014, which can reasonably handle all of the volume of crude oil and natural gas liquids transported by Line 5 and Straits dual pipelines.

Not Good for the Climate nor Economy:

  • Line 5 conveys approximately 8.4 billion gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per year, and when burned, yield over 57 million metric tons of CO2 annually. How can EGLE authorize the tunnel in the face of the incontrovertible evidence of environmental and economic harm caused by climate change? 
  • Oil when burned, releases carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and unburned hydrocarbons, impairing air quality and having monetizable environmental and health impacts. EGLE must compare the social costs against the benefits.
  • Continued capital investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is fundamentally at odds with addressing the existential threat of climate change.
  • Federal agencies must determine the carbon emissions attributable to projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); EGLE and the MPSC must undertake the same analyses under MEPA.
  • The construction of Enbridge’s proposed tunnel and pipeline project for the next 99 years is contrary to Governor Whitmer’s Executive Order on Building a Carbon Neutral Economy.  

Not the Best Alternative:

  • Under Part 303, EGLE must consider “the availability of feasible and prudent alternative locations and methods to accomplish the expected benefits from the activity.” EGLE must evaluate the following:
    • To what extent did the 2010 catastrophic failure and oil spill from Enbridge Line 6B into the Kalamazoo River watershed and the more recent temporary, full and then partial closure of Line 5 result in constriction of supply, market disruption, or price increases to end users?
    • Does Enbridge Line 6B in southern Michigan, now reconstructed with a larger diameter as Line 78, have the capacity to meet market demand if the tunnel is not built and Line 5 closes?
    • Is the carrying capacity of the existing network of North American pipelines sufficient to meet future needs? According to FLOW’s experts, available capacity and flexibility to meet energy demand in the Great Lakes region already exists in the North American energy pipeline system operated by Enbridge and its competitors without threatening our public waters and Pure Michigan economy.
    • Would cessation of Line 5 result in a new pipeline system equilibrium capable of meeting existing and future demand for oil and natural gas liquids?
    • What is the potential for the tunnel project to become a stranded asset and liability to the State of Michigan in the event market trends play out as predicted?

Written Comment Also Accepted — The public also can comment in writing at any time until EGLE’s comment deadline on Oct. 19. Here’s the:

  • Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign’s public comment form for you to personalize — drawing from FLOW’s guidance provided above — and send, or you can use the EGLE links below.
  • EGLE public comment page for Part 303 wetland impacts and Part 325 Great Lakes submerged lands impacts.
  • EGLE public comment page for NPDES wastewater impacts.

Background — To learn more about Enbridge Line 5 and the proposed oil tunnel, see these resources on FLOW’s website:

FLOW Joins Effort to Prevent Factory Farm Pollution of Michigan’s Public Waters

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Approximately 270 large livestock farms discharge enormous quantities of liquid manure to Michigan waterways every year. Photo by iStock.

By Dave Dempsey

FLOW has joined environmental allies in seeking to defend the state of Michigan’s new initiative that seeks to curb water pollution by large factory farms. Led by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), the coalition seeks to intervene in a challenge brought by the agribusiness lobby to the water pollution-control permit in order to raise legal issues on behalf of Michigan residents.

Known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the approximately 270 large livestock farms discharge enormous quantities of liquid manure to Michigan waterways every year. This waste fuels toxic algal blooms in Michigan lakes, including Saginaw Bay and Michigan’s waters of Lake Erie. The waste from dairy cows, beef cattle, hogs, and chickens in tight confinement also contributes to high E. coli bacteria counts, creating risks to human health and interfering with public trust rights to fish, swim, boat, and draw drinking water from public waters.

The CAFO permit is administered by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). Because most farm pollution is not regulated by the federal Clean Water Act, the permit is one of the few ways the state can curb excessive nutrient — primarily phosphorus and nitrogen — and bacterial pollution stemming from the large livestock farms. The permit is renewed and updated on a five-year basis. The current permit took effect in April 2020.

An alliance of agricultural interests led by the Michigan Farm Bureau argues that the permit to protect the health of the Great Lakes area and its residents would cause economic harm to massive livestock feeding operations. Farm Bureau routinely opposes farm pollution regulations, insisting that only voluntary measures to control farm pollution are warranted.

Although not embodying everything environmental groups wanted, the new CAFO permit issued by EGLE last spring for the first time takes meaningful steps to control polluted manure runoff. Key features of the new permit include:

  • More transparency regarding how waste is moved from farm to farm;
  • New restrictions on winter manure application;
  • New restrictions on allowable waste application rates across Michigan, particularly in impaired watersheds.

Environmental groups seeking to intervene in defense of the permit besides FLOW include ELPC, the Michigan Environmental Council, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, Freshwater Future, and Food & Water Watch.

The administrative law judge overseeing the contested case brought by agribusiness interests is expected by November to rule on the intervention request made by ELPC on behalf of FLOW and coalition partners.

State of the Great Lakes?

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

This month, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) issued the 2019 State of the Great Lakes Report.

While legitimately showcasing much good news about policies and programs benefiting the Lakes, the report joined the ranks of many that don’t say enough about the conditions of the Great Lakes themselves.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the Michigan Legislature and Governor in 1985 enacted a statutory requirement for an annual report on the state of the Great Lakes, they envisioned a science-based report card on the health of the waters and related resources of the Lakes themselves. Which pollutants are increasing and which are decreasing in Great Lakes waters? What are quantitative trends in beach closings and key populations of critical aquatic species? What  indicators of climate change are manifesting in the Great Lakes? 

But almost since the first day, and especially under former Gov. John Engler, Michigan’s Great Lakes report has amounted mostly to agency self-praise for a job well done.

Likewise, other Great Lakes institutions have had struggles coming up with objective indicators measuring the health of the Lakes, although they are now making some progress. Under the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 2012, the two nations are required to issue a State of the Great Lakes report every three years. Released in May, the most recent report finds:

“Overall, the Great Lakes are assessed as Fair and Unchanging. While progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes has occurred, including the reduction of toxic chemicals, the indicator assessments demonstrate that there are still significant challenges, including the impacts of nutrients and invasive species. The continued actions of many groups and individuals are contributing to the improvements in the Great Lakes.”

The assessment may be overly generous — but even if accurate, its “fair and unchanging” verdict translates at best to a C+. That is far from great effort on behalf of the Great Lakes. We can and must do better.

Back to the new Michigan report: It doesn’t attempt such a report card, but does deliver interesting news on drinking water rules for PFAS and other contaminants, high Great Lakes water levels, Asian carp and research on harmful algae blooms. As a “State of Great Lakes Programs” report, it offers some food for thought — but it doesn’t tell you scientifically where the health of the Lakes is headed.

One highlight of the EGLE report, however, is a discussion of the public trust doctrine, FLOW’s central organizing principle. The report observes:

“The basic premise behind much of the Great Lakes legal protection is the idea that surface water itself is not property of the state, but a public good. Over the years, a number of court cases have firmly established this legal principle, known as the ‘public trust doctrine.’ The public trust doctrine means protecting public water resources for the use and enjoyment of all. Under the public trust doctrine, the state acts as a trustee who is empowered to protect the water.”

We applaud EGLE’s recognition of its trustee role, and encourage Gov, Gretchen Whitmer and EGLE Director Liesl Clark to rely on the public trust doctrine to guide them as they consider their decisions on Line 5, Nestlé water withdrawals, and other weighty matters.

FLOW Calls for Strong, Protective Drinking Water Standards for “Forever Chemicals”

Meeting a January 31 deadline for public comment, FLOW urged state officials to adopt standards protecting the health of Michigan residents from PFAS chemicals detected in drinking water supplies serving 1.9 million residents.

FLOW also appreciates the 42 people who responded to a FLOW alert and submitted their own PFAS comments to the state.

Joining a broad coalition of environmental, public health and grassroots citizen organizations, FLOW told the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to adopt the proposed science-based standards. They would put Michigan among the leading states moving ahead to protect residents from these long-lasting toxic chemicals.

“It is imperative for Michigan to promulgate the proposed rules as soon as practicable,” FLOW wrote. “Testing continues to turn up new sites of PFAS contamination in Michigan, many of them exposing citizens to substantial health risks. Federal rules are likely years away and may not provide the level of protection that the people of Michigan want and need for public health and the environment. We applaud Governor Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for your initiative to address the problem head-on.”

David Long, head of Environmental Solutions LLC, wrote last week in a blog post on FLOW’s website, “Studies show evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals persist in the body for a long time and can accumulate. In laboratory animals, researchers found that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.

“Consistently elevated cholesterol levels have been found in people with detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS. Lower infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid disruption (PFOS) have also been associated, albeit less frequently, with PFOA or PFOS.”

In addition to supporting the general outline of the standards, FLOW urged EGLE to:

  • Require a review of the rules in two years to take into account emerging science;
  • Require frequent monitoring of public water supplies to learn more about seasonal patterns and sources of PFAS;
  • Strengthen protection of infants and children.

Governor Whitmer has said she hopes the rules can be made final by summer.

State Official’s Non-Decision Thwarts Protection from Potash Mining

Wetlands photo courtesy of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation

A Michigan state administrative law judge, after almost a year and a half delay, recently decided he had no jurisdiction to rule on a citizen challenge of a proposed potash mine that would suck enormous amounts of groundwater out of an aquifer near the town of Hersey—near Reed City and the Huron-Manistee National Forests. The mine, if approved, would drain groundwater supporting sensitive wetlands and result in disposal of contaminated water into aquifers.

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) filed the challenge after the state in June 2018 granted permits for eight solution mining wells and three non-hazardous brine disposal wells for the potash mining operation, despite environmental opposition to the project. The proposed potash mining operation in an Osceola County wetland complex would use 725 million gallons of Michigan groundwater per year, according to the state. Potash is used as fertilizer.

Michigan Potash Co. LLC proposes to extract potash salt through the process of solution mining, by pumping water or brine into targeted zones to dissolve the underground potash. The resulting dissolved, potash-rich brine is returned to the surface where it is evaporated to recover potash and food grade salt, state officials say.

The process creates potash deficient brine and water that is recycled in a closed loop system and reused. The three proposed nonhazardous disposal wells will handle the residual brine that is no longer usable for solution mining.

Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter, just days before a scheduled hearing on MCWC’s challenge and more than a year after the state issued the permits, determined he had no jurisdiction to rule on the challenge. The action baffled opponents of the mine.

“The upshot of all this,” said MCWC chairperson Peggy Case, “is that for the past year and a half, no one in Lansing has been looking into the serious issues involving Michigan Potash’s plan and site.” But MCWC vows to forge ahead, taking its challenge to the Environmental Permit Appeals Board within the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). A hearing on jurisdiction is expected on March 20.

Case notes that Pulter’s non-decision decision dealt only with permits to drill the 11 wells. Additional permits will be required for the location of a refinery, high-pressure brine pipelines and handling facilities, shipping routes, and storage. The company has not performed any tests to establish that it can safely withdraw 5 to 10 times more fresh water than Nestlé is taking for its bottled water six miles away.

“People ask us why we’re continuing our fight,” Case said. “In short, we believe that we have no choice. High-risk, intensive industrial activity at such a uniquely vulnerable site is not something we’re willing to accept without a fight. Michigan already has far too many areas that have become ‘water sacrifice zones’.”

“As Michiganders, we view fresh clean ground and surface waters as our birthright.”

Gov. Whitmer, Michigan Legislature Agree on Funding for Clean Water

By Dave Dempsey

Although budget talks between Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature are strained at best — as the two sides appear deadlocked over road funding — it does appear her request for significant one-time funding for clean water for the fiscal year 2020 starting October 1 will survive the process, with some changes made to fit legislative priorities. On Tuesday, Sept. 24, the Legislature approved the water money and will send the bill to Whitmer’s desk for signature within a few days.

The action comes after a long delay in consideration of the Governor’s proposal. “Communities across Michigan are grappling with drinking water contamination, like toxic PFAS chemicals and lead from old pipes, yet discussion about it has been noticeably absent in Lansing as they work to pass a budget. Clean, safe drinking water is not a partisan issue and should be a top priority, not an afterthought,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV), earlier this month.

A House-Senate conference committee had sent a proposed appropriation for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to the full State House and Senate. FLOW’s allies in Lansing at the Michigan Environmental Council and Michigan League of Conservation voters say the conference bill contains $120 million in one-time money for drinking water protection, including:

  • $40 million for PFAS and emerging contaminants
  • $35 million for drinking water revolving loan fund community debt forgiveness
  • $30 million for lead and copper rule implementation
  • $7.5 million for water affordability planning
  • $7.5 million for private water well testing

UPDATE:  Governor Whitmer vetoed $15 million intended for dealing with PFAS at municipal airports on the grounds that a broader use of the funding for PFAS us needed.

    Also included:
    • $1.9 million and the equivalent of 10 staff positions for a drinking water compliance unit to provide technical assistance to communities on the lead and copper rule. 
    • $5 million as a state match for federal drinking water revolving loan fund dollars.
    • $307,000 additional funding for contaminated site investigations.
    An item of concern, added by legislators, is an earmark of $150,000 for the Environmental Rules Review Committee to contract with consultants. This committee was created by the Legislature and signed into law by former Governor Snyder to impede environmental rulemaking.
    UPDATE:  Governor Whitmer vetoed the $150,000 in funding for this committee.
    The Governor also requested $60 million for school hydration stations to protect children from drinking lead-contaminated water, but so far the Legislature has not included the money in the fiscal year 2020 budget.
    Dave Dempsey is the Senior Policy Advisor at FLOW.

    It’s Septic Smart Week

    Don’t do it in the river! Get your septic system checked, and push your elected leaders for a statewide inspection code. Click here for a (humorous) video of what happens when septic waste reaches our beloved rivers.

     

    By Dave Dempsey

    Most Michiganders don’t know that September 16-20 is Septic Smart Week — and that an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. In many cases that means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes and streams.

    As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, our state is the only of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Some counties, townships, cities and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements.

    Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system. Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria in the tank break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field. Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. Both filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water.

    Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ, now EGLE) has identified 196 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit. Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage were pumped into surface water in Michigan. A 2015 study headed by Dr. Joan Rose, co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences, sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula, for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta. The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.

    Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants like pharmaceutical residues and endocrine disruptors are found in household wastes whether they discharge to publicly-owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Little groundwater monitoring is done to identify these substances in groundwater.

    In a 2017 journal article in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 20 different studies on septic systems, identifying 45 contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. The analysis found that septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkyphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including TCEP, a carcinogenic flame retardant, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole. “In high density areas where you have a large number of homes with their own septic systems, these systems are likely the primary source of emerging contaminants in the groundwater,” said Laurel Schaider, the study’s lead author.

    Eleven Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first six years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system.

    Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.

     

    Septic Smart Information

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is promoting Septic Smart Week with a variety of information tools. Those include posters, tips and a new homebuyer’s guide. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) also offers helpful information.

     

    This trailer for a video documentary produced by Joe VanderMeulen of NatureChange and sponsored by FLOW, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC), Leelanau Clean Water, and the Benzie Conservation District underscores the serious health risks posed by a hidden pollution source fouling groundwater, lakes, streams and drinking water across Michigan. Click here for the full video.

     

    New State Funding Gives Boost to Recycling

    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.