Kristen Wieland, manager of the county’s resource recovery and recycling program, says education and outreach remain important factors in increasing efficiency. Photo by Johnny Quirin
One year ago, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder called on the state to increase recycling rates from less than 15 percent to at least 30 percent, noting the state’s current recycling rate was among the worst in the nation.
Kristen Wieland, manager of Kent County Department of Public Works Resource Recovery & Recycling, said while increasing recycling in the state would be great, it comes with challenges for processing facilities.
“We just want to make sure the state is ready for the increased amount of recyclables to be able to process them and make sure there are markets for them,” Wieland said.
Kent County’s recycling facility, 977 Wealthy St. SW, has already seen its recycling rates increase dramatically since opening in 2010 and switching from a dual-stream to single-stream system.
According to the facility’s website, “Nearly 64 million pounds of private and municipal hauled recyclables were delivered to the facility in 2014, more than double the amount recycled just four years ago.”
Wieland said the substantial increase and the governor’s call have been catalysts for two important changes the recycling center underwent at the beginning of this year. In January, it changed its labor sourcing to better keep up with its sorting line needs.
Wieland said previously the sorting facility relied on workers who were fulfilling a court obligation, but today it has entered into a partnership with Goodwill Industries’ Transitional Work Experience program.
“All of the people on our sorting line are in a job readiness program,” Wieland said. “They are learning work skills so they can go into the workforce and have gainful employment.”
Wieland said they work at the recycling facility for a 30- to 60-day period as part of the program.
“It’s given us a much more reliable and motivated workforce, which is going to result in more material we can process and a better quality of material,” Wieland said.
The facility also changed its hours of operation to provide much needed time for dedicated maintenance — something it previously didn’t have.
“We are really trying to dial in and be as efficient as we can be at that facility so that, when the governor’s initiative comes to reality, we really are able to double our recycling rate and our facility can help to process a lot of that material to put it into the marketplace,” Wieland said.
Public education and outreach remains an important factor in improving efficiency at the recycling plant.
While single-stream recycling makes it easier for residents to recycle, it also increases contamination.
“That is one of the things we are battling right now: trying to educate the community on the right things they should be recycling and not just anything that fits in the cart,” she said. “There are certain things we cannot process.”
Wieland said efficiencies could be improved if the facility didn’t have to devote as much labor to sorting out trash.
“We have 26 people who are standing on the processing line looking for things to sort, and when they are there sorting out the non-recyclables into the trash, it takes them away from sorting the valuable things that could be recycled,” she said.
Wieland said currently four of the six people stationed at the first section of the sorting line are in charge of sorting out non-recyclable items.
“People could be better used if we were trying to get them to sort out valuable things instead of stuff that is going to cause trouble with our equipment or contaminate our load,” she said.
One of the facility’s biggest challenges is plastic bags. Wieland said plastic bags contaminate the paper materials going to paper mills.
“Plastic grocery bags are really troublesome for paper mills,” she said. “One of our missions at the facility is to get more of the contaminants out of our paper.”
The other side of the story, Wieland said, is there are still too many recyclables heading straight to the landfill.
“We are trying to make our disposal facilities into more of a recycling center in that we can recover a lot of the material, because it is really unfortunate when I’m at the landfill and I see whole loads of cardboard going into the landfill,” she said. “Our goal going forward is to divert a lot more material headed to landfill to recycling.”
Once materials are processed, they typically are sold to brokers who market the material locally and globally.
“Most of our paper stays in-state or in the Midwest. We are fortunate to have a couple of plastic companies, one in Grand Rapids and a couple in the state,” Wieland said.
She noted the market is really global, however, and despite trying to keep commodities local, a lot of them eventually make their way overseas, particularly to China.
If recycling were to double in the state, Wieland said it would change pricing and other aspects of the commodities industry.
“There are a lot of changes that an increased volume of material will bring,” she said. “We are hopeful the market will continue to grow, especially in West Michigan, for these recycled materials, but it’s something we have to plan for so it doesn’t backfire on us in the end.
“I would love to be in the 60, 70 or 80 percent (range), but we have to creep in that direction to make sure we don’t have all these people recycling and then nowhere for it to go.”
Wieland noted commodity prices are down, which poses a challenge for processors.
“We don’t have to make money on it, but right now we are losing money on it,” she said. “The landfill and the other waste operations in our department are supplementing that.”
She said the situation is the same for private recycling processors, as well.
“We know they will rebound, but it is a really challenging time to be a processing facility because you can’t pay for the labor and overhead you have to process these recyclables, because you aren’t getting the financial return on it,” she said.
“We expect it will (be) this way for much of the year, but we are hoping it rebounds and makes recycling easier for us to do.”