The phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is an idea two organizations in West Michigan are hoping to convey across the state, after a recent study found Michigan residents and businesses are throwing away garbage valued at millions of dollars every year.
The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and Grand Valley State University released the results of the Economic Impact Potential and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in Michigan study conducted recently.
The study found the total material value of municipal solid waste — better known as trash or garbage — disposed of in Michigan landfills and incinerators is as much as $368 million per year.
Furthermore, the study found, if all material of value was recovered and sold to the market, it would have an estimated total economic impact of up to $399 million per year and an employment impact of up to 2,619 jobs.
The report is the result of the Michigan Municipal Solid Waste Characterization and Valuation Project, an effort launched last year to characterize economic and environmental opportunities available through recycling, composting and other waste diversion strategies.
The project was funded through a $50,300 grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Municipal solid waste consists of the everyday items discarded from homes, schools, hospitals and businesses, excluding waste from industrial uses and construction sites.
A coalition led by WMSBF sampled nearly 10 tons of garbage from eight sites throughout Michigan during the past year as part of the study. WMSBF said sample loads were sorted by hand into 22 categories, with food waste (13.6 percent) and miscellaneous inorganic material (14.7 percent) the most prevalent material.
Mixed paper (12 percent), miscellaneous organic material (9 percent) and corrugated cardboard (8.4 percent) rounded out the top five materials.
Altogether, organic material accounted for 35 percent of garbage disposed of in the state.
In West Michigan, specifically — Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, Allegan, Montcalm, Ionia and Barry counties —the study pegged the economic value of waste in landfills at $52 million, with a potential economic value of diversion to be $56 million and a potential employment impact of 370 jobs.
In an address he gave in 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder challenged Michigan to double its recycling rate from 15 percent to 30 percent. At that time Snyder noted Michigan had one of the lowest recycling rates in the country.
Daniel Schoonmaker, executive director of West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, said, based on the study, that goal is entirely possible.
“A resident or business in a community with a robust recycling program and commercial composting would find it relatively easy to divert 85 percent of their garbage from the landfill,” Schoonmaker said. “Michigan can achieve its 30 percent recycling rate goal without any extraordinary measures: We just need citizens and businesses to take advantage of conventional recycling options.”
To achieve the stated goal, the state must increase the quantity of diverted material by approximately 1.5 million tons per year through a combination of recovery and source reduction, according to the study.
The study found plastic packaging had the highest potential value to the state. Nearly $75 million worth was disposed of last year, followed by corrugated cardboard at $57.5 million.
The latter topped the study’s list of recommendations, citing a clear opportunity for Michigan to improve cardboard recycling, particularly among businesses, as commercial waste contained 10.5 percent corrugated cardboard, compared to just 5.8 percent of residential waste.
“That is pretty much the definition of low-hanging fruit,” Schoonmaker said. “Cardboard is easy to recycle, prevalent and valuable. It is the only material where we have both high volume and high value.”
The study concludes that efforts to increase the recycling rate in Michigan should first focus on the 42 percent of materials with market value, which would include all standard recyclable commodities except glass, plus textiles.
The report offered eight recommendations to increase waste diversion:
1. Aggressively promote efforts to increase recovery of corrugated cardboard, prioritizing commercial audiences.
2. Support efforts to increase availability and usage of conventional recycling programs with a goal to increase recovery of non-corrugated paper products, metal, and high-value plastic resins HDPE and PET.
3. Through recovery or source reduction, decrease the quantity of electronic waste disposed of in Michigan landfills by half.
4. Promote source reduction and diversion of food waste.
5. Promote source reduction of low-value plastic resins.
6. Initiate efforts to increase recycling channels for textiles and promote availability of textile recycling.
7. Educate the public on the financial difficulties of recycling and waste diversion.
8. Pursue opportunities for further study.
Schoonmaker said the next steps most likely will include education campaigns encouraging residents and businesses in communities with easily accessible recycling and composting services to increase their recycling efforts.
He said currently there is plenty of capacity available within the existing framework of many communities to support an uptick in recycling.
WMSBF worked with technical consultant Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr, & Huber Inc. to create a waste characterization report for local communities and the state, providing much-needed data to decision makers on the materials sent to Michigan landfills and incinerators.
That information and commodity pricing data provided by WMSBF member companies allowed GVSU to perform an analysis of the potential economic impact to the state.
WMSBF partners opening their facilities to the project include Republic Services, Kent County Department of Public Works and Muskegon County.
Members that provided commodity information and other support include Rapid Green Group, Padnos, Valley City Electronic Recycling, Organicycle, New Soil and My Green Michigan.