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Reduce, reuse, recycle (and repeat): Study spells out environmental opportunities in West Michigan




When it comes to recycling, West Michigan — and Grand Rapids in particular — are outshining other regions of the state, but there’s still much that needs to be done here, according to a new study.
 
The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and Grand Valley State University released a study last week (which you can download here) that characterized the economic and environmental opportunities available through recycling, composting and other waste diversion strategies.

According to the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, the report, titled Economic Impact Potential and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in Michigan, estimates the total material value of municipal solid waste disposed in Michigan landfills and incinerators at as much as $368 million per year. 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 and employment impact of up 2,619 jobs.

Staggering numbers

Daniel Schoonmaker, director of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, provides some insight into how, and why, individuals, the public sector and the private sector in West Michigan are actively engaging in recycling efforts.

Rapid Growth: What can individuals do to help increase the recycling rate?

Daniel Schoonmaker: To a certain extent it depends on where you are. You can do a lot more in West Michigan, especially Grand Rapids, than you can in many other parts of the state.

To start, the standard advice of reduce, reuse, recycle applies. An estimated 40 percent of garbage in West Michigan is easily recyclable most anywhere with curbside service. We can have a substantial impact on the recycling rate just by taking advantage of the available infrastructure.

In Grand Rapids, an individual can divert up to 84 percent of their waste with some additional effort, a lot of it routine tasks such as donating clothes and furniture or recycling electronics and hazardous waste. Food waste and compostable paper (eg: napkins, pizza boxes) are arguably the only challenging categories, due to the extra effort and expense of composting. Organicycle is really a local treasure with the curbside compost service it offers in Grand Rapids. I doubt people realize how unique that service is in Michigan.

Obviously, purchasing behavior and use can have a significant impact. The majority of garbage are limited-use consumables: nondurable goods, packaging and food waste. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Plus, seek out products that use recycled and recyclable material.

RG: What are the opportunities for the public sector to help increase the recycling rate? What is not being done now?

DS: It's hard to answer this as it's fairly hyper local. The scenario is a little different in every municipality, and what works swimmingly in one community might be impractical in another.
But if there is a universal need for the public sector, it is to prioritize this as a goal.

One of the bigger takeaways from our study is that under current conditions the economic case is limited to a handful of high-value materials, even when you factor in indirect costs such as environmental impact. The public sector needs to have a role in promoting waste diversion as a public good and to work with the private sector to make it more viable. Grand Rapids is a good example of this, as Kent County Department of Public Works has set the pace for the region with its recycling center and educational programs.

Put another way, the public sector needs to set a good example in policy and practice. If nothing else, having recycling available in public buildings helps to normalize the activity.

Through the governor's recycling initiative, the state is putting a good deal of effort into market development and supportive public policy, which have generated a lot of publicity and interest. Electronic waste and organics are conspicuous opportunities on that scale.

RG: What about the private sector? Where do you see opportunities? Are there business opportunities? Or is it just good citizenship?

DS: To a degree, but at the base level it is being a good corporate citizen and employer.  It's positive branding for customers and workers. Regardless of what industry you're in, the absence of recycling will be noted. I'm not aware of anyone that has changed jobs due to a lack of recycling, but I know employees can find a lack of it off-putting, even backward.

The quickest path to an increased recycling rate is for more companies to start recycling. The lowest hanging fruit is to increase the number of businesses recycling their cardboard boxes. It's plentiful, valuable and easy to recycle. All you have to do is find a spot for a dumpster or baler.

In sufficient quantities, recycling will pay for itself through scrap sales and reduced waste fees. Going into this study, the expectation was that any business that could derive revenue from its waste was already doing so, but that's clearly not the case.

From a service standpoint, there are definitely opportunities for entrepreneurs, and we've seen a number of those in Rapid Growth. Folks like Organicycle, New Soil, Spurt, My Green Michigan, and Cocoa have helped create a commercial compost industry. Greener Grads, Rapid Group, Goodwill, ATR, and Valley City Electronic Recycling are all doing really cool things in their niches.

Our research looked at the economic value of disposed material in the current situation. We need to start looking at waste as a resource, and this is a step toward that.  An estimated 42 percent of the material has market value if we were to sell it through existing channels. This would be a local source for raw material if we were to shift to a more circular economy. Developing that further, there are limitless opportunities for alternatives that would retain greater value across the lifecycle.

It's a similar discussion to what we're seeing with energy right now.  There is a lot of value to be found from alternatives and efficiency.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs New Editor
 
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