Leaders of Michigan communities both large and small overwhelmingly agree recycling remains important, but they face challenges to implement recycling programs for their residents.
A recent University of Michigan public policy survey showed widespread support among community leaders for offering recycling services for both environmental and economic benefits, yet respondents said they often encounter difficulties launching those programs. Struggles often are tied to costs, improper recycling practices, and unknown end markets for recycled materials, according to the survey.
Debra Horner, project manager for U-M’s Michigan Public Policy Survey, spoke this week at the annual Michigan Recycling Coalition conference in East Lansing, where she detailed the opinion study’s findings.
“We asked whether recycling programs can help decrease litter and pollution at the local level. Can it protect clean water across Michigan? Can it help with global climate change? And then we also asked a question about whether new state and regional recycling efforts can boost local economic development,” Horner said.
The researcher said 77 percent of leaders agreed recycling can solve local litter problems and 87 percent agreed it can protect clean water. More than half – 56 percent – said recycling can help address the global climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gases.
Horner said results of the repeated UM opinion surveys have shown through the years that the numbers of community leaders who support recycling efforts have continued to grow, especially in more recent years.
Attending the conference was Erik Petrovkis, Meijer Inc.’s director of environmental compliance and sustainability. He said many of the university’s opinion survey mirrors what the large retailer found in its own customer surveys between 2017 and early 2021.
“This last assessment we surveyed 5,300 customers and the percentage of customers for whom sustainability is important or very important shifted from about two-thirds to well over three-quarters – about a 14-point shift in the last three years,” Petrovkis said.
Additionally, Horner said 76 percent of community leaders surveyed across Michigan agreed their residents wanted recycling programs available, and 73 percent believe additional funding is needed to help improve or expand their local efforts.
Sean Hammond, of the Michigan Township Association, said even the earliest stages of administrative setup for recycling programs can be challenging for some smaller municipalities, both financially and logistically. He spoke on a panel about the survey results.
“How do we get to more recycling services available? Because clearly, it’s supported,” he said. “There’s a gap on how we get there.”
Horner said her experience conducting this survey through the years tells her that local government officials, particularly in smaller jurisdictions, are “just overwhelmed” and don’t have the capacity to write and submit grant applications for state recycling grants. She suggested it may take a collective effort for some places to succeed.
“Finding ways to bring – to concierge – to hold their hand and to say, ‘these are the steps you need to take’ and be very explicit about that. I think that’s really going to help move the needle for a lot of these places,” she said.
Boosting recycling in Michigan is part of the state’s new climate action plan, meant to be a blueprint to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The recently adopted MI Healthy Climate Plan calls for the state to boost its recycling rate to at least 45 percent and cut food waste in half by 2030.
Michigan currently lags much of the rest of the United States in its 19 percent recycling rate.
A multi-year, bipartisan effort under the last and current administrations to revamp Michigan’s solid waste laws resulted in a legislative package designed to enhance recycling, composting, and materials reuse. The bills passed through the state House in spring 2021, but since stalled in the Senate without any committee discussion or hearings.
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