Market expansion among key opportunities and challenges facing Michigan recycling industry

May 25, 2018

Kirk Heinze and I were on hand for the 36th annual Michigan Recycling Coalition (MRC) and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality State of Recycling conferences in Kalamazoo recently. Several recycling leaders in both the private and public sectors discussed the opportunities and challenges the industry is facing.

Leading off was Bill Gurn, manager of facilities and operations maintenance at Holland-based Haworth. Gurn, an industry icon who has helped pioneer “zero landfill,” is stepping down after an11-year tenure as MRC chair.


Gurn believes a key MRC accomplishment over the past couple decades has been a consistent and conscientious effort to bring manufacturing and business into the MRC.  That has happened because industry leaders have increasingly realized that what is good for the environment can also be good for profitability. 

Bill Gurn
Credit Roger Cargill

Many important challenges facing the recycling industry, according to Gurn, are market related:  “the amount of places we can move material to, the places where we can recycle. The state can gather a lot of material, but we have to have a place for that to go. We have to have businesses that make something out of the recyclable material that we collect.

“If we’re going to increase what we recycle and encourage others to do it, we have to drive those costs down.”

Gurn talks about how Haworth has had zero-landfill operations throughout North America since 2009 and about how that ethos comes right from the top of the Haworth Company.  “Without that commitment from top-level management, such programs will not succeed.” 

What will it take for more companies to follow Haworth’s lead to zero-landfill operations?

“I hate to keep coming back to markets, but more of them would certainly help.”

Joe Kohn is the community relations manager for Advanced Disposal, the nation’s fifth-largest waste hauler with extensive services in southeast Michigan. In 2014 the company became the waste hauler for the entire west side of Detroit.

Kirk Heinze, Joe Kohn
Credit Russ White

For Advanced Disposal, which serves 16 states and the Bahamas, educational initiatives are crucial to increasing recycling and composting.  A case in point is the  company’s work with an organization called Green Living Science to educate kids about the importance of recycling so they can take home recycling knowledge and encourage their families to sign up for free recycling as part of their trash service.

Another initiative is a collaborative program between Advanced Disposal’s Arbor Hills Landfill & Compost Yard and the Detroit Public School Community District’s Office of School Nutrition.  Yard waste is composted at the Salem Township compost yard and then donated to dozens of Detroit schools for agricultural education and urban gardening efforts.  The company also returns compost to residents of Salem Township, Kohn says, and “150 yards of compost are snapped up in 90 minutes whenever it’s made available.”

“We don’t just pass out bins; we help educate the community on recycling and composting.  People have to know what goes in the bins so we can have clean and useable product,” Kohn says. “It’s about building a culture and letting people know they can make a difference in keeping their city beautiful.”

Kohn also tells Heinze how the company runs its entire trash collection truck fleet on compressed natural gas.

Air quality is a growing concern in Detroit, and running trucks on CNG helps “create a greener, cleaner Detroit.

“It’s important for us to be a partner with our communities. The most important thing for us is that we’re providing high-quality environmental services. We’re doing it in a safe way, and we’re keeping our communities clean.”

In addition to new market development and vigorous consumer education initiatives, there are some major policy changes that would help spur greater recycling activity in Michigan.  Matt Flechter is recycling market development specialist for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Russ White, Kirk Heinze, Matt Flechter, Schupan & Sons COO Tom Emmerich
Credit Roger Cargill

In discussing some proposed legislation in the Michigan Legislature designed to help increase the state’s recycling rate, Flechter tells Heinze he and his colleagues “are making sure we bring our recycling statutes and laws that regulate, govern, and encourage recycling into the 21st Century. Our current laws really focus on disposal. We’re not looking closely enough at the opportunities to make marketable products out of waste.”

According to Flechter, the DEQ strongly supports pending legislative amendments to Michigan’s current solid waste laws that will, among other things, expedite local recycling planning and approval processes and encourage more regional efforts. 

One proven method to generate more recycling, he says, is to provide more citizens with access to the ease and efficiency of curbside recycling. 

“There are two things that need to be done to have a high-functioning recycling program.  First, residents and businesses need to know how and where to recycle. And we need to reduce the contamination of the recycled material. One of our challenges is making sure people put the right thing in the right bin.

“We need a mindset change. We need to think about these materials as a resource.”

TABB Packaging Solutions, based in Plymouth, Michigan, has long viewed recyclables as a valuable commodity resource according to Brittany Munyo, co-owner, and Julie Kavulich, the company’s business development manager.

The female-owned company, which is rooted in over a half century of family experience in the plastic packaging and bottled water industries, has received many honors, including the 2015 Women Business Enterprise (WBE).

Kirk Heinze, Russ White, Julie Kavulich, Brittany Munyo

“We purchase the plastic you put in your bin, and we work with manufacturers to convert that material back into water and laundry detergent bottles,” says Munyo. 

Kavulich says companies, including some of the most well known in the world, are increasingly looking to put more recycled material back into bottles for new product. This commitment from businesses like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Proctor and Gamble has been spurred not only by the growing consumer and government push for greater environmental responsibility, but also by industry awareness that greener manufacturing can have a favorable impact on profitability. 

“But even with the increase in PET demand, the nationwide PET recycling rate is slightly above 30%.  We need to increase that rate and also feedstock supply and quality.”

“As a processor, we are essentially the key link between curb-side collection and the manufacturers using recyclables in their products.  And, we’re looking forward to continue working with the industry and consumers to grow recycling in Michigan by building awareness and knowledge,” adds Munyo.

Another major Michigan processor is ReVital Polymers, based in Sarnia, Ontario.  The recently opened Sarnia recycling facility is one of the newest and most advanced plastics recycling and recovery plants in North America. 

Russ White, Keith Bechard
Credit Roger Cargill

According to Keith Bechard, chief commercial officer, ReVital collects mixed plastics in bales, processes those bales into pellets which are then sold to manufacturers who use the pellets in their respective products. 

“We take the plastic that you take to the curb, and we process that into highly-pure commodity resins. And we do that for about 30 million people across the Midwest, including Detroit,” says Bechard.

The company’s largest market in Michigan is the auto industry, primarily into heating, ventilation, and cooling systems in your car.

Because of what he views as a firm, long-term commitment among auto manufacturers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by meeting demand for “post-consumer and post-industrial engineered recycled resin, Michigan is the company’s land of opportunity.”

ReVital is part of Ontario’s clean technology industry, contributing to the province’s green economy.  But those contributions extend to all ReVital’s markets. 

“When I go into a community, and I collect their plastics,” Bechard explains, “I want to give them back that plastic so they can use it as a resource to improve the industry and the community and create jobs and live better lives through a circular economy.”

Increasing municipal recycling rates and improving feedstock quality are front and center as the cities of Lansing and East Lansing are teaming up on a number of recycling fronts. 

Welch, DeShambo, White, Heinze
Credit Roger Cargill

Catherine DeShambo is environmental services administrator for East Lansing. She says finding a partner like Lansing is essential for the city to gain economies of scale and for recycling to make sense financially.

As recycling participation rises in both cities, East Lansing transfers its recycling material to Lansing. Both communities see opportunities to increase their recycling rates.

Lori Welch, environmental specialist for Lansing, says “even a municipality our size struggles to get the tonnage needed to bring more recycling processing infrastructure to the area.”

Heinze, White, Welch, DeShambo
Credit Roger Cargill

Both DeShambo and Welch are strong proponents of regional collaboration when it comes to recycling.  Not only do such efforts leverage economies of scale, but financial risk is shared by several municipalities. 

“Like all commodities, recycled materials fluctuate price-wise, and it is important that the downside risk is shared all along the supply chain,” says DeShambo.  “One component of this risk sharing is when several municipalities opt to form partnerships.”

And both agree that aspects of the pending legislation focused on changes in solid waste management will encourage and expedite more regional partnerships.

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