Out Of The Rubbish: More Regional Waste Entering Recycling Stream

Increasingly, waste or garbage or trash – whatever one chooses it call it – is not ending up in the trash can or landfill. Recycling services and facilities are emerging as leaders of the region’s waste removal industry – and the big business is only getting bigger.

“If you make recycling easy for people, it becomes like brushing your teeth. It becomes a way of life,” said Kim Elliott, of Grand Traverse County Resource Recovery, the county’s recycling arm. “I think Grand Traverse County is really starting to shine.”

Andy Gale, founder and president of the local Bay Area Recycling for Charities (BARC), got in the game early. He said he became frustrated when he couldn’t find a place to recycle certain materials and decided he would strive to change that.

“If I was struggling to recycle No. 3 to 7 plastics, I figured everybody was struggling with it, too,” Gale said. “Seven years ago when we started, those services and possibilities weren’t around.”

Now he is way beyond plastics. BARC offers recycling services and eco-friendly products for homes, businesses and events with a portion of profits donated to local charities.

After purchasing Michigan Mattress Recyclers in July 2014, BARC now serves as the primary entity to recycle bed mattresses in Michigan – between 3,000 and 5,000 per month – and pulls in new contracts for those materials from Wisconsin to New York. Plus, he said the electronics recycling game is proving profitable, too.

“The electronics waste we do (eRecovery Michigan) is the most valuable and it’s the fastest growing recycling stream in the country,” Gale said, explaining how “90 percent of what we put in a landfill is recyclable if you take the time to take it apart and build a market for it.”

And that’s the challenge – to change people’s habits and build an economy around what for so many years was considered just rubbish.

“We took three generations to put ourselves in this plastic and disposable world and it will probably take three generations to get ourselves out of it,” Gale predicted.

And the statewide numbers aren’t exactly flattering.

“Each year, Michiganders landfill $435 million worth of recyclable materials, like plastics, metal and wood,” said Karen Tommasulo, spokeswoman with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the agency that regulates and monitors licensed landfills. “We can develop new markets for these reusable commodities and landfill less material. Then we are helping the environment and the economy.”

It’s all part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s initiative to double the state’s residential recycling rate within the next two years – from 15 to 30 percent. It’s a lofty goal, but one taken seriously by the area’s biggest recycling player, American Waste.

“Recycling is great for the sector as it creates opportunities for all individuals involved, which creates jobs, investment in the community, etc.,” said Mark Bevelhymer, American Waste’s general manager.

The waste hauling company opened a state-of-the art $12.5 million, 4.5-acre facility off Hammond Road in Garfield Township in 2012 and has also invested millions in new local trash sorting sites. It now boasts more than 150 employees on the payroll among its numerous facilities across the region. It certainly helped when in 2011 the company won the exclusive waste removal contracts for Traverse City and nearby townships.

“Being awarded the contracts with the City of Traverse City, Peninsula and Acme townships has been a highlight of our business and it really shows the support of the municipalities which include the other townships here in Grand Traverse County,” Bevelhymer said.

The company annually processes several thousands of yards of materials, including recyclables and construction or demolition materials, at both of its Traverse City and Kalkaska facilities. From those streams, employees pull out materials that can be recycled, then bundle them up for sale on the growing commodities markets now developed for such stuff.

What’s changed in more recent years is how single-stream recycling now makes trash sorting less of an issue. Home and business recyclers place all recyclable materials into one curbside bin or one public trailer container, ending the need to sort the various plastics from each other and separately keep the metals, cardboard and glass.

“Since introducing single-stream recyclables – no sorting system – to our customers and the surrounding counties, the participation rate has increased as we have made recycling very friendly and very easy for the customers,” Bevelhymer said.


Recycling specialist Brian Burke of the DEQ said this area actually fares better in terms of recycling rates than most other areas of Michigan.

“They’ve got a lot of active programs up there,” he said from his Lansing office. “They are definitely further ahead than other parts of the state. For that matter, the entire northwest section is better compared to other rural areas.”

State authorities are in the midst of an attempt to establish a better way to measure recycling rates, Burke said, rather than just collecting figures for materials admitted to landfills.

“I think Traverse City will stack up there when we are done,” he said.

And it’s both the people who live here, as well as the businesses that establish here.

“Here in northern Michigan, we see our customers, not just the residential ones but also the commercial and industrial customers, starting to focus on reducing the amount of waste they are generating by increasing the amount of recycling that they participate in and wanting to become a zero-waste customer by the means of recycling,” Bevelhymer said.

Officials agreed it’s all about changing habits of both year-round and visiting populations.

“Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, you took the used motor oil and poured it in the sand, and thought nothing of it, but we know better now,” said Grand Traverse County’s Elliott. “Recycling used to be so difficult to do.”

Now Grand Traverse County’s household hazardous materials recycling program annually garners more than 100,000 pounds of toxic waste deliberately kept out of landfills, he said.

“I’ve seen attitude changes and definitely for the good,” Elliott said. “Every time you throw something into that (recycling) bin, you are supporting somebody’s job. And if anybody should be doing this activity, it should be us. We’re a tourist area. It’s beautiful and we want to keep it that way.”


Trash by the numbers

Michigan residents in 2014 increased waste sent to landfills by more than 2 million cubic yards, amounting to a 5.6-percent jump.

In the rural north, Grand Traverse County’s more densely concentrated areas last year sent 320,523 cubic yards of trash to landfills, according to a solid waste landfill report released by the DEQ in February. That’s far more than most other more rural counties around. The next greatest amount comes from Manistee County with 280,867 cubic yards sent to the dumps.

The remainder of the landfill numbers include Charlevoix County at 148,963 cubic yards, Kalkaska County at 130,929 cubic yards, Wexford County at 108,896 cubic yards, Crawford County at 56,165 cubic yards, Leelanau County at 28,230 cubic yards, Benzie County at 28,128 cubic yards and Antrim County at 16,963 cubic yards, according to the report.

Incidentally, the most local landfill to Traverse City – the Waste Management-owned Glen’s Sanitary Landfill in Leelanau County – experienced significant decreases in the quantities of municipal, commercial and industrial wastes it accepted. It took in 93,801 cubic yards of municipal and commercial waste in 2013, but saw a drop to 75,582 cubic yards of the same stuff last year. For industrial waste, Glen’s accepted 574 cubic yards last year, an enormous drop from the 2,355 cubic yards taken in 2013.