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Posted on Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 6:35 a.m.

Single-stream collection would take Ann Arbor to the next level in recycling

By Guest Column

On Monday night, the Ann Arbor City Council is casting its final vote on a comprehensive plan to enable more materials to be recycled more conveniently. It would be the city’s biggest step forward on environmental issues in the last six years.

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Mike Garfield is Director of the Ecology Center, Ann Arbor, MI

It’s a fitting time for that next big green step.

Forty years ago this month, from March 11-14, 1970, the City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan hosted one of the largest, multi-day Earth Day events in the United States. Tens of thousands of people attended teach-ins, demonstrations, and other events meant to build the emerging awareness of environmental issues in the Ann Arbor area.

One of the outcomes of that first Earth Day in Ann Arbor was the founding of an organization now called the Ecology Center. And one of the Ecology Center’s first projects was a recycling drop-off station - the first recycling program in the state of Michigan - located at the Arborland shopping center.

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Melinda Uerling is CEO of Recycle Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI and President of the National Recycling Coalition, Washington, D.C.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, on April 3, 1990, Ann Arbor voters approved a ballot proposal by a 4-1 margin that created the city’s current recycling program. That plan boosted the curbside collection from a monthly to a weekly service, extended collection to apartment buildings and let people set out their recyclables in only two containers. (Previously, you had nine different “streams” of materials to put on your curb separately - newspapers, tin cans, aluminum, brown glass, green glass, clear glass, and others.)

At that point, recycling went mainstream. While Ann Arbor recovered 3 percent of its trash in 1989, it now recovers more than 50 percent. And since it’s cheaper to recycle or compost materials than to send them to a landfill, the city has saved money on its overall solid waste bill.

Now it’s time to take recycling “to scale.” On Monday, the Ann Arbor City Council is voting on a major upgrade to the recycling program. Right now, only PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastics are recycled. Under the new system, a majority of household plastics would be collected. Right now, recyclables are sorted into two bins, one for containers, and one for paper products. The upgrade would give residents one rolling curb cart - like we have for garbage - in which to place all recyclables. And finally, the new system provides home recyclers with coupons and store vouchers based on the amount of material being recycled.

These are the services now in place in North America's top recycling cities. After implementing this program, we project that Ann Arbor's diversion rate will increase from its current 50 percent level to more than 70 percent - preserving natural resources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and saving City taxpayers money in the process.

It’s been argued that single-stream collection is a step backward for recycling, not forward. We understand the concern. After all, we’ve been the people telling you how important it is to sort your papers from your containers all these years and to keep those materials clean for market. (We were also the people telling you to sort your green glass from your brown glass from your tin cans, and so on, way back when.)

Fewer than 10 years ago, the Ecology Center and Recycle Ann Arbor opposed single-stream collection programs. The early single-stream programs produced lower-quality recyclables that undermined the success of community recycling programs, because the materials recovery facilities (MRFs), where recyclables go after the trucks take them from your curb weren’t able to sort them well enough for the paper mills, plastics reprocessors and other markets that buy the materials.

But MRF sorting technology has improved dramatically in recent years. Single Stream 2.0 makes extra sorting at the household level unnecessary, without compromising the quality of the recyclables. We enthusiastically support the new programs. They make recycling more convenient for you in your home and workplace. They produce high-quality recyclable materials. And study after study has found that the move to single-stream collection greatly increases the amount of material that people recycle, and the amount of material recovered. But perhaps most important, it’s good business: Every ton of material recycled reduces the city’s landfill bill.

There’s no better way to mark the 40th anniversary of the environmental promises forged in 1970 than to commit to making Ann Arbor’s recycling programs the best they can be. Single-stream recycling makes good financial sense, is convenient for Ann Arbor residents and businesses, and is the right choice for our community and the environment.

Mike Garfield is Director of the Ecology Center, Ann Arbor, MI Melinda Uerling is CEO of Recycle Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI and President of the National Recycling Coalition, Washington, D.C.



Fri, Mar 19, 2010 : 3:17 p.m.

I have single stream recycling from Waste mangagment, yet I still tend to sort things the traditional way. It is nice though, they take all forms of plastic and I have found myself throwing out a lot less and recyling more. Plus, there is no longer that question where the half cardboard half plastic container should go.

Janelle Baranowski

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 : 8:37 a.m.

Why can't we keep the dual-stream system and increase the types of plastics accepted? Is there a reason for this?

glenn thompson

Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 2:42 p.m.

Single stream recycling is just another of the many 'opportunities' the Ann Arbor City Council has to spend our tax money to benefit others. The Minutes of the Commercial Recycling Implementation Committee of Thursday, June 15, 2006 state that only 35 percent of the material processed by the MRF is collected in the City of Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor taxpayers are asked to spend over $6.5 million to reduce the cost of recycling in Washtenaw County, Wayne County and even Toledo, Ohio. Other public bodies have investigated single stream recycling and have rejected it. One example is the University of Colorado; Dan Baril, Colorado University's Recycling Program Manager said: It (the single-stream pilot program) made it easier for people to collect the recyclables, but all of the other negatives outweighed just the few benefits. Another is the is the City of Berkeley California. The city is asked to spend $6 to $7 million on a new speculative program while at the same time the City Administrator tells us that services to the Ann Arbor taxpayer must be cut; services from the same money bucket. We are told the city may not be able to afford to do the street leaf collection, that the city may not be able to afford to pick up Christmas trees next year. Even now we must now pay a fee just to enter the recycle drop-off station. The issue is very simple, the Ann Arbor City Council should not vote to spend 6 to 7 million tax dollars to benefit consultants and contractors, it should retain the programs that benefit the taxpayer.