Inside Track: Wieland is passionate about trash
Kent County’s manager of Resource Recovery & Recycling doesn’t want landfills to become our environmental legacy.
Kristen Wieland will tell you she’s no girly-girl when it comes to recycling.
“I never thought I’d be passionate about trash, but it turns out it’s a pretty cool field,” she said.
What’s cool about it, in her view, are the dedicated people working across Michigan to recycle as much trash as possible rather than dumping it in a landfill, covering it up and trying to forget about it.
Wieland is in charge of Kent County recycling as manager of Resource Recovery & Recycling at the Kent County Department of Public Works. The 36-year-old mother of three — a toddler and twin infants — has eight employees at the county Recycling & Education Center on Wealthy Street SE, and three employees and an intern in the Resource Recovery Program who work on education/outreach and the West MI Take Back Meds and Household Hazardous Waste programs.
“At the Recycling & Education Center, yes, the staff are primarily male,” said Wieland. They work with household waste that in theory is mainly bottles, cans, paper, aluminum and plastic. But it takes some further sorting and it’s messy — not for the faint of heart.
“I’m not a ‘girly-girl’ and I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or to throw myself into a messy situation,” Wieland said. “Someone in my position wouldn’t get far if they can’t do that from time to time. Waste is our business, and most waste isn’t pretty! I try to show people that I can work right alongside of them and see what they see during their time at work and, hopefully, we learn to appreciate and respect each other. I won’t ask anyone to do anything that I won't do.”
This year she will be part of a project to excavate some regional landfills to study the contents, which may lead to new ideas for how to recycle much of what is there.
Born and raised in Traverse City, Wieland attended Michigan State University with a desire for a degree that would lead to an outdoor career. She chose the Parks and Recreation program with a focus on natural resource management and environmental education.
During the summers, she worked for Traverse City State Park and the Grand Traverse Conservation District. Following graduation, she joined an AmeriCorps program where she spent two years working with homeowners and students in four northern Michigan counties, educating them on groundwater protection.
After completing her AmeriCorps commitment in 2003, she and Trevor, her soon-to-be-husband, moved to Phoenix. There she worked as a statewide program coordinator for a high school environmental education program.
After a couple of years, the Wielands decided to move back to Michigan to be closer to family and friends. Not long after, she landed a job as a resource recovery specialist with Kent County DPW in 2006.
“Prior to working at DPW, I had a generalist type of view of environmental issues, with a slight preference for water protection. I didn’t really know many details about recycling, but I quickly learned. And, as of August 2013, I find myself responsible for recycling for the entire county and providing service to the entire region via the Kent County Recycling & Education Center in Grand Rapids. It’s a great challenge,” she said.
“We’ve got a long way to go, as does the rest of the state, to improve recycling and make it a priority in our day-to-day actions — from event recycling to recycling access in the workplace, to basic recycling access at the residential level. Single-stream recycling has helped in many ways but challenged us in others.”
Too much waste still goes into landfills and “every landfill is filling up,” she said.
Kent County’s South Kent Landfill at the Kent-Allegan county line is not expected to be completely full until 2024, and there is land available for expanding it. Kent County also sends some of its household trash to privately owned landfills in the region.
“In our department, we are currently discussing what we want our legacy to be. And resoundingly, we do not want land-filling to be our legacy,” she said.
Kent County, like others across the U.S., has lingering liabilities with municipal landfills that have been closed and sealed for decades yet still pollute or threaten to pollute the groundwater below.
Doug Wood, who recently retired as director of Kent County Department of Public Works, was a major proponent of recycling. He told the Kent County Board of Commissioners in December that a surcharge on waste pickup would help with future pollution control at three closed landfills owned by the county. The proposed fees — equal to 25 cents per month for residences, 22 cents per cubic yard of commercial dumpster trash and a license fee of $30 per truck per year — could generate about $1,450,000 a year, he said.
Wood has reminded county officials many times that funds set aside for dealing with the old landfills are expected to run out by 2025, with a shortfall estimated to be tens of millions of dollars.
Recycling costs money, so the pressure is on to sell scrap such as paper, plastics and metals. A lot of household waste is glass, which has little value. Much of the cost of making glass containers is the energy, and with energy prices dropping, many manufacturers would rather not bother with recycling glass.
Wieland said one of the biggest challenges is that many people are not willing to pay for recycling. In Grand Rapids, recycling pickup costs about $30 a year, but some people would rather drive their recyclables to a recycling site. She said for some, the cost of the gasoline might be more than the pickup fee.
The Kent County Board of Public Works announced in February it now costs money to recycle old televisions at the North Kent Transfer Station, South Kent Landfill and the Recycling & Education Center on Wealthy. Since 2001, the county DPW has collected 5.6 million pounds of electronics to recycle without charge. Now, televisions 27 inches or smaller are $10; for larger TVs the cost is $20. The old cathode ray tube TVs have lead in them and must be processed by a third-party recycling company.
“We recognize the fact that fees can discourage people from recycling, but we want to protect our environment,” said Wieland, and the fees will help Kent County continue to recycle old TVs in an environmentally responsible manner.
It’s not just Kent County, either. Oceana County just announced an increase in the cost of disposing of old tires at the county waste transfer station, from $3 to $4 for each un-mounted car tire.
Very encouraging to Wieland is the growing support for recycling, perhaps best personified in Michigan by Gov. Rick Snyder, who announced in April 2014 a new plan to increase residential recycling. Snyder said the residential recycling rate in Michigan is about 15 percent but the national average is 35 percent. Snyder wants Michigan’s recycling rate to be 30 percent by 2016.
And still more good news is about Michigan companies that already recycle most of their waste.
“Industry is forward thinking on the zero landfill concept,” said Wieland.