Government, Nonprofits, and Sustainability

Researchers digging through Michigan trash bags

They hope to get a better handle on the composition of waste and how to recycle it.

June 26, 2015
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trash diggers
Research teams at the South Kent Landfill in Byron Center are sorting through bags of trash this summer to get a better handle on the state’s municipal solid waste stream. Courtesy WMSBF

A group of researchers has been digging through trash bags across Michigan this summer in an effort to gather information about what is being thrown away.

The Trash Research Project, which is the field operation of the overall Michigan Municipal Solid Waste Characterization and Valuation Project, seeks to define the various commodity streams found in the state's municipal solid waste stream, better known as garbage.

Nearly a dozen organizations are part of the coalition responsible for the project, which is being led by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.

Daniel Schoonmaker, director of WMSBF, said the coalition began just over a year ago to bring together the members of the public and private sectors in the waste, recycling and composting fields.

“This project is the largest deliverable that has emerged from that effort thus far,” Schoonmaker said.

“It was a response to the request for proposals the state put out in response to the governor’s recycling initiative last year, which was a challenge from the administration to double the recycling rate and to put us up around the national average.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014 announced a statewide plan designed to increase residential recycling access statewide. He also announced appointments to a nine-member Michigan Recycling Council to guide the plan’s implementation.

“Michigan trails other Great Lakes states and much of the nation in residential recycling. It’s a complex challenge, but one that we can address. This plan puts us on the right path,” Snyder said at that time.

Snyder pointed out that Michigan’s recycling rate for residential household waste is about 15 percent while the national average is 35 percent, and a recent study concluded more than $435 million in recyclable metal, glass, paper and plastics goes from Michigan households to Michigan landfills each year.

“They’ve had two rounds of RFPs for funding go out,” Schoonmaker said. “The first phase, which we participated in, was around data collection.

“The project we proposed was not to address the recycling rate conversation but to get a hold on what the economic value is of what we are throwing away. That led to the waste characterization evaluation study.”

Schoonmaker said data is very minimal as to what is going into landfills each year, and The Trash Research Project will test the number that’s been put forth and other assumptions currently made about municipal solid waste in Michigan.

“The waste characterization in the state is more or less an educated guess, based on old information or desktop calculations, which are based on things people have bought and demographic comparisons with other states where the data collection is more robust,” he said.

By separating and weighting a sample of the materials at eight landfill sites across the state, the study will provide data necessary to “determine the value of that potentially recyclable material, employment opportunities that could come from recycling it, and other potential opportunities that could come from recycling it before it gets to a disposal site.”

“We are going to get a pretty solid understanding of what is the actual composition of the materials we are throwing away,” Schoonmaker said.

Working with technical consultant Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber, WMSBF will create a Waste Characterization Report for local communities and the state, providing much-needed data to decision makers on the materials sent to Michigan landfills and incinerators.

With that information and commodity pricing data provided by WMSBF member companies, Grand Valley State University will perform an analysis of the potential economic impact to the state and local communities if certain amounts of material were to be diverted.

Six student interns make up the core team that has been working on the project at the landfill sites. They are expected to wrap up their work in the coming week.

The West Michigan sites included in the project are the South Kent Landfill in Byron Center, the Muskegon County Landfill, the Ottawa Farms Landfill in Coopersville, and the Kent County Waste to Energy Facility in downtown Grand Rapids.

A team at GVSU will conduct the next phase of the project, which is the economic impact analysis.

Schoonmaker said the study would not assume the value of recycled materials is a straight line, which he said makes it somewhat unique.

“We want to give a hard look to what it will actually mean for the markets if, in certain categories, we were to double or more than double the streams, because that is not something that is going to be without impact on the market,” he said.

“The hardest part is going to be predicting the variability of the market when you start looking on a macro scale of doubling certain items and such.”

The final Michigan Municipal Solid Waste Characterization and Valuation Project report is expected mid-fall.

Schoonmaker said the final two data sets that will be produced are important because they can help with future decision-making. He noted the waste characterization information could help haulers in conversations regarding waste-to-energy investments, while the economic value analysis can help inform diversion initiatives and demand-side conversations.

“From a characterization standpoint, this is going to be the best data the state has ever had,” he said. “That could have any myriad of implications to how local and statewide agencies make decisions.

“From our standpoint, we are looking for meaningful data information to help us make our case on the benefits of waste diversion. … That is going to make it a lot easier for us to have demand-side waste diversion conversations with the companies we work with.”

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