Economic Development, Government, and Sustainability

Kent recycling center no longer will accept plastic bags

Operational challenges force county’s recycling program to discontinue service.

December 6, 2019
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Kent Recycling
Plastic bags create operational challenges at recycling sorting centers, including shutdowns from the bags tangling around machinery and bags mixing with bales of paper. Courtesy Kent County Department Public Works

Recycling has taken another turn in Kent County. 

The Kent County Department of Public Works announced its Recycling & Education Center will no longer accept plastic shopping bags and shredded paper starting on Jan. 1.

The DPW is asking residents to take bags back to retail shopping centers that offer a clean, dry collection system specifically for bags, and if residents already have plastic bags they would like to recycle, they are encouraged to drop them off at participating stores such as Meijer.

“Our goal is to get all materials that come into our facility into recycling markets,” said Dar Baas, Kent County DPW director. “Over the last several years, it has become increasingly difficult to sort bags from the other recyclables, and the bags aren’t able to be recycled after they pass through a system like ours.”

According to DPW, plastic bags create operational challenges at recycling sorting centers, including shutdowns from the bags tangling around machinery and bags mixing with bales of paper. Because there is a lack of a market for bags from curbside recycling collection, Kent County has paid to send them to an engineered fuel facility in Indiana. This is the only recyclable item sorted by Kent County that does not go to a recycling market, per the DPW.

The center also will not accept shredded paper because it often is too small to get detected and sorted.

This decision follows the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s (EGLE) launch of a statewide recycling education campaign, “Know It Before You Throw It,” which the Business Journal reported on in November.

The campaign is an effort by the department to inform residents on what can and cannot be recycled while promoting EGLE’s efforts to double Michigan’s recycling rate to 30% by 2025 with the ultimate goal of 45% annually.

The educational campaign features ambassadors, which are referred to as the Recycling Raccoon Squad. They are designed to educate the public on the rules for recycling glass, paper, plastics, cardboard, metal and other items.

The state Legislature allocated $15 million for EGLE’s recycling projects in 2019, which is a $13 million increase from 2018. The funds will be used to “support development of recycling markets, increase access to recycling opportunities and support planning efforts to grow recycling at the local level.”

Kristen Wieland, communications and marketing manager for the Kent County DPW, said while the county is not directly associated with the campaign, it does support the program.

“Recycling is what Kent County does,” she said. “Locally, we are the processor of recyclables that people put in their recycling bins. We support the campaign to get more people to recycle and to recycle the right things.”

Wieland said 1 in 4 households participate in the recycling process in Kent County, and the goal is to have 3 in 4 households participate with the help of the campaign.

Last year, there was 388,000 tons of trash collected at the South Kent Landfill, which works out to be more than 30,000 tons per month. Within that trash, there are significant amounts of items that can be reused, according to Wieland.

“Some of the trash is considered easily divertible,” she said. “It could be organic stuff like banana peels and food scraps that can be composted. We just have to get a little more infrastructure to be able to do that. So, a lot of what is in our trash, the majority of what is in our trash does not have to go for disposable.”

State Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said EGLE’s campaign will help better the environment.

“If you throw out a lot of things and they end up decomposing in a dump, like plastics for instance end up in our water streams and it slowly decomposes, we end up with particulates in our water,” she said. “The longer we fail to impact our waste streams and those things end up in our environment, they contaminate our water, our soil and sometimes our air. That can have a negative impact on our health, and it will certainly have an impact on our economy in the long term.”

Economically, Wieland said some companies in the area rely on recyclables for feedstock in their products and furniture manufacturing companies also use recyclables in the products they are making.

The Business Journal also reported the recycling industry in Michigan generates 36,000 jobs and an annual payroll of $2.6 billion, and the 30% recycling goal for 2025 would create 13,000 new jobs statewide and produce an economic impact of $300 million annually.

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