Aug. 4 2010 12:00 AM

Lansing seeks to reinvent its recycling operations

The wedding is over. The gifts are stowed. And now the bride has a mountain of empty boxes. Lansing’s recycling trucks won’t pick up cardboard, so she loads the waffle iron box and about 20 others into her car and hauls them to the Recycling Transfer Station at 530 E. South St.

There she finds three dark green containers lined up between South Street and the pole-barn-like garage near REO Town. Signs designate slots for varying materials like junk mail and magazines. The cubicle for cardboard is nearly full, but she crams the boxes in and continues on her way.

Ultimately, the huge containers are transported to Granger on the north side of town.

That scene will change within the next two months as Lansing embarks on a “single stream recycling” venture, expanding the amount of recyclables it picks up at homes. This wider variety of co-mingled recyclables will be transported to a new, smaller transfer station within the city, but it is undecided whether the city or a private company will build it and where it will be. That decision should come within two months. The South Street recycling center will close.

“People are beginning to look at recycling in a different way. We can’t just keep blowing through life, casting stuff into the landfill. We have to take a bigger picture on the environment,” said Chad Gamble, director of the Lansing Public Service Department.

It’s no wonder he’s concerned about landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says 22 billion plastic bottles (that’s 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour) get thrown away in the U.S. each year. We throw away enough office and writing paper to build a 12-foot-high wall from Los Angeles to New York City, the EPA estimates.

Under the new plan, either the city or a private company will transport the bottles, boxes, paper and plastic from Lansing to a larger material recycling facility, or MRF, elsewhere. There the items will be treated as resources, sorted and sent to varying purchasers. The nearest MRF is in Ann Arbor.

Project costs are undetermined at this time. But if the city decides to build and operate the new transfer station, a capital investment would come from the city’s recycling fund, Jerry Ambrose, director of the Lansing Finance Department, said.

“If we do it, we will need to find the space for a new station and figure out costs to build it,” Ambrose said. “If someone else does it, they will have to do those things.”

“Lansing’s been doing its recycling the same way for 20 years while the industry has morphed into a more robust one,” Gamble said. Two years ago it hired a national recycling expert to help the department, Gamble said. That consultant was Jim Frey of Resource Recycling Systems in Ann Arbor.

“Today people have to work to recycle. We want to make it cool, easy and fun,” Gamble said.

The city is moving toward a system that Ann Arbor implemented July 5 called single stream recycling. It basically means residents and city workers can load recyclable waste into one pile and ship it elsewhere to be sorted by material.

Meridian Township moved to single stream (unsorted stuff) recycling last year, contracting with Granger to haul it away.

Single stream can yield more participation and more material to be recycled simply because it is easier, LeRoy Harvey, Meridian Township’s recycling and energy coordinator, said.

“But there are some less obvious benefits important for communities that are struggling with balancing their budgets — not to mention preserving their streets, air quality and water quality,” Harvey said.

Of all the waste that comes out of a household, the more that goes in the recycle bin, the less that goes into the trash pile, ultimately reducing the household’s trash fees while reducing the community’s need for landfills.

Fewer trips for trash means fewer big truck trips. That equates to less diesel exhaust, smog, runoff into waterways and expensive wear and tear on roads. Besides chugging fuel, big garbage trucks often leak oil and toxic swill onto streets, especially on rainy days where containers collect water. Trash is squeezed like a sponge, leaving large smelly toxic puddles that are later washed into streams, rivers and lakes, Harvey said.

Lansing will receive five new trucks at $260,000 each by the end of September to be added to the 18-truck fleet. Haulers will pick up No. 3 to No. 7 plastics (except polystyrene), green glass, phone books, paperback books, corrugated cardboard and boxboard on top of the materials already collected. Curbside recycling has been available in Lansing since 1991.

The city has not yet announced what company will be awarded the contract to maintain the recycling station and transport the materials to the MRF. Under consideration are Granger, which receives the city’s recyclables and its trash now and maintains the city’s landfill; Friedland Industries, Inc., located in Lansing, which specializes in metal and document destruction; FCR/Casella, a company with numerous contracts nationwide; Kent County Public Works near Grand Rapids, which is building a new MRF with completion expected last month; and Great Lakes Recycling, which operates two MRFs in Southeast Michigan, one in Roseville and one in New Boston.

FCR has the Ann Arbor contract that includes a MRF and also serves Toledo. Ann Arbor also has included the RecycleBank, a concept the consultant Frey says on his website can double the amount a household recycles.

Ron Groner founded RecycleBank for his MBA at Columbia University. It took two years to develop and was launched in 2004. The recycling trucks have special arms that pick up the bins, read chips in them, weigh the material and award points similar to a frequent-flyer program to homeowners. In Ann Arbor, the points are good for savings at restaurants.

The new Ann Arbor system cost about $6 million and will take about six years to reap a return on investment.
Lansing’s budget is stretched thin so the city is proceeding slowly. But its new trucks will be built so that the automated pick-up arm enabling the RecycleBank program can ultimately be installed.

Lansing’s annual recycling budget is $1.5 million, funded by a $67.50 fee every residential homeowner finds on his property tax bill. It is levied on houses up to and including four units.

In the coming year, Gamble plans a pilot study to expand the recycling program to apartment complexes and commercial properties that currently are exempt. He’ll also be studying the feasibility of recycling construction materials, estimated to make up 20 percent of the average community’s waste.

Lansing, East Lansing and Michigan State University all have trash and recycling programs. The surrounding small communities generally contract with vendors. There is little communal mixing of waste, except for regional events like the Recyclerama coming Sept. 25. Here, usually difficult items to recycle are accepted, such as electronic equipment and hard cover books. But a regional recycling coordinators committee meets regularly, and more joint ventures may ensue.

Gamble expects that Lansing’s transfer station may become the first regional hub for recyclables. Increasing the quantity of materials may drive better deals with the companies transporting to the MRFs.
This new transfer station has huge economic development potential and can generate new jobs, Steve Chalker, Lansing’s recycling coordinator, said.

“We’re not talking about trash. We’re talking about resources that can create wealth,” he said.