Western Washtenaw Recycling is Leading the Charge to a Greener Future
Earth Day 2023 is Saturday, April 22, but every day is Earth Day at the Western Washtenaw Recycling Center.
The WWRA processed 4,025 of those big green recycling drop-off containers last year. That’s approximately 141,000 cubic yards or the equivalent space of 318 standard ranch homes (1,500 sq ft). This doesn’t include the 656 tons collected curbside in Chelsea, another 12 houses.
What we can accomplish without realizing we’re working together is amazing.
“Washtenaw County is looking to become carbon neutral by 2035,” says Marc Williams, Facility Manager for WWRA. “They are taking a lot of steps to reach that goal.”
Williams refers to the “Resilient Washtenaw” plan the Board of Commissioners adopted last December. The Resilient Washtenaw is an aggressive strategy to guide achieving carbon neutrality for Washtenaw’s governmental organization by 2030 and the entire county by 2035. It's in tandem with the state’s initiatives to become greener.
“In the past couple of years, the state has tried to increase the recycling rate,” says Williams. “They’ve made grant opportunities for recycling authorities to increase collection methods, education, and processors and find new uses for recycling.”
Williams states that Michigan’s recycling rates are at an all-time high, increasing from 14.25% to 19.3% of the population involved with recycling at some level. The state processes 4,408,285 tons of recycling annually. Michigan leaders want to raise the recycling rate to 30% by 2025 and 45% by 2030.
“Since Gretchen Whitmer started the Council for Climate Solutions, there has been a one billion dollar investment in recycling through grants,” says Williams. “This funding will create 138,000 jobs, nine billion in labor income, and will provide 33 billion in economic benefits.”
The state’s recycling initiative has already been felt locally through a grant from EGLE (Environment, Great Lakes and Energy). The grant money was used to purchase an automated collection truck and an AI robot for sorting resulting in a 26% increase in curbside collection alone. Plus, the new truck is much safer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists recycling and trash collection as the #5 most dangerous job.
Michigan government is not the only one putting money into recycling.
“A lot of large beverage companies like Coca Cola are doing what is called ‘closing the loop,’” explains Williams. “They offer interest-free loans for recycling equipment because these companies know they should offset the waste they produce.”
Even with all the corporate and government help, Williams says we as a community can significantly impact recycling. A recent audit of what people were dropping off in WWRA’s service areas (the townships of Dexter, Lima, Lyndon, Bridgewater, Manchester, and the City of Chelsea) showed between 28% and 48% of people were dropping off things that couldn’t be recycled, like plastic bags, tires, metal pipes, and such.
“It just goes to show the need for education,” says Williams. “I don’t think people realize the negative impact convenience has on the environment. The biggest thing I see is for people to become less wasteful and be conscious of what they’re buying and discarding. If everyone could make a little change, it would have a big positive impact.”
Not only would it help our natural environment, it would also help the team at WWRA.
“This is not an easy job,” says Williams. “Any steps the public can take to help, that extra step frees us up to do more.”
Recycling is only half of the equation, however. The plastic, glass, and paper need a place to go after being collected and sorted. Recycled materials are commodities subject to fluctuating market prices. Williams explains that some years WWRA turns a profit. In other years, it has to dip into its reserves.
Last year, cardboard could be sold for $134 a ton. This year, consumer spending is lower, and so is demand for packaging. Cardboard this year is $25 a ton. Plastic fluctuations with oil prices. A lot of WWRA’s plastics go to Patagonia and North Face clothing companies. When their sales are down, demand for plastic drops.
Williams started part-time at WWRA 16 years ago while attending Washtenaw Community College for welding. He rode the back of a truck doing curbside pick-up. Marc stayed with WWRA and worked his way up, taking over as manager in 2015. He has a hands-on approach to his leadership, working alongside the WWRA crew of ten. It’s rewarding work for him.
“Every little boy likes big trucks and equipment,” laughs Williams. “But I like to learn about the technology being used, the governmental side of recycling, writing grants, keeping the data, and organizing the routes.”
He adds, “And all of that leads up to those moments where I can look back and think, ‘we just kept 7,000 tons of waste out of a landfill.’”