Local and Michigan Headlines: West Michigan Ready for Wind Power Development; Recycling Improvements Proposed for Kent County

We missed yesterday, but here’s some recent Michigan headlines:

If we missed anything, let us know in the comments.

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Grand Rapids / Kent County Recycling Program Expanded

Kent County’s recycling program—which serves Grand Rapids—has been expanded to allow for the recycling of plastic materials numbered 1 through 7. This is a significant expansion as the recycling program used to only accept plastic materials numbered 1 and 2. The city is expecting to see a significant increase over the 12,261 tons of plastic recycled last year. Moreover, the program now accepts plastic grocery bags which will hopefully contribute, however minimally, to reducing their destructive impact on the environment. Those who are not currently enrolled in Grand Rapids’ free recycling program can pick up free recycling bins from the City Monday through Friday from 7:00am to 4:00pm at the Streets and Sanitation Department (201 Market Ave SW). Additionally, Kent County offers free services for hazardous waste disposal.

It’s important to remember that while recycling is considerably better than simply burying items in landfills, there are frequently limited uses for plastic materials once they have been processed and more importantly, recycling does nothing to address the question of product design. In addition to recycling, people are strongly encouraged by the federal government and environmental groups to practice the first two components of the “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” motto by reducing what they buy in the first place (buying more durable products, avoiding products with a minimal amount of packaging) and reusing things such as food jars for storage or using a reusable coffee cup instead single use cups. The City of Grand Rapids has a few tips on reducing waste at the point of purchase and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) has further tips for reducing waste and reusing materials.

Michigan Recycling Rate at 20%; Far Below other Great Lakes States

According to a new study released last week, Michigan’s recycling rate is only 20%, a number considerably below the average of 30% in other Great Lakes states and 27% nationwide. The state spends only $200,000 on recycling programs while states in the region such as Wisconsin and Ohio spend $29 million and $12 million respectively on recycling. Of the nation’s largest cities, only Detroit and El Paso (where curbside recycling is being added next year), do not offer recycling with curbside collection being illegal in Detroit due to city ordinances passed to guarantee that a steady flow of trash makes its way the nation’s largest incinerator, located at Russell and I-94. Low recycling rates are blamed on a variety of factors including garbage companies unwillingness to recycle, a decline in communities offering curbside recycling (only 27% currently do from 37% five years ago), and a perception that recycling is more work and costs more (in some cities in Michigan it does cost extra, however it is free in Grand Rapids). Still, industry groups estimate that an increase in recycling in Michigan would generate $155 to $300 million in new income, generate $12 million to $22 million, and create as many as 12,000 jobs while providing a partial solution to Michigan’s landfill shortage (landfills will be filled to capacity within 20 years).

The numbers were released in a study by the Michigan Recycling Partnership, a group largely made up of grocery industry businesses and industry groups, including Meijer, Coca-Cola, Family Fare Supermarkets, Wal-Mart, and even Altria (formerly Philip Morris, parent company of Kraft). While the group does support increased recycling, it opposes an expansion of the state’s bottle deposit law citing what they claim would be a higher cost for consumers for only a 1% increase. It is also worth noting that the Michigan Grocers Association, a member group of the Michigan Recycling Partnership, claims that the bottle deposit law increases the threat of bio-terrorism because grocery stores cannot inspect every returned container. Instead, the Michigan Recycling Partnership calls for the elimination of the bottle deposit law and the implementation of their “Recycling Makes Cent$” plan to increase funding for recycling. The program would essentially implement a “flat tax” on purchases in the state over two dollars with a one-penny surcharge being added to each purchase in order to fund recycling programs with 50% going towards matching funds for communities, 40% for grants for specific programs or businesses, and 10% for education an litter abatement. However, the program falls short in that it absolves industry of any responsibility for its role in failing to produce products that can be profitably recycled and instead places the responsibility for funding programs on consumers.

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage

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Heather Rodgers opens Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage with the revelation that certain landfills are visible from space and continues on to some sobering statistics on garbage in the United States. According to statistics cited in the book, people in the United States threw away more than 500 billion pounds of garbage in 2003 while consuming 30% of the world’s resources and only accounting for 4% of the world population. Rodgers book is filled with such statistics as she explores the United States’ relationship to garbage in terms of the past, present, and future of garbage in the United States.

Rodgers begins her book by discussing municipal waste incinerators which are used around the country to burn “municipal solid waste,” a term that government and corporate engineers have used to describe household garbage waste. While receiving only 15% of household waste in the United States, due in large part to strong public opposition to incinerators (an opposition that is chronicled in Rodgers’ book), incinerators are responsible for creating 69% of worldwide dioxin emissions. Despite claims that incinerators can provide a potential solution to the dependence on natural energy sources, an argument promoted by the garbage industries rhetoric of “waste to energy,” twice as much energy would be saved for every ton of trash not produced than if that same ton was burned. Nevertheless, public relations campaigns by the waste industry, who viewed incinerators as a way to eliminate the waste disposal problem without actually having to reduce consumption, were successful in convincing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government organizations to give approval for the construction of new incinerators in the 1980s. As has traditionally been the case with the disposal of garbage in the United States, many of these incinerators where located in neighborhoods populated by people of color and low-income people.

The role of corporations in lobbying for incineration as a solution to the country’s garbage problem is indicative of a trend that plays a central role in Rodgers’ book—the corporatization of garbage under the guise of “waste management.” The corporitization of garbage has its roots in the late 1800s and early 1900s when city government’s, long plagued by piles of rotting trash, began to view trash as a technical problem rather than a health problem due to advances in bacteriology that ended the belief that garbage brought disease. Before this reassessment of trash, city governments attempted to address the problem by encouraging people to reuse, used innovative efforts such as composting, and even used food scraps as feed for hogs. However, once the problem was viewed from a technical standpoint, the new field of “sanitation engineering” began to look at trash not as a potential resource but as a logistic problem that could be overcome through massive disposal operations. The concept of the sanitary landfill emerged out of this context in the 1930s, as did the eventual corporatization of garbage with began when corporations such as Waste Management and Browning-Ferris Industries began constructing massive landfills and operating massive garbage removal systems. These corporations forced a consolidation in the industry and put many independent garbage removal companies out of business and actively worked to put on the façade that they were able to remove trash in a “ecological” way without making any reductions in waste.

Rather than focusing on the individual and the role that littering plays in promoting waste, Rodgers discusses how such a focus on individual littering has largely served the interests of corporations who actively promoted the idea that the garbage problem is driven by individual actions rather than more systemic reasons. While it is a significant problem when many people and corporations chose not to recycle their garbage (an argument that can gain further proof when one considers that 125 million “disposable” cups are thrown away each day)—a choice that is being made quite frequently as only 54% of aluminum, 26% of glass, 40% of paper, and 5% of plastic products are being recycled—recycling serves a limited function as a way of reducing waste as it does little to limit production, a fact that has certainly not been lost on industry. By focusing on measures such as recycling, corporations have been able to prevent a serious discussion of the way in which goods are not only produced but also how they are packaged, which given the fact that some 40% of waste in the United States is packaging, is quite an achievement. As the country shifted towards a consumer driven economy in the post-World War II era, corporations realized that their financial futures were dependent on product sales and fostered an environment that promoted a “throw away” society with inventions such as paper plates, Styrofoam cups, and disposable razors, and at its most sinister, produced products with “built in obsolescence” to guarantee that they would need to be replaced.

Gone Tomorrow provides an important examination into the problem of waste in society, at once both illuminating a problem that remains largely unconsidered in society and providing numerous insights that can expand the analysis of those that have thoughtfully considered the waste problem. By focusing on the corporate nature of the waste problem, Rodgers also provides yet another example of how corporations have become the dominant institutions in our lives. While Gone Tomorrow makes little effort to outline an alternative to combat the corporate management of trash that has come out of the garbage industry’s history, the book instead makes it clear that the fight against corporate power—whether it be over the privatization of water, neoliberal trade agreements, or garbage removal—is a struggle of utmost importance to the people of the world.

Heather Rodgers, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, (New Press, 2005).