Opinion | Michigan has a waste problem but these reforms will help

In spring 1987, Americans were captivated by the strange saga of the “Mobro 4000” garbage barge looking for a place to unload trash from New York, where landfills were running out of space. The barge traveled down the east coast to Mexico and back again – its load rejected by every official along the route. The garbage ultimately ended up back in New York, but the incident focused public attention and national legislation on the problem of disposal.

More than three decades later, it is a much different story: Michigan’s policies have focused on assuring landfills could be sited, so we continue to bury the vast majority of our trash, while also continuing to import waste from Canada and neighboring states. However, we have come to recognize that landfilling products and recyclable packaging is inherently environmentally unsustainable and economically unproductive. This is why businesses, consumers and conservation groups all agree that we must move to a more sustainable model that furthers a circular economy in Michigan. Under this vision, our “wastes” are instead valuable “materials” to be managed, benefiting jobs and the environment.

Fortunately, our state has a significant opportunity to advance this goal by updating our waste law with bipartisan legislation (HB 5812-5817) currently being considered by the Michigan House of Representatives. This multiyear effort – which has been supported by governors of both parties – is focused primarily on growing Michigan’s current recycling rate of 15 percent, and eventually tripling that rate to 45 percent. This legislation would support counties and local communities to work together to plan for needed facilities like recycling and composting centers, as well as drop-off and curbside services for their residents. We know that more Michiganders would recycle if given the opportunity, and communities from Detroit to Marquette have invested in their recycling infrastructure in recent years. This legislation would further promote and support such efforts across both urban and rural areas of our state.

The legislation also addresses the problem of bad actors in certain industries by providing adequate state oversight of landfills, composters, and recycling centers and by requiring financial assurance to protect taxpayer interests from having to clean up failed operations.  Further, it would facilitate the development of innovative technologies that would digest food scraps and manure or turn plastics into fuels. Together, the changes would help reduce the wastes going into our landfills and increase our sustainable management of materials from Michigan homes and businesses.

By tripling our state’s recycling rate, we can create 138,000 new jobs generate $9 billion in annual wages, and create $34 billion in economic output. Michigan would attract and grow businesses focused on the use of recycled materials, an effort already championed by our automotive and furniture manufacturers. Michigan’s natural resources would be further protected for the enjoyment of future generations. 

This legislation is greatly needed to modernize an outdated statute that wrongly incentivizes landfill disposal and discourages recycling. It is time to move Michigan to a more sustainable model that is befitting of our beautiful peninsula state, our leading industries, and our fine people.

Kerrin O’Brien is the Executive Director of Michigan Recycling Coalition, John Dulmes is the Executive Director of the Michigan Chemistry Council and Sean Hammond is the Policy Director of the Michigan Environmental Council.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Kevin Grand
Wed, 06/24/2020 - 11:34am

So, who will be purchasing all of this recycled material?

The last I heard, the market was so super-saturated with supply, that there was essentially no market for it.

Matt M.
Wed, 07/01/2020 - 5:21am

This is all well and good and I applaud the effort, but what about the imported trash.
The federal government regulates interstate and international commerce, so the need to find a way to may it to expensive. Perhaps with a road use tax, safety tax, any kind of way to stop the importing of trash. Or if that doesn't work how about making any area that sends trash adhere to the recycling guidelines being decided for Michigan, or pay a penalty.