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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.

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