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Michigan recycling rate ticks up, but still short of state goal

water bottles in a cardboard box
Michigan’s recycling rate has risen from 14 percent before 2019 to 21 percent today, but still lags far behind the national average (Shutterstock)
  • Michigan’s recycling rate is up slightly, to 21 percent
  • That’s still far short of the state’s 45 percent long-term goal
  • New reforms passed in December encourage recycling and add new fees for landfills

Michigan’s recycling rate has again ticked up slightly to 21 percent amid a statewide push to keep more waste out of landfills.

Officials with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy announced Monday that Michiganders recycled just over a fifth of their waste last year. Officials also unveiled a record-setting $15.6 million in new grants to boost recycling.


“Recycling in the Great Lakes State is now at an all time high,” said Regina Strong, EGLE’s environmental justice public advocate, as she announced the statistics.


The state is inching toward a goal to more than double Michigan’s recycling rate over the next 12 years. Waste management reforms passed in December should help speed up that effort, but lawmakers are at odds about what else is needed. 

Here’s what to know about recycling in Michigan: 

What is Michigan’s recycling rate? 

Michiganders recycled or composted 21 percent of their waste last year, according to the new state figures

That’s a 2 percentage point increase over last year, and represents steady progress from a rate of just 14 percent before 2019. But it’s still well below the national average of 32 percent. 

EGLE Recycling Market Development Specialist Matt Flechter said the state calculates that number by tallying up the total amount of waste that Michigan residents and businesses recycle or compost, then comparing it to the total amount landfilled or incinerated. The number is adjusted to factor out waste imported to Michigan from out of state, he said. 

Even with several straight years of improvement, Michigan has a long way to go to complete an effort started under then-Gov. Rick Snyder to boost Michigan’s recycling rate to 45 percent.

State data indicate that 84 percent of waste sent to landfill is recyclable or compostable.

But Flechter said he expects continued progress as Michigan rolls out big changes to how the state funds and regulates waste management.

How does Michigan plan to keep improving?

State officials believe this is a case where throwing money at the problem could help. 

High up-front costs to build out recycling programs can dissuade local communities from starting or expanding recycling programs. That’s where the $15.6 million grant money comes in.

Michigan lawmakers created the grant fund, known as Renew Michigan Fund, in 2018 as part of a broader effort to boost Michigan’s recycling rate. It represented a major boost in funding: Recycling efforts had previously only received about $2 million yearly.

This year’s state grants include $1 million to help Flint provide free curbside bins to all 34,000 city households, $406,000 to help Kent County purchase robotic sorting equipment for its recycling center, and $465,000 for Waste Management to build a $35 million recycling processing hub in Detroit. 

Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said the money will ensure Flint, a community with a 35 percent poverty rate, isn’t “left behind because we don't have the necessary resources” to invest in recycling.

But the efforts to boost recycling don’t all come without controversy: While Waste Management touts its Detroit hub, nearby residents are raising concerns about truck traffic, noise and pollution.

What about Michigan’s super-low landfill costs? Is anything being done to address those?

One reason for Michigan’s low recycling rate is that it’s comparatively cheap to dump waste in Michigan landfills.

Cheap landfilling also encourages other states and Canada to dump their trash here. According to a January state report, nearly a quarter of waste landfilled in Michigan last year came from out-of-state.

Lawmakers in 2018 scrapped a proposal by Snyder that would have increased the state’s landfill surcharge from 36 cents per ton to more than $4, closer to the average rate charged in neighboring states. 

While there are no new proposals on the table to increase that fee, lawmakers did include some new costs for landfills in wide-ranging amendments to solid waste management laws that cleared the Legislature in December.

Those reforms, passed after years of negotiations between lawmakers, businesses and environmental groups, aim to boost Michigan’s recycling rate by incentivizing recycling and dissuading landfills.

To that end, landfills will be subject to new permit fees, requirements to carry more financial assurances, and stronger environmental oversight, ultimately increasing their operating costs. It’s part of a national trend, Flechter said, of rising prices for people “to send their trash to a hole in the ground.”

“What we want to do is we want to shift those costs,” he said.

Instead of spending money making landfills more leak-proof, for instance, he said, Michigan officials want to see more money spent to expand recycling opportunities.

What else could be done to boost recycling in Michigan?

There are plenty of ideas floating around.

For starters, Democratic lawmakers are aiming to reverse a 2016 Republican-supported law that forbids local governments from banning plastic bags or other materials. 

Another idea, promoted by Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Keego Harbor, would involve taxing the production of single-use plastic, then using the money to build out recycling infrastructure.


Lawmakers, businesses and environmentalists are also gearing up for continued fights over “chemical recycling,” a technology supported by industry but opposed by environmentalists that involves superheating waste plastic to turn it into fuels or other products. 

And discussions continue about potential reforms to the bottle bill that encourages Michiganders to recycle by including a 10-cent deposit on pop and beer cans.

Michigan’s bottle redemption rate, which once neared 100 percent, has declined to 75 percent. Businesses required to accept returnables say Michigan should instead prioritize curbside recycling, while environmentalists argue the deposit should be expanded to include noncarbonated beverages. 

But major reforms are unlikely, given that any changes to the bottle bill would require a three fourths vote of approval in both chambers of Michigan’s deeply divided legislature.

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