Issues Of The Environment: Audit Of Recycling In Parts Of Washtenaw County Now Underway

Jun 30, 2021

Ann Arbor Township treasurer Della DiPietro
Credit Ann Arbor Township / aatwp.org

Curbside recycling is common practice, yet many residents are still placing unrecyclable materials in their bins. That's why the Washtenaw Regional Resource Management Authority (WRRMA) has started an audit and educational program to help property owners make better recycling decisions. Della DiPietro, who serves as both Ann Arbor Township treasurer and WRRMA representative, discusses the program in detail with WEMU's David Fair.

Overview

  • Michigan is investing in both local recycling systems and manufacturers who use recycled materials through the Renew Michigan Fund. The goal is to increase recycling in Michigan to 30% by 2025.
  • This month, the campaign kicks off in WRRMA’s seven local government members (Ann Arbor Charter Township, Pittsfield Charter Township, Scio Township, Ypsilanti Charter Township, and the cities of Dexter, Saline, and Ypsilanti). Trained staff will conduct four quick-glance field inspections of curbside recycling carts at single family homes. “Oops” tags will provide direct feedback to residents about any contamination of materials in their carts.   
  • If something in the recycling cart does not belong there, an orange “Oops” tag will be left behind with feedback on how to fix it. If it happens again, a red “Oops” tag with feedback will be left, and the recycling cart will not be emptied. Fix the problem and remove the tag, and your recycling will be picked up on the next scheduled date. 
  • EGLE research shows that the campaign is very useful for residents to learn how to properly recycle. For example, EGLE found that 50% of Michigan residents mistakenly believe they can recycle plastic bags in curbside recycling, and 76% are unaware that failing to rinse and empty items before putting them in the recycling bin poses a risk of contaminating everything in the bin. Measurement of contamination rates after the campaign will assess its effectiveness.
  • Della DiPietro is Treasurer for Ann Arbor Charter Township, an elected position that she’s held since 2008. The treasurer is one of seven members of the Township Board. Prior to that, she served as a Trustee on the Township Board from 1996 - 2008. Della is also Township’s representative for Washtenaw Regional Resource Recovery Authority.

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm betting most of you recycle to one degree or another. Fact of the matter is Michigan lags behind many states and is looking to catch up and get to an overall recycling rate of 30 percent by the year 2025. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. The state is investing in local recycling systems and in manufacturers that use recycled materials to get to that goal. Knowing what you put in your recycling bin is going to be very important, as bin audits are being conducted through much of Washtenaw County. Our guest today is Della DiPietro, and she serves as an arbiter shift treasurer, and she's also the township's representative on the seven-community Washtenaw Regional Resource Recovery Authority. Thank you so much for the time today, Della.

Della DiPietro: I am so pleased to be with you, David, and so pleased to talk about recycling.

David Fair: And I know you are passionate about the subject matter, but, just as a matter of curiosity, in adding to your responsibilities as treasurer, is treasurer and recycling representative more linear than it sounds to me?

Della DiPietro: That's a great question. You know, if you were the treasurer, as I am, you're really looking at community resources and using them appropriately. Of course, most of us know we're the tax collectors, right? So it's cash flow we're managing. But, you know, you can consider that our recycled materials are just another community resource. And we all want to make sure that when we're recycling, we're doing it in the way that's going to make the most difference.

David Fair: For a little background, the Washtenaw Regional Resource Recovery Authority includes not only Ann Arbor Township, but Pittsfield, Scio, and Ypsilanti Township, as well as the cities of Ypsilanti, Saline and Dexter. Were their efforts to get more communities involved, or was this what we settled on as the most solid way to move forward immediately?

Della DiPietro: The authority went to many additional--when the county, excuse me--when we were forming the authority went many additional communities and some, for whatever reason, decided this was not either the topic for the time. Although, we are now in the conversation with the city of Ann Arbor, who has petitioned the authority to join. So we're excited about that possibility and something that we think is going to happen this year.

David Fair: And that, yeah, that could make a huge difference for all involved. Eighty-Nine One WEMU's Issues of the environment conversation on recycling and upcoming recycling audits continues with Della DiPietro. Della represents Ann Arbor Township on the Washtenaw Regional Resource Recovery Authority. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy conducted research that showed about 50 percent of us that do recycle make common mistakes. And when those mistakes happen, there are ramifications to the manner in which our waste is handled and where it ends up, right?

Della DiPietro: Absolutely. What some of those mistakes, such as putting in yard waste or such as putting in dirty items, can actually contaminate not just your bin, but then the whole truck. So, we have to be very careful about what we put in the recycling bin, not, for two reasons. One, to make sure it doesn't contaminate other recyclables, but then when it gets to what's called the materials recovery facility, or MRF as we commonly call it, that those materials can be appropriately recycled or put into the recycling stream.

David Fair: Improving the quality of the area's recycling stream is exactly why the Resource Recovery Authority was awarded a 200,000 dollar grant in 2020. How is that money being used to achieve the desired results?

Della DiPietro: Well, you mentioned just a moment ago that we're going to do audits and they are starting this week. And what that actually looks like is trained staff from the recycling partnership, which is a national nonprofit. We'll be looking for the seven communities the recycle bins for single home use, looking for quick places, not crawling all through the quick glances to see if what is in there is appropriate to be in the recycling bin. And if they find, maybe there's an issue, they'll put a little oops tag, the cute little tag on a child's face on it. And the first time it would be an orange tag. The tag will have information about what needs to be corrected. And if you get a second time, when they find something, and they're going to do it four times--it's a quick glance inspection throughout the summer. Then the second time your recycling bin will not be emptied until you fix what needs to be fixed.

David Fair: And that is a way to educate and for people to learn at the same time, and it's really hard to get mad at something that says "oops." I mean, a lot of thought went into selecting that word to put on the tag, right?

Della DiPietro: Absolutely. This is it called Know It Before You Throw It campaign. A lot of research has gone into it. It's been very effective in other communities. And that sort of wanting a little bit of frivolity around it is, I think, really critical. I just might mention Grand Rapids did the same campaign last year and their contamination rates went down by 40 percent.

David Fair: I don't think anybody could have anticipated 40 percent.

Della DiPietro: That's a very big number, very big number.

David Fair: So with that in mind, what are you hoping to get? 42, aren't you?

Della DiPietro: I can't get as much as we can and we will. Part of the campaign is to measure the effectiveness. So, last week, we, actually the the recycling partnership staff, did a survey of how much contamination was in the recycling stream. And then there will be one post-campaign to see how effective the campaign was. But, yes, we want to be great about that. No kidding.

David Fair: Have you projected out how much money could be saved on just, I mean, maintenance and related recycling costs by achieving something closer to full compliance?

Della DiPietro: Well, there's an EPA model, and it estimates that if all of the thirty seven point four million tons--think of that--of all of those single family recyclable were put to productive use, it would reduce, you know, throughout the country greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. And that would be the equivalent of saving one hundred and fifty four million barrels of oil.

David Fair: A huge difference. We're talking with Washtenaw Regional Resource Recovery Authority Representative Della DiPietro on Eighty-Nine One WEMU's Issues of the Environment. She is the treasurer in Ann Arbor Township as well. Is there a percentage you are trying to hit through the course of the summer, or do you think you can actually get to everyone's recycling bin in this seven-community region?

Della DiPietro: Everybody who has a contract for recycling pick-up for the single family use, we will hit every single one of those. We estimate about 37,000 households four times throughout the summer. They just did a similar campaign in Canton. So they're coming over to Washtenaw County for there. The recycling partnership is the ones that both hire the people and train them.

David Fair: Now that you are in this, and you are dedicated to recycling, how closely do you look and think about your bin before you put it out on the curb?

Della DiPietro: I'm a recycling Nazi, I call myself, and I'll tell you where it really comes into play is at work at the township. I'll go through all the recycling bins and tell people, "Wait a minute, this candy wrapper can't go in there or plastic." That's another thing. A lot of people think plastic bags are flimsy plastic.

David Fair: That can really break down the machinery and be very expensive.

Della DiPietro: You're right. You're right. It is. And sometimes, it's not that material can't be recycled, but it doesn't go well with the automatic machinery. And so that's the reason plastics--flimsy plastics--are just not something we can put in the recycling bin.

David Fair: So now that people are going to get back to working in the office and there's going to be more people around and more waste generated and more bins for you to check, are you going to carry around your own oops stickers and put those on office doors?

Della DiPietro: Well, I'm only a volunteer. I'm not trained staff, so I just do it verbally. But I'm very, very, very cautious about what I put in the bins. And I will tell you that being part of WWRMA, we call the authority commonly, being part of that has raised my own knowledge base. There are things that I thought we could put in the recyclable bin. Here's another example, David. Styrofoam, A lot of Styrofoam has an insignia on it that leads one to believe it can be recycled and it perhaps can be recycled in certain places, but not in your car. So just because there is a recycling insignia on an item doesn't mean it can be recycled in your curbside bin.

David Fair: Now, once we've made the mistake, we get the little oops sticker, the best way to educate ourselves is to go where as a resource to find out all we can and cannot recycle in the area.

Della DiPietro: The authority--WRRMA-- has a website, and it's w w w dot W R R M A dot org. There's lots of great materials on there, including, oh, just a one page rule poster of dos and don'ts for recycling.

David Fair: Stick it on the refrigerator, and you're good to go.

Della DiPietro: You're good to go. And there's also a special hotline during the campaign this summer and that's area code 734, of course, 222-3920.

David Fair: And, Della, we will include all of that information on our website at WEMU dot org and get everyone linked up to where they need to go. Thank you so much for the time today. I appreciate it. 

Della DiPietro: What a pleasure to speak with you in this air. You know my passion about recycling. Thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Della DePietro and she serves as Ann Arbor Township Treasurer and as the township's representative on the Seven Community Washtenaw Regional Resource Recovery Authority. For more information on the topic again, go to our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine One WEMU FM and WEMU HD-One Ypsilanti.

Washtenaw County Launches Recycling Bin Audits

Last year, the Washtenaw Regional Resource Management Authority won a $200,000 grant to improve the quality of our recycling stream. The grant is funded by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership. It builds on the success of Michigan’s national award-winning “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign that EGLE launched last year.  

The campaign kicked off on Monday, June 21st  in WRRMA’s seven local government members (Ann Arbor Charter Township, Pittsfield Charter Township, Scio Township, Ypsilanti Charter Township, and the cities of Dexter, Saline and Ypsilanti). 

Trained staff will conduct four quick-glance field inspections of curb-side recycling carts at single family homes. “Oops” tags will provide direct feedback to residents about any contamination of materials in their carts.   

If something in the recycling cart does not belong there, an orange “oops” tag will be left behind with feedback on how to fix it. If it happens again, a red “oops” tag with feedback will be left, and the recycling cart will not be emptied. Fix the problem and remove the tag and your recycling will be picked up on the next scheduled date.      

EGLE research shows that the campaign is very useful for residents to learn how to properly recycle. For example, EGLE found that 50% of Michigan residents mistakenly believe they can recycle plastic bags in curbside recycling, and 76% are unaware that failing to rinse and empty items before putting them in the recycling bin poses a risk of contaminating everything in the bin.

For more information about the program, what can be recycled, or to find alternate locations for hard-to-recycle materials, visit WRRMA’s website at www.wrrma.org or call the recycling hotline at (734) 222-3920.

Michigan is investing in both local recycling systems and manufacturers who use recycled materials through the Renew Michigan Fund. The goal is to increase recycling in Michigan to 30% by 2025.

EGLE-commissioned research shows that education is key for residents to learn how to properly recycle. For example:

  • 50% of Michigan residents mistakenly believe they’re allowed to recycle plastic bags in their curbside recycling, which is prohibited by most municipalities.
  • 76% of Michiganders are unaware that failing to rinse and dry items before putting them in the recycling bin poses a risk of contaminating everything in the bin.
  • Michigan recycles more than 90% of bottles and cans, but bottles and cans represent only 2% of all the waste Michiganders recycle every year. Almost 53% of the state’s municipal solid waste goes to landfills instead of recycling facilities.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu