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Issues of the Environment: Improving recycling rates and quality of recycling materials in Washtenaw County

Washtenaw County director of public works Theo Eggermont
Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County director of public works Theo Eggermont


  • In an ongoing effort to steadily improve the quality and quantity of recycling in Washtenaw County, the county is conducting two simultaneous recycling projects. One with WWRA (Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority) is tackling the problem of contamination in recycling bins through intensive education about what is and isn’t recyclable, and new Artificial Intelligence cameras will be deployed in the recycling drop offs and take pictures of the materials. Theo Eggermont, Director of Public Works, says the data gathered by the AI cameras will identify different materials and note what contamination is present in different bins, which creates a source of information that can help in messaging and outreach to residents.
  • The second project is through the WRRMA (Washtenaw Regional Resource Management Authority) is doing a follow up to the grant-funded cart tagging project WRRMA did last year. This phase 2 will just be for the City of Ann Arbor and started on July 11th- lasting 4 weeks. The results of the 2021 project showed Recycling behavior improved with educational outreach. Theo says they saw a reduction in contamination by 42% over the course of the project! Contamination from the Audit was initially just under 20% as a whole authority, and went down to a little over 11%. In addition, WRRMA’s phase 3 project is conducting an “App to Action” grant later this summer and will focus on increasing recycling participation rates. There are some households that didn’t recycle last year during the course of the project and we’ll be doing outreach specially to these households to try to understand what barriers we can help them overcome in order to participate in recycling.
  • Recycling saves energy, reduces hazardous emissions associated with climate change, decreases the amount of waste in landfills, and conserves natural resources. It can also generate a revenue stream for the community that can offset some of the costs of recycling and sometimes turn a profit. Contamination of the recycling stream occurs when non-recyclable items are included with recyclables in household bins. Contamination can lead to recyclables needing to be landfilled, lost revenue for the community, damage to expensive recycling machinery, and dangerous conditions for workers at the plant. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And, today, we're going to revisit something we've discussed repeatedly over nearly three decades on Issues of the Environment, and that's recycling. I'm David Fair, and if you look back to the 1800s, recycling as we know it didn't exist, but people were way better at it. If the elbows in their shirt wore out, you'd take the sleeves off, turn them inside out. Literally. If everything you wore, sat on or used in your house was probably something your family made, and you had a very different sense of the value of material goods. Then, in the late 19th century, many cities separated reusable trash from garbage designated for a landfill. But by the 1920s, that sort of separation wasn't happening and not much was recycled apart from metal at scrap yards. So, we've been playing catch up ever since. As we speak, there are growing efforts in Washtenaw County to improve the quantity and quality of recycling. And that's why our guest is here today. Theo Eggermont is Washtenaw County's Director of Public Works. And, Theo, thank you for the time.

Theo Eggermont: Thanks for having me on.

David Fair: Do we have a pretty good recycling rate in Washtenaw County in 2022?

Theo Eggermont: So, ours is a little bit better overall than the rest of Michigan, but Michigan as a whole is actually pretty low. Michigan as a whole is about 19% as of 2021. We estimate we're a little bit closer to 30% here in Washtenaw County, but a lot of those are based on estimates, and we're working to get better metrics in the future.

David Fair: So, in Washtenaw County, how frequently are non-recyclable materials being found in the recycle bins we put out to the curb?

Theo Eggermont: Very frequently. We actually did an audit last year, and we had taggers going around looking at what was in WWRMA, which is the Washtenaw Regional Resource Management Authority. They conducted a quality improvement grant, and we found quite a bit of contamination last year within those households.

David Fair: So, based on what you see through those audits, what are some of the items that people seem to think are recyclable but simply aren't?

Theo Eggermont:Yeah. The biggest thing that we see is plastic films. You know, things that overwrap like around water bottles, that kind of shrink wrap type material, garbage bags, whether that's recycling in trash bags or just that plastic film. That was 82% of the tags that we gave out last year.

David Fair: And I want to get into those plastics more in a moment, but I do want to follow up by asking what are the ramifications to the actual recycling process when a bin is contaminated with those non-recyclables?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah, the biggest thing is the whole process becomes a lot less efficient. So, that plastic wrap when it goes through the material recovery facility where materials get separated into different categories and then shipped off to become new products, it goes up a conveyor belt or a series of gears. And that wrap gets caught up in those gears. And they actually have to have people every day shut down the facility and tear out all that wrap.

David Fair: Gets expensive, doesn't it?

Theo Eggermont: It's expensive. I did a tour last year, and it was four hours a day for two people at the facility where they had to close down. So, that's a lot of time, effort, and it's also a safety concern for those people because it's not the safest job to be up there climbing on all those gears.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment and our conversation with Washtenaw County Public Works Director Theo Eggermont continues. And I mentioned plastic. Over the past few months, there have been a number of articles written based on a report by Greenpeace called "The Myth of Single Use Plastic Recycling." It says only 9% of all plastic is actually recycled, and the kinds of plastic that are recyclable are actually very limited. Therefore, most ends up in a landfill, or it's burned. In either way it's more harmful to the environment. That sound about right here in Washtenaw County, too?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah, we need to have more capacity for those difficult to recycle plastics, you know, those things that fall outside of the one, two and five. The one, two and five are the more recyclable and more valuable materials. And the, you know, two through four and six really isn't that recyclable. Seven, you don't see that much of. But those other plastics, we need to develop the place here in Michigan to actually use those materials and turn them into something new.

David Fair: And I don't think people are ill-intentioned in any way. I'm sure, at some point or another, I've put the wrong kind of plastic or material in my recycling bin. That's why there were ongoing public education campaigns. And, as I mentioned at the outset, you do have a couple of programs designed to help. Tell me about the artificial intelligence endeavor that's being conducted through the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority.

Theo Eggermont: Yeah, so, Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority--that's Lyndon Township, Dexter, Lima, Manchester, and Bridgewater--they got a grant through the Recycling Partnership, which is a national nonprofit, and with EGLE supporting those efforts. And they're going to be conducting an audit, doing an intervention, and that includes a lot of education and also gathering a lot of data. One of those things that they're doing is to gather data, is they're actually doing a pilot with a company called Compology, and they put these artificial intelligence cameras inside the bin, and it takes a picture. I think it's like three times a day. And that gets processed, and they can put out information about what that picture shows and what contamination is available. It also can give you data on how full the container is, so that they don't have to send a truck driver out, if you have an empty bin, which ends up saving them diesel and staff time as well. So, we're looking to use that information from those cameras to give to inform our future educational efforts with WWRMA.

David Fair: And I would assume that utilizing that information that it would expand just beyond the surface area of the Recycling Authority in Western Washtenaw.

Theo Eggermont: Yes, there are different collection in different parts. But, yeah, it will help us at the county level dictate some of our educational efforts in the future as well.

David Fair: We're talking with Washtenaw County Public Works Director Theo Eggermont on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. And another program you referenced earlier has been up and running in Ann Arbor since July 11 through the Washtenaw Regional Resource Management Authority. It's running into early to mid-August. Last year, phase one had people tagging recycling bins, as you mentioned, that were contaminated. And in going through that process, would you call the results of phase one a success?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah. I was very excited about the success that we saw. We ended up reducing the contamination that we saw from our audits. It was around 19%, 19 and a half, and we were able to reduce that down to about 11. So, a 40% reduction in the amount of contamination that we saw by volume. So, that was very big.

David Fair: So, we're in phase two now. This is the next follow-up. What exactly are they doing in this second phase?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah. So, the City of Ann Arbor has--since we conducted that audit and that program last year--the City of Ann Arbor has joined in. So, we're doing the same thing we did last year in the City of Ann Arbor. They've conducted their sample audit, which, again, is a sample. It only includes single family households, and it's not a compositional audit. So, it's not every piece of material that ends up in the system. But we're getting an indication that our contamination in the City of Ann Arbor from those households is around 16%, which is actually pretty good for a municipality. As I noted before, the whole is closer to 20% when we started. So, they'll be conducting that program and notifying, especially since there's a new MERF, there's some changes in materials. And so, giving some more education about, you know, you can put scrap metal in at the end as part of the new curbside program and the MERF that they're there using.

David Fair: And MERF, of course, stands for Material Recovery Facility. Will there be a phase three?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah, and we, in partnership with WRRMA, have been working on this phase three which is app to action. So, all the data from those past two phases is or will get entered into this app that we use, and we can tell where and what our participation rate is. And so, we're looking to increase the participation of people who are recycling curbside and get that number up. That number is around 64% from what we had last year. And then, we'll add in what the City of Ann Arbor is, and the participation rate is the people who didn't put their curbside recycling out during the sample for collection cycles. So, we're looking to find out more information from people. What are the barriers to recycling? Why are people not putting out their cards? Find out more, and then encourage them to overcome those barriers, whether it might be information about as simple as how to get a cart in your municipality, so that you can participate in the recycling program.

David Fair: So, we've already seen some improvement. We expect more in the very near future, but we'll probably never get to 100% compliance. So, what is kind of the strategic plan beyond these phases and this educational outreach program?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah. The phase for us is we want to continue to get better metrics, so, that's a big part of this, and then work with the two different authorities to continue their educational efforts. And we have good indication that there's a lot of value in that system. So, if we invest in our education outreach efforts and our material recovery facilities and partner together, we can improve the system overall. I mentioned some stats at the beginning of the program, and I'll put it in the larger context with the state of Michigan. There's a a program called NextCycle, and they've done an analysis. And they found that increasing the recycling rate in Michigan from 19% to 45% will add 138,000 jobs and 9 billion in annual labor, 34 billion in economic output, which actually rivals the tourism industry, which is crazy to me. So, reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by 7 million tons a year. So, there's just a lot of value within the system that we're throwing away and putting in a landfill. So, that's the goal.

David Fair: 3] Well, certainly worth the investment of time and effort. Theo, thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Theo Eggermont: Thank you.

David Fair: That is Theo Eggermont. He is Washtenaw County's Director of Public Works. For more information on enhanced recycling efforts, visit 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, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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