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Issues of the Environment: Recycle Ann Arbor is a leader in plastics recycling

Recycle Ann Arbor CEO Bryan Ukena
Bryan Ukena
Recycle Ann Arbor
Recycle Ann Arbor CEO Bryan Ukena


  • Recycling plastic is a conundrum. Waste management experts say the problem with plastic is that it is expensive to collect and sort. There are now thousands of different types of plastic, and none of them can be melted down together. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.npr.org/2022/10/24/1131131088/recycling-plastic-is-practically-impossible-and-the-problem-is-getting-worse)
  • Michigan is now one of the nation’s three best states for recycling plastics, according to a recent Wise Voter study. And in Ann Arbor, recycling plastics is getting easier thanks to a state-of-the-art SamurAI sorting robot that enables the city’s recycling agency to process and sell more plastic than ever before. Bryan Ukena, CEO of Recycle Ann Arbor, says “It’s also important to know our SamurAI robot won’t replace workers. It just improves quality control and reduces safety risk in the workplace.”
  • The solid waste reform package (HB 4454-61, with Senate substitutes), passed in December 2022, is the result of years of crafting legislation to boost Michigan’s recycling and composting rates. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has raised grave concerns about the portion of the bill that exempts gasification and pyrolysis – two forms of ‘plastics to fuel” (PTF) technology — from solid waste laws so long as the plastics being burned were conducted using “source separated material,” or materials that have been sorted from trash. (Source: https://themanchestermirror.com/2022/12/12/senate-may-vote-on-long-awaited-recycling-reform-which-one-is-unclear/)
  • “Chemical recycling” of plastic differs from mechanical recycling in that the end product has destroyed the polymer chains in the plastic through the use of heat and/or chemicals. The Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers (AMBR) warns that, “Most “chemical recycling” technologies are pyrolysis or gasification techniques that have been known for decades. These facilities convert plastics to various grades of fuel and are classified as plastics-to-fuel, or PTF, technologies. When plastics are converted to fuels, those carbon molecules are only used once before being lost to the atmosphere. This is not circular and does not support the goal to decarbonize the global economy.”  (Source: *directly quoted* https://ambr-recyclers.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/AMBR-Chemical-Recycling-Will-Not-Solve-Our-Plastics-Problem.pdf
  • The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) studied state-level permits on select chemical recycling facilities around the nation and found released air pollutants associated with the plants, including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, and dioxins. Many of the toxic chemicals are linked to cancer, nervous system damage, and negative effects on reproduction and development. “Advanced recycling sounds like a good thing, but what we found is advanced recycling is really advanced pollution,” NRDC’s Singla said.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And on this week's Issues of the Environment, we're going to to explore the issues and problems with recycling plastics. Not only is this a local issue, it's a global issue. I'm David Fair, and according to a report from Greenpeace, despite all efforts, only about 5% of the plastics we intend to have recycled get turned into new product. Most of the rest ends up in landfills. Right at the end of 2022, Republicans in the Michigan Legislature tagged on an amendment to a solid waste bill aimed at better addressing plastics recycling that most believe may actually do more environmental harm than good. When we need to learn more about recycling, who better to talk to than Bryan Ukena? Bryan is the CEO of Recycle Ann Arbor, and thanks for making time for us today.

Bryan Ukena: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: I'm very curious. How much of the recyclable materials that you deal with at Recycle Ann Arbor are plastics?

Bryan Ukena: By weight, it's less than 15%. But by volume, it represents much more than that. And it's a growing number.

David Fair: And how much of it are you actually able to recycle for new use or reuse?

Bryan Ukena: The systems that we use, all of the material that actually we process, actually gets recycled. The only material that doesn't get recycled is if it's not a recyclable or a it's a contamination. And right now, that's about 10% of the facility is mistakes that people have made and putting the wrong items in the recycling bin.

David Fair: So, what do we need to know as someone who is putting plastics into the recycle bin? What do we need to know about trying to ensure that we don't contaminate our bins?

Bryan Ukena: So, the biggest contaminants to the processes and the material that we see from curbside in Ann Arbor, and by the way, Ann Arbor is extremely good and the surrounding area are extremely good about keeping non-recyclables out of the container, and we work hard to make sure that's the case. But the big things to watch out for is not to bag your recyclables, because plastic film really sort of gums up the works here at Recycle Ann Arbor. And so, keeping the plastic film out and keeping the material that isn't a traditional recyclable, like pop bottles, milk jugs, those types of items out of the recycling bin. When in doubt, leave it out is sort of the motto.

David Fair: Our Issues of the environment conversation with Recycle Ann Arbor CEO Bryan Ukena continues on 89 one WEMU. We're getting some clarification on how this all works. There are so many kinds of plastic, Bryan, that I think it does kind of all get confused in the end. We also have different processes for how many of the plastics are treated throughout the country. Is Recycle Ann Arbor using mechanical or chemical recycling or some of both?

Bryan Ukena: So, we use--all of the markets that we use--use a mechanical process, which is a more traditional process where the plastics are literally chipped up or ground down and then made into pellets and then made into new products again versus a chemical recycling process, where either through thermal technology, heating it, pyrolysis, gasification, those types of things, or by chemically adding chemicals to dissolve the material to get it broken down. And we use all the mechanical processes here at Recycle Ann Arbor. We're the Materials Recovery Facility. So, we sort the materials here in Ann Arbor from the single stream, so all the paper and the containers and everything are together. We sort those out and decontaminate them and then we make them into large cubes or bales. And then, they get sent to places that actually, either chemically or mechanically, break the material down and recycle it.

David Fair: Well, as I mentioned, at the end of the last state legislative session, a bill designed to increase recycling and composting rates in Michigan passed the House. The Senate added provisions that would allow for, and some say even encourage, the chemical process. But because the chemical process is burned, it sends the contaminants into the atmosphere. It's not at all circular in nature and contributes to atmospheric issues. But is it a more cost effective way to go about plastics recycling? And is that the reasoning behind that amendment?

Bryan Ukena: A number of improvements were made in that legislative package that was passed of eight consensus bills. And so, there's a lot of really good stuff in there: changing landfill permitting, haulers providing recycling services, counties have to have materials management plans, things like that that are really good. The idea was to to actually increase recycling. So, instead of the primary objective being to safely landfill the material, but actually the primary objective is to recycle it or reuse it. So, it was really good legislation. But, at end of the day, the American Chemical Council and a number of other groups during the lame duck session added this declassification of chemical recycling as a manufacturing process. So, when you designated as a manufacturing process, a lot of the regulation related to it being solid waste is taken away. So, it makes it basically easier for chemical recycling to be present in Michigan. And that's a real challenge because as you mentioned, you know, chemical recycling has a lot of really harmful side effects, and, mostly, it's unproven technology. And, as the technology improves, there may be changes. But, currently, the chemical recycling process is just a sophisticated way of incineration or burning the plastics. And burning plastics, by international standards and by state standards, is not actually considered recycling.

David Fair: So, if you've ever even just smelled it, you know something's wrong there.

Bryan Ukena: There's something's not right. Yeah, something's not right.

David Fair: You are listening to 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Recycle Ann Arbor CEO Bryan Ukena on Issues of the Environment, Obviously, any recycler needs to be able to have a market for what it collects to sell off and generate additional revenue, including Ann Arbor. Recycling plastics is expensive. There's no way around it. Now, to maximize revenue generation, the industry is also seeing a trend of robotics and automation. You have what's called the SamurAI sorting robot, I believe. What difference does that make?

Bryan Ukena: That makes it safer to recycle, to pick the material apart, and recycle it. It's a more automated process. It generally doesn't replace people. It generally allows the people to do more of a quality control check at the other end of the robotics. So, the robotics makes it quicker and more efficient to do the first sorting. But then, there's generally a quality control person behind that that has to continue to do that. But it does make the recycling process a more efficient one, the mechanical process that we talk about.

David Fair: And, again, I want to stress that you mentioned it does not cost human jobs at this point. So, that is certainly good news as well. Recycling, clearly, a part of the overall strategy toward a more sustainable and cleaner environment. But, as we've pointed out, there are issues to contend with. As you look forward and prepare strategic plans for the next decade and/or beyond, how will be better deal with plastics?

Bryan Ukena: The way to deal with plastics is..so, there's a common misconception out there, and it gets reported all the time that recycling is broken, and recycling doesn't work. The real challenge with recyclers is not to recycle. That's what we're good at. But, it's the amount and type of plastics, the growing amount and type of plastics in the waste stream, and how to handle those are getting more and more complex--more and more chemical compounds, more and more polymer types. And each one of those new products that comes in poses a new problem for us, as far as sorting and decontaminating. And so, really, as a recycler of over 35 years, sometimes it feels like you're just sort of standing at the end of the pipe, or at the tailpipe, just trying to catch what you can. And that composition changes all the time. Literally, on a monthly basis, we see new types of packaging. So, understanding if that packaging is recyclable or not is important. So, looking into the future and doing, you know, strategic planning, it's really working in partnership with the producers and the manufacturers and the people who engineer these new products that are coming out, so that they make them more consistent and more recyclable for recyclers. I think the other component that we need to look at is really starting to question if those products are even needed. A lot of those single-use packages, they stay in the environment forever and they basically serve a purpose for a matter of a few minutes. So, do we actually need that, or do we need to start looking at alternatives to single-use packages?

David Fair: Is there a will to take us in that direction?

Bryan Ukena: Absolutely. At Recycle Ann Arbor, we're a zero waste organization. So, we're different than a typical recycling organization that just tries to recycle everything it can. And a zero waste organization looks at all of the processes that it uses and steers away from the linear approach, which is extract, manufacture, put it on the shelf, and then dispose of it, to a more circular one, where material gets recycled again and again or it gets avoided in the first place. And so, there's definitely a big movement in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area to look at a more circular approach.

David Fair: I want to thank you for your time and for sharing your perspective. I've certainly learned a lot. I hope everyone has. Thank you very much, Bryan.

Bryan Ukena: Thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Recycle Ann Arbor CEO Bryan Ukena, sharing his experience on many of the issues surrounding plastics recycling. For more information on the topic in the conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment was produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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