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Issues of the Environment: Improving home and community sustainability efforts in Washtenaw County

Shelie Miller, associate professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability.
Doug Coombe
Shelie Miller, associate professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability.


  • In the age of climate anxiety, more and more people are choosing resolutions to make personal changes that benefit the environment. Unlike popular resolutions to get healthier, spend less, or lose weight, environmental change that amounts for changing habitat or behavior need to be collective to make much of a dent. But how do you determine what choices are the most effective? Are some actions more beneficial? Shelie Miller, Jonathan W. Bulkley Collegiate Professor in Sustainable Systems School for Environment and Sustainability from the University of Michigan, has spent her research career answering these questions. She also lives and works in Ann Arbor. 
  • Miller’s research uses life cycle assessment (LCA) and scenario modeling tools to identify potential unintended environmental consequences of emerging technologies and find design or policy interventions that may lead to sustainable outcomes. She is particularly interested in understanding how consumer behavior patterns can influence the environmental outcomes of products. (Source: *directly quoted* https://seas.umich.edu/research/faculty/shelie-miller)
  • As a resident of Ann Arbor, Shelie offered some tips for determining which lifestyle changes are more likely to be helpful. She says: 
    • Packaging is just a small piece of overall environmental sustainability. We absolutely should care about single-use disposable items and packaging, but it is usually the thing inside the package (food, coffee, stuff) that has much greater environmental impact.
    • We all know "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" -- but as households, we often tend to be hyper-focused on recycle (or compost).  Reduce and reuse are WAY more important than recycle.  Whenever possible, find ways to reduce consumption rather than just substituting with a slightly better alternative, or reuse what you already have on hand.
    • Reusable products are only better if you reuse them (a large number of times).  Extend the reusable product’s lifetime as much as possible. 
    • Returnable containers such as those being piloted in Ann Arbor can be a better option -- but require consumers to actually return containers.  The same applies for stores that allow you to buy in bulk and bring your own container 
    • Recycling and composting have their place, but they don't actually erase environmental impacts of making something.  There are technical challenges to both recycling and composting.  Pay attention to local guidance to be sure to ensure that these systems work effectively (A2 & Ypsi only accept #1, #2, #5 plastic; no plastic in compost streams, even if labeled compostable), “Wish-cycling" items that you think the system should take actually contaminates the recycling/compost stream and degrades the quality.   (Source: Shelie Miller)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to explore some New Year's resolutions for the planet. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Issues of the Environment. It may not be at the top of most people's resolutions list, but working in more sustainable practices in our everyday lives is certainly something many do and more should do. But did you know some of the changes we make may actually do more harm than good? We've all learned the three R's: reduce, reuse, recycle. Which of those do you think is most important and why? Well, the answers can be found in some of the work that our guest is doing. Shelie Miller is a Jonathan W. Bulkley collegiate professor in sustainable systems at the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability. So nice to talk with you today, Shelie.

Shelie Miller: Thanks so much for the invitation.

David Fair: Now, did you personally make any New Year's resolutions when it comes to sustainability?

Shelie Miller: Oh, absolutely. I think there's always things that each and every one of us can always improve upon and always actually work toward. I'm definitely looking toward doing a "buy nothing January," where I'm trying to reduce the amount of stuff that comes into my household.

David Fair: "Buy nothing January." Buying nothing is difficult.

Shelie Miller: Well, I guess I should say we really are going to buy food and groceries and sort of the general accessories, but I have a closet full of clothes. We have plenty in our house. And so, a lot of this is just really trying to reset and really rethink, you know, what we really need on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.

David Fair: Well, when it comes to the three R's that I mentioned, you just touched upon "reduce," but there's also "reuse" and "recycle." My impression is that in the public consciousness, "recycle" is at the top of the list. Am I right?

Shelie Miller: Yes. I think when we buy things, when we have groceries, we end up with a lot of packaging waste. We end up with a lot of stuff that we need to do something with. And we often think, "Okay, I'm doing my part. I need to recycle all of these items." Absolutely! Recycling is a key piece of the sustainability puzzle, but it's only just a very small tip of the iceberg when we start talking about broader sustainability goals.

David Fair: There's a macro way of looking at these life cycles: our community impacts and how we're dealing with issues of sustainability and environmental stewardship. And then, of course, there's the micro, which we're talking about. What are we doing in our homes on a day-to-day basis that is negatively impacting our environment.

Shelie Miller: So, I mean, I think a lot of people are really trying to improve and really trying to figure out how do we actually improve our environmental conditions because we know that there's a lot of challenges out there. You know, I think one of the key pieces is, as people are moving toward composting more, as we're looking toward recycling more, it's paying attention to actually what our recycling and composting systems can't accept. Often, what we do as households is what we call "wish-cycling, where we say, "Oh, surely, they can recycle this." And we put it in a single stream recycling bin, hoping that it'll get recycled. If we go to our local cities' web sites, every city is difficult. So, it is challenging. But if you look at a lot of the guidelines, if you're in Ann Arbor or Ypsi, for example, we only accept plastics that are numbered 1, 2 or 5 in terms of recyclables. The other ones can't go in a single stream recycling carts. And so, that's just one small change that your household can do to improve recycling overall effectiveness in Washtenaw County.

David Fair: Our Issues of the environment conversation with Shelie Miller continues on 89 one WEMU. Shelie is an environmental engineer at the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems. Now, you mentioned packaging. And I became acutely aware of this and do every holiday season of just how much of it there is. And a lot of it is plastic. Plastics are ubiquitous throughout our everyday lives, and yet, it is one of the things that most adversely impacts our environment. So, while we're working at things at home, do we not also need to be considering putting some consumer pressure on manufacturers?

Shelie Miller: Absolutely. You know, companies respond to what people want. And so, we as consumers do have a lot of power in really requesting the situation to improve. And that can go to things like packaging, certainly. But even more broadly than just packaging, it's usually the thing inside the package that actually has a much greater environmental impact than the package itself. So, yes, we need to do our part as consumers to recycle wherever possible and to reduce consumption wherever possible. We need to continue to demand and request that companies actually reduce the environmental impact of their products as well.

David Fair: Now, we are, as we've kind of touched upon, a consumer-driven economy. And no matter where you turn, we are encouraged in any number of ways to consume more. What role is that attitude playing in the mess we're creating?

Shelie Miller: You know, I really do think that's the key issue is often we're going around like the outskirts of sustainability without really getting to the core of that consumption piece. We can reduce all of the packaging that we want. We can recycle every single package, and we're still not going to get to a sustainable society. One of the things that we really need to get to the base that is reducing our overall consumption, really looking around us and saying, "What do we really need as a society? What do we really value?" And chances are, it's not stuff.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU. And we're talking with University of Michigan professor and environmental engineer Shelie Miller on Issues of the Environment. I think most people are really well-intentioned. When we hear of a new product or relatively convenient methodology to improve the manner in which we impact the environment, we take it. But truth in advertising is often an oxymoron. How damaging is the "greenwashing" we all experience in the manner in which products are presented to us?

Shelie Miller: Well, I think that's a great point. Everywhere you look on the internet, there's 30 quick and easy ways to go green. And often, they're trying to sell you something. They're trying to sell you a slightly better version of what you already have. And so, absolutely, we need things. We need cleaners. We need food. We need all sorts of things to run our lives. But the greener alternative is never going to be as green as the thing we don't buy.

David Fair: Let's use some of your expertise for tips on best practices. I think some of our everyday routines we don't consider the environment at all. If you are packing a lunch for the kids or the grandkids and sending them off to school, what are some of the things we can do in our home just easily on an everyday basis to ensure we're having less impact?

Shelie Miller: Absolutely. And I think packing a lunch is a great example because it's something we do every day. We can always go back to those three R's: that reduce, reuse, recycle. We don't always think of that as a hierarchy. We kind of just kind of say, "All right. Reduce, reuse, recycle. We'll use recyclable products." If you really, really think about breaking down a lunch, the first thing is reduce. Is my kid going to eat everything that I'm going to pack? One of the easiest ways households can do to improve their environmental impact is reducing food waste. So, are there leftovers that we can use that otherwise might get thrown out? Do we need a smaller portion size because it's just going to be too big of a portion for me to eat today? You know, figuring out ways to reduce food waste in particular is a great, low-hanging fruit for most households. Then reuse absolutely. Reusable bags, reusable lunch bags, reusable containers are all great, as long as we reuse them a large number of times. And then, of course, recycling anything that can't be reduced or reused.

David Fair: And when we leave the house, and we've talked about this a little bit, but what are some of the best ways to environmentally responsibly engage in the consumer economy in Washtenaw County?

Shelie Miller: Absolutely. And so, we live in a county in lower southeast Michigan that really has some great opportunities available for us as consumers. I would say I would point anyone who is interested in more information to visit the Ann Arbor Office of Innovations and Sustainability website. It has a great deal of information on how customers can get more involved in adopting sustainability principles, anywhere from things like recycling and the recycling guidelines all the way toward much larger things, like installing solar panels. And so, they have a wealth of information that you can visit regardless of whether you're an Ann Arbor resident or not. There's great information on the page to learn how to reduce the impacts on your household.

David Fair: Now, we are not only a consumer society, but we've become a people who value convenience. Convenience makes things easier, and we perceive change to be hard. So, as we sit back and conduct the inner dialog that runs through all of our heads, what arguments should we present to ourselves to overcome the perception of difficulty and enact even the small changes that can, in the end, be of benefit in our homes and communities?

Shelie Miller: I think it's a great point, because sustainability can feel overwhelming. And the changes can feel really big as far as all of the things we can or possibly should do to reduce our environmental impacts. And so, I'd say everybody is different. Every household is different. And try to think about the things that you can do--small changes that can make a difference. When we think about the big three things that impact our lives and impact the environment, it's food choices and food waste, how we do transportation, and it's the energy use and stuff we have in our house. And you could take any single one of those big bins and just take one as a priority or something that feels like you can work on as a New Year's resolution and just try to make small improvements in that way. And that way, collectively, hopefully, we can make some real change.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for the time and the information today. It is much appreciated.

Shelie Miller: Thank you so much.

David Fair: That is Shelie Miller. She is Jonathan W. Bulkley collegiate professor in sustainable systems at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. For more information on our conversation and the work Shelie and her colleagues are doing, visit our website at wemu.org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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