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Washtenaw United: Washtenaw County Clean-up Days are here

Theo Eggermont, director of Washtenaw County Public Works
Daniel Carlson
Carlson Photography
Theo Eggermont, director of Washtenaw County Public Works


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Theo Eggermont is the Public Works Director at Washtenaw County. Theo collaborates with businesses, nonprofits, and local government to reduce waste and keep valuable materials circulating in the economy. Theo has been with the County since 2018 and has an MBA and MS in Natural Resources and the Environment.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're going to talk about keeping unnecessary and hazardous materials out of our landfills. That's right. Washtenaw County's clean-up days are here. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. Not only is it an opportunity to safely get rid of household items that don't belong in landfills, it's an opportunity to learn more about better protecting the health of our environment. Our guest this morning is Theo Eggermont, and Theo is Washtenaw County's public works director. And thanks for making time today, Theo. I appreciate it.

Theo Eggermont: Thanks for having me on.

David Fair: What kinds of things are we putting in our trash that should not be sent to the landfills?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah. So, at our clean-up days, things that we take that shouldn't go in the regular trash, we take things like scrap metal, we take freon appliances, refrigerators, dehumidifiers, and then household hazardous waste. A lot of those things that are under your sink or in your garage.

David Fair: A lot of chemical-based things.

Theo Eggermont: Yeah, a lot of chemicals. We do not take medication at the events, but we do have a website set up at don't flush drugs dot com, where you can learn about where to dispose of those properly.

David Fair: How much of the trash that we are sending to the landfills does have items that you just mentioned that could or should be otherwise recycled or disposed of?

Theo Eggermont: I don't have any data on hand that indicates like what percentage of, you know, your typical cart. But we definitely know that a lot of what people throw away can either be recycled or can be composted, depending on what you're looking at. And if you're including paper, you know, things like food waste ends up making a lot of that material, and that definitely shouldn't go to landfill either because it can be put back and reused through composting.

David Fair: Some of these materials, when we do landfill them, end up being a hazard and danger to the health of the land and, ultimately, the water because of leachate and things like that. What are the hazards to our air, land and water?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah. So, as you mentioned, if we throw these things away, they can end up in a landfill, and landfills create leachate, and that is processed. And I'm not an expert on, you know, how that gets processed and what can get out. But I do know that, from time to time, landfills do leach leachate, and that get out into the environment through an unintended release. And so then, those things can end up in our waterways. And that's definitely not good. So, you're talking about things like, you know, mercury, strong acid bases, things like metals can also deteriorate and then become part of that leachate and then get taken downstream. So, thinking about how that's a hazard for us, you know, there's a lot of those are carcinogens, and we don't want those out in their environment either.

David Fair: The effort at recycling and waste education has been going on for decades. Based on the results that you see in your work, are these campaigns effective enough?

Theo Eggermont: We certainly don't have enough dollars to reach everyone to collect all of this material. We really do require people to look into these and find some of this material themselves. So, we do what we can and try to get the information out, so that people can bring it to us. And we try to provide these events to reach people in a convenient way. But then, we also we have our lymphatic center on Zeeb Road in Washtenaw County, close to I-94 there, where we have some toxics for Washtenaw County residents throughout the year. So, there are places where people can bring materials to us throughout the year besides these events. But the events go above and beyond, take additional materials, and then provide some additional, convenient access.

David Fair: We're talking household hazardous waste with Theo Eggermont. He's the Washtenaw County Public Works director and our guest on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. Now, Washtenaw County clean-up days are underway, and the next, I believe, comes up on July 29th. Where is that one going to be located?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah, we started a new process this year, so we require registration. So, it's in the Pittsfield Township area. And then after that, we have on August 5th in the City of Chelsea area, and then August 26th in the City of Ypsilanti. And I say areas because we require registration, so people find out, you know, here's the general location, and then once they register, they get the exact address. We find that people are really willing to drive aways and to load up material. And it's a significant value to people to attend these events.

David Fair: But you can't just show up. You do need to pre-register, right?

Theo Eggermont: Exactly. And so, you won't even have the address until you register. And so, we know that people value this so much. They're saying, "I'm willing to drive to this area no matter where it is within that area."

David Fair: Now, anybody who has ever participated in one of these kinds of days, whether here in Washtenaw County or one of our neighboring counties, you know you can run into some rather long vehicle lines. How do we best ensure that we get to drop things off and make it as efficient as possible, both for those who are working the event and for ourselves?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah, the registration process. We had one event earlier this year at Northfield Township, and with the registration process, it was the smoothest I have ever seen it at any event. So, we're seeing really positive effects of that registration process. When I was working, you know, in the past, we'd have easily 45 minutes plus, you know, sometimes hour, hour and 15 minutes for an event. At this past event, we had the longest line. I saw it was six cars long.

David Fair: Wow.

Theo Eggermont: I can't promise that for other events because those are some of our larger ones. But we are evening out the flow. And so, we're seeing some really positive results from that.

David Fair: All good news on that front. Well, I think it's interesting that the Public Works department is not a taxpayer-funded government service. So, these events are kind of built into the department budget. Is there a cost benefit to Public Works by getting these items out of the waste stream in an appropriate and efficient way as opposed to having to deal with it somewhere else down the line?

Theo Eggermont: It doesn't come back to our budget, but it comes back to, you know, municipal governments or the Washtenaw County Road Commission. I'm thinking about things like when people, for lack of a better term, illegally dumped material, when they drop off tires or dishwashers or other things in roadside ditches. Somebody's got to clean that up. And then, the municipality or the county road commission would pay for that cleanup. And that's a lot more expensive than having people bring it to us where it can get to the right place and then actually get put back into circulation if it's a dishwasher. You know, there's some metal in there, and that can be recovered. So, there's additional benefits to keeping it out of our ditches, but actually putting it back in circulation. So, we're not tax-funded. Our revenue comes from host fees from the landfills, so we get a portion of their fees every year, and that funds these kind of events.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and our Washtenaw United conversation continues with Washtenaw County Public Works director Theo Eggermont. Now, after Washtenaw cleanup days are completed, there are still longer term goals and aspirations. We talk about the ongoing move towards zero waste. Where are we on that journey right now in Washtenaw County?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah, we are just about to kick off a new planning process. And so, we're going to be collecting a lot more data, and the state is putting forward these material management planning processes. So, we're going to be required to collect a lot of data. We're going to get more data from the state, and then we'll have a good idea of what our recycling rate is. And then, we'll be able to calculate that every year and see what direction we're headed in. Right now, a lot of the data that we have is based on estimates. And so, we're we're looking forward to this new planning process to get some more information and find out where we can do more.

David Fair: And once you have that data, is that when you'll sit down and devise a more specific, longer-term strategic plan to get as close to zero waste as possible?

Theo Eggermont: Yeah. So, this planning process is a three-year-long process with a lot of public meetings and a lot of public input. And we actually go out. We request each of the municipalities within Washtenaw County to have a set of township or city council meeting to go over that information and get their buy-in. So, there's a lot of public engagement through that process. And it takes, as I mentioned, three years. So, that'll be a long planning process for sure.

David Fair: So, when you think about recycling, waste disposal and materials use of the future, what do you envision?

Theo Eggermont: I think one of the first steps that we can make a lot of impact on right now is really compost and collecting food waste. Depending on the information that you've got and what you're looking at, I think about, like, if paper, if you include that is recyclable or compostable, but it's something like 40% of what goes into our municipal solid waste and our curbside can be diverted. And so, collecting that material, making sure it doesn't end up in a landfill where it produced methane and greenhouse gases, but actually can go back into creating good, healthy soil. I think that's really where I want to see us moving as a first step because it's a big one.

David Fair: Well, Theo, thank you so much for taking time in for informing us today. I'm most grateful.

Theo Eggermont: Yeah. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

David Fair: That is Theo Eggermont, Washtenaw County Public Works director, talking about Washtenaw County's clean-up days. If you'd like more information, including all dates and locations still to come, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 891 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


There are many environmental issues that affect our planet everyday through the form of climate change, pollution, and lack of biodiversity. But did you know that people with low incomes and most often, people of color, are more likely to get exposed to harmful pollutants and live in environmentally harmful areas?

Washtenaw County is no exception— PFAS contamination in groundwater at Ypsilanti Township’s Willow Run Airport is more than five times the acceptable level. There has also been unhealthy air quality levels in Washtenaw County this summer, due to Canadian wildfires.

There are ways to remedy the environmental harms and inequities in Washtenaw County:

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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