Amanda, our shared Zero-Waste intern with West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), shares her experience with the City of Grand Rapids’ Feet on the Street Campaign and how contamination affects the rest of the recycling process, including the sorting, baling, and value of recyclable bales at Kent County Recycling Center.

Taken at face value, sustainability means the ability to exist at a constant rate. While the term isn’t always in reference to environmentalism, it certainly has become much more associated with it in the last 20 years. The “green” definition of sustainability then refers to maintaining non-harmful interactions with our environment with an understanding that humanity depends on its coexistence with the planet. There are 60 Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills in Michigan alone. Knowing that this number is only reflective of “The Great Lakes State”, the amount of space on our planet, in our backyards, that is used for disposal is far more than can be sustained long term. Not only will we continue to eat up our beautiful natural spaces, but our waste will continue to compound in ways that affect our air quality, our water sources, and our earth detrimentally. The nature of living sustainably, however, does not simply affect the course of our environmental health, but it also holds social and economic implications. With the potential to improve in so many areas that are affected by our interactions with the environment, understanding and taking steps to live more sustainably is increasingly important. 

First and foremost, (and because this blog is primarily about recycling habits) one of the easiest things we can do is divert our waste responsibly. In 2017 a community recycling survey in Kent county found that the Recycling and Education center handles only about 25% of the available recyclable material in the county. The other 75% winds up discarded in landfills. Removing that percentage of otherwise could-be-recycled materials leaves our landfills much smaller and our waste less wasteful. While it may seem easier to toss a used product into the trash rather than clean it for recycling, the environmental, social, and economic implications of recycling disagree. 

As garbage sits in a landfill and decomposes very, very slowly, it becomes one of the primary contributors of greenhouse gas output of our country. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane, a gas produced in the process of anaerobic decomposition (without oxygen) of buried trash, has 28-36 times the capacity of trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. This results in a direct contribution to global warming, threatening the planet’s biodiversity, promising severe weather events, and posing numerous public health risks. A few of the by-products of recycling include cleaner air and cleaner water, a direct result of the decreased amount of energy required to recycle materials as opposed to harvesting and manufacturing virgin materials. This process also ensures better use of nonrenewable natural resources by keeping what has already been harvested in circulation. One of the most important claims we have as Michiganders is one to the appreciation and enjoyment of the five Great Lakes. As the largest fresh water system in the entire world and a watershed that serves more than 30 million people, it’s imperative that we do everything that we can to protect the quality of it. Recycling helps to reduce a wide range of harmful pollutants from entering the Great Lakes watershed and provides billions of gallons of clean water for drinking and agriculture of our communities. Just as vital to the health of communities is clean air. Exposure to Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) increases risk of developing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases associated with acute, chronic, and cancerous effects. This is especially true for urban communities which experience increased pollutant exposure. With chronic diseases and infections alike, improving air quality through the use of effective recycling programs reduces energy consumption not only by improving quality of life in affected communities, but potentially saving lives. Finally, conserving natural resources is a massive benefit of recycling and vital for a sustainable future. The process of recycling materials takes far less energy than is required to produce new materials, both a benefit in itself and a benefit to a healthier environment. Ensuring that material is recycled when it can be, results in decreasing the unnecessary use of natural resources in order to manufacture new products all the while reducing waste by salvaging used materials. 

Outside of public health, other social and economic implications emphasize the importance of recycling properly. First and foremost, the process of salvaging materials to be repurposed into new products creates a notable number of employment opportunities in a community. Preparation of these materials, especially, is much more labor intensive, employing a significant number of people in the industry as compared to landfilling. A California based study found that, in comparison to waste disposal in landfills, which provides less than a single job per 1,000 tons of material, the recycling industry creates an estimated 6-13 jobs for the same amount. In addition, efficient recycling programs put money back into a community through the materials they process, generating local and state tax revenues, which an economic study in 2017 found to amount to $4.95 billion annually. This amount does not include additional taxes collected for industry itself and its employees. Because manufacturing new materials is also more expensive than repurposing already created or harvested materials, it is fiscally more efficient for a community to reuse the products that are already in circulation as opposed to creating new ones. Creating a closed loop system, also known as a circular economy, such as this not only ensures economic stability but decreases the overall cost of recycling. While felt by all, the consequences of continuing to mismanage waste as we have been are felt exponentially in lower income areas. Increasing amounts of waste over time results in increased cost of disposal, something that is not economically sustainable for families without a disposable income. Additionally, the demand for landfill space will continue to grow, further negatively affecting a community. Not only do they create an eyesore in natural spaces, but their existence ensures that properties located nearby see a drastic decrease in value. As a result, housing in these areas is typically associated with a lower socioeconomic status. Not only is this socially problematic, but these communities are forced to cope with potentially extreme health effects as a result of decomposing and incinerating garbage coming from their backyards.  

Knowing the responsibilities associated with waste removal, recycling what materials we can is crucial to sustaining (and hopefully improving) life as we know it. While the conversation typically surrounds our responsibilities in caring for the environment, social and economic impacts of recycling make the practice even more necessary. It is evident from these benefits that every minor action matters to promote good habits for major implications for our future.