Hi — my name is Amanda and I’m the Zero Waste and Sustainability Intern shared between Kent County Department of Public Works (KCDPW) and West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC)! For the next few weeks I’ll be part of the City of Grand Rapids’ “Feet on the Street” recycling bin inspection campaign and will be sharing my experience along the way as well as some important information regarding recycling in our county. 

I grew up in Okemos, MI and made the move west to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College (now Calvin University) where I graduated with a degree in Biology in 2018. Throughout college and following graduation I spent some time working as an Emergency Veterinary Assistant, and as a Behavior Technician at an Autism center, then moved abroad for a year to teach English to kindergarten aged kids in Budapest, Hungary. Despite a broad range of professional experience, the planet’s increasing environmental crisis and a heart for the people impacted by it, always kept a future in environmentalism at the back of my mind. That’s ultimately what brought me here, to KCDPW and WMEAC excited to learn, educate, and advocate in the name of a more sustainable future for Kent County. 

While I’ve been recycling for several years now, I wasn’t born a recycler. For most of my life I didn’t recycle more  than the coveted 10 cent pop can returns, so my more sustainable living started when I moved to Grand Rapids. For the first two years of my college experience, my Biology degree was aimed at a final career in Veterinary medicine. Throughout my fours years, I was both privileged and burdened to be in a position to always be reminded about the ever-growing strain our lifestyles put on our environment—privileged to be in a place where these issues were held with great importance and where conversations inspired action, burdened to see the direction our habits are leading us if we stay complacent. In determining at what point sustainability became so important to me, I realized it was there. Yes, in courses that touched on environmental impact through carbon emissions, water pollution, and wildlife habitat destruction, but more importantly,  in being surrounded by leaders and a community that stressed the importance of caring for the world. Having and hearing these conversations and understanding my role is what made it important for me too. As I reflect on this, I am optimistic about where we can go as a community which holds just as much ability to inspire change. We have an opportunity to educate ourselves and others and to cultivate a community that inspires sustainability in all of us. And recycling is a perfect place to start. 

This sustainable action is just one facet of doing our part for the environment but it’s an incredibly important one. When done right, recycling diverts at least 120 tons of usable materials from landfills in a single day at Kent County’s Recycling Center alone. According to the EPA, in 2017 the United States saw 139.6 million tons of waste enter landfills. As a community and as a county, understanding what can be recycled and recycling those items properly can drastically reduce that number, create more jobs, and make a healthier and cleaner planet to live on.

The value and effectiveness we can get from recycling is only seen when it’s done properly. While, it’s crucial to understand what is important to recycle to keep those items out of landfills, it’s just as important to to understand what can’t be. In Kent County we utilize single stream recycling which means that residents don’t have to separate their fibrous paper products from containers made from plastic, glass, or aluminum. While it’s much easier for residents to move their recyclables from one bin in their home to one on the street, often times items end up in the bin that shouldn’t be there. Items such as dirty recyclables, “tanglers” like long pliable cords and chains, special collection recyclables like Styrofoam, scrap metal (pictured right), or plastic bags, and “wishcycled” items like straws and utensils — point to something referred to as “contamination”. Contamination in the recycling process occurs both when something which shouldn’t be recycled altogether is (think: clothing, food, hazardous waste materials) as well as when things aren’t able to be properly sorted and end up mixed in with the wrong substances. When this happens, it results in problems in the facility as well as downstream in the recycling process when the sorted materials are reformed to be made into something else. 

Occasionally the questions we have about recycling are met with different, inconclusive answers. It wasn’t until I was able to get a closer look at the recycling process at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center during my Feet on the Street inspectors’ training, that I understood why. Those different answers come from the differences in recycling hauler collection and which recycling center they deliver it to, recycling center capacities and technologies, as well as finding feasible and nearby outlets for the materials once they are sorted. So while one recycling center might take your #5 plastic bottles or containers, another might not currently have the downstream outlet to process this plastic into something new, capacity to sort it, or technology to distinguish between them and other types of plastic.

All this to say, recycling is fairly simple, but it certainly can be complicated when you don’t take the time to know the rules. It can make it especially puzzling when those rules change depending on where you live, where your recycling hauler takes your items to be sorted, and what technology that recycling center or materials recovery facility is capable of. This is where I come in! During my time here as the Zero Waste and Sustainability intern I’m working to better understand the recycling process on both a broad-scale and on the more minute level inner-workings of our County’s recycling center to make this one “simple” sustainable practice make more sense. Stay tuned each week as I share landfill diversion tricks, insights on how recycling works in Kent County, and what I learn about residents’ recycling habits during my “Feet on the Street” experience.