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September 8, 2015

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – There is recyclable material in the photograph above. But it won’t get recycled. Instead, it’s headed to a landfill or incinerator to be dumped along with the trash mixed in with it.

This bale of waste on the floor of Kent County’s Recycling and Education Center adds to a growing volume of contaminated recycling that has more than doubled in the past four years, exceeding state standards and prompting the county to crack down on offenders.

Next month, the county plans to install new surveillance cameras and signs at its three drop-off recycling centers notifying people that they may be subject to a penalty if they dump trash in the bins.

“We’re not tolerating it anymore,” said Nic VanderVinne, the county’s resource recovery specialist. “We’re going to start fining people.

“We will prosecute you for this.”

RELATED: Because your neighbor dumps dog doo in the bin, your recycling bill may rise

Rising rate of recycling contamination in Kent County

• 2011: 9 percent (23,078 tons delivered; 2,084 tons of trash)
• 2012: 9.2 percent (25,175 tons delivered; 2,324 tons of trash)
• 2013: 11 percent (30,637 tons delivered; 3,356 tons of trash)
• 2014: 14.1 percent (31,900 tons delivered; 4,495 tons of trash)
• 2015: 14.6 percent (36,605 tons delivered; 5,359 tons of trash*)

*extrapolation based on data through July

Source: Kent County Department of Public Works

The amount of trash shipped out of the county’s recycling center at 977 Wealthy St. SW has more than doubled in the past four years, according to county data. From about 2,000 tons in 2011, the amount of trash increased to nearly 4,500 tons last year and in 2015 is on pace to exceed 5,300 tons.

That trash includes diapers, pet waste, buckets of oil, garden hoses, swimming pool liners and more. Earlier this week a sock spilled out of a drop-off bin at the Wealthy Street center and a toilet sat on the ground beside it.

VanderVinne recalls seeing a tricycle stuffed into a bin, and several bags of medical waste sat on the floor of the center on Wednesday, Sept. 2.

“You get a lot of sharps, a lot of IV bags,” VanderVinne said. “I’ve seen entire bags of food come in here.”

The tonnage delivered to the county’s Recycling and Education Center has surged 38 percent since 2011. But more than one-fourth of that increased volume has been trash that’s not recyclable. In some cases, the trash soils loads of otherwise recyclable material.

In 2011, 9 percent of the material delivered to the recycling center was shipped back out to the landfill or incinerator. This year, the ratio is nearing 15 percent.

The state standard for recycling contamination is under 10 percent, said Matt Flechter, state recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“We want to make it easier and easier (to recycle) and by doing that we’re increasing contamination,” he said. “It’s the nature of moving into a co-mingled single stream recycling process.

“There has to be a concerted education effort to make sure that people know that these commodities need to be kept in a state that’s going to be able to be turned into carpet or a new chair. You’re always going to have people that are intentionally disposing of material in a way that they shouldn’t, but where you can make an impact is on those people that are not intentionally doing something wrong. They just don’t know. Really, it’s about personal responsibility and knowing what should go in the bin.”

RELATED: Researchers want to know how much treasure is in Michigan’s trash

The uptick in recycling contamination coincides with a new Grand Rapids city refuse system that some customers are gaming by concealing trash in their recycling bins – which are picked up free of charge – instead of putting it in their garbage cart. The city is removing carts from customers identified as repeat offenders, spokesman Steve Guitar said.

The county in January will start charging trash haulers $10 a ton to bring recyclables to the center. There’s no charge planned for the drop-off bins, but the county’s Board of Public Works will meet Thursday, Sept. 3, to consider how to enforce a proposed $250 fine for illegal dumping.

“We’re hoping the threat of some kind of legal action would deter (people from dumping trash in the bins),” said Kristen Wieland, a public works spokeswoman. “The concern for us is not the people that mistakenly put something in the recycling bin that they thought was recyclable. It’s the people who are doing it blatantly.”

Matt Vande Bunte covers government for MLive/Grand Rapids Press. Email him at or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

To read full article that appeared on mlive on September 2:

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