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Recycling Week Series: What really happens to your recycled materials? – Fox17

November 7, 2023

Micah Herrboldt is a waste reduction educator with the Kent County Department of Public Works. Part of his job is to help the public understand how the landfill and recycling center work.

“We have a job to do, which is make sure there’s a safe place for the waste in the county to go. But, we also need to make sure that we are funding ourselves to do that job,” said Herrboldt. “Instead of collecting fees through taxes, we’re allowing for the tipping fees that are being collected as trucks go over our scales.”

Steve Faber, the marketing and communications manager for the Kent County Department of Public Works, shared with FOX 17 that it costs 140 dollars to process about one ton of trash at their recycling facility. Once the material is processed, the facility is able to make money through commodities. Local organizations and businesses come to their recycling center to purchase recycled paper, glass, aluminum, and so on.

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Kent County Recycling and Education Center Facility

“So, we charge what’s called the tip fee, which is $70 on the front end, and then we make about $70,” said Faber. “That’s what allows us to break even here and offer this service to Kent County residents.”

The difference between dropping off unwanted material at the landfill and the recycling center often comes down to price.

“If that same ton of trash went to the landfill, the cost to actually process that is anywhere from 20 to 30 dollars or less. So it really is a huge price differential, which is what makes it really challenging,” said Faber. “Right now in our society, the cheapest solution is that landfill solution. Long term… there are real costs to that. That’s why we really encourage people to make that investment now.”

THE PROCESS

At the Kent County Recycling and Education Center, it’s a one-stop shop.

“This is what we call a single stream recycling center, which is really what allows for curbside collection of recyclables where you don’t have to put everything in separate bins,” said Faber.

Once the truck drops off the materials, the sorting comes down to machines and workers at the recycling center. The workers and machines are able to separate the single drop off into different types of plastic, paper, glass, aluminum, and so on.

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Separating recycled materials at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center

Micah Herrboldt shares that the machines make this process much easier. “Some of the machines specifically that are doing sorting of large quantities of items could never be done by a single person or just a line of people,” said Herrboldt. “These machines allow for us to get through more and more materials on a daily basis than human beings could alone.”

However, the recycling center truly cannot operate without the workers. Whatever the machines miss, the workers are able to catch.

Once the items are properly separated and processed, local vendors and companies are able to purchase the material from the recycling center to be used in a new way.

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Processed recycled materials at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center, separated by type of material

THE EDUCATION CENTER

Micah Herrboldt’s job as a waste reduction educator is to help the public understand how the recycling center and landfills operate. This facility is open to the public and students for tours, and Herrboldt recommends that you see the process for yourself.

One myth circling around is that when you drop off materials to be recycled, they aren’t actually being recycled. At the Kent County Recycling and Education Center, that is not the case. At their facility, 90 percent of the materials that are dropped off are recycled.

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Statistic at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center

The Kent County Recycling and Education Center is interactive, and you have the ability to watch the recycled materials be processed. Herrboldt’s job at the education center is to help students and the public understand why recycling is important, but also what can and cannot be recycled.

“There’s a lot of ‘wish-cycling’ going on out there,” said Herrboldt. “Somebody hopes that if they put it in the magical bin, that it will get recycled. And as much as we’d like for that to be the truth, it’s not.”

As Herrboldt teaches, there are things that do not belong in the single-stream recycling center or the landfill. Oftentimes, people should search out the best location for their unwanted items.

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Micah Herrboldt describes the Kent County Recycling and Education facility to FOX 17’s Haleigh Vaughn

“Yard waste doesn’t belong in a landfill, but there are other places those can go,” explains Herrboldt. “They can be picked up by companies or even by the public to be used in their gardens or anywhere else that they might want to have something like that.”

Herrboldt also emphasized the importance of disposing of electronics in the appropriate place.

“A lot of those batteries really should be recycled, because we’re always going to need more batteries. Make sure that those types of things get to an electronics recycler, so those valuable metals and other things that are in them can be recycled and used,” said Herrboldt. “It’s really important, not just because of the circularity of it, but because we don’t want to have to keep going out and getting those metals for batteries, because we’re only going to need more and more batteries.”

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Machine sorting recycled materials at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center

Herrboldt walks the students and the public through their facility, showing them what can be done with material instead of throwing it away. Their goal is to show people that materials can be re-purposed and re-imagined.

“When people think of trash, they think of trash as being something to go away and to get rid of, never to come back again,” said Herrboldt. “If we can think of it more as something to value, then that’s the idea of re-imagining what that material is and what that material could actually become in the future.”

WHERE MICHIGAN STANDS

People across the United States are dumping trash at a rate far faster than what we were a few decades ago.

“Michigan, unfortunately, is the state with the most trash buried per man, woman and child in the entire nation. We have been land-filling at a rate that really is unprecedented,” said Faber. “I think it’s really, really important that not just Kent County and West Michigan, but the whole state of Michigan, starts to pay closer attention.” Faber believes that we should account for those long term costs of land-filling, and put resources towards solutions.

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In addition, at our current landfill rate, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) predicts all of our landfills in Michigan will be full in 28 years. If you missed our first part of the series discussing where Michigan stands with our landfill status, click here.

The next story in our series takes us on a journey to see how one local man’s business is operational due to recycling centers. We’re taking a look at Oshki, a company that began in West Michigan, that transforms plastic into durable, sustainable apparel.

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