recyclingRecycling is on Rhonda Oyer’s mind every day, both at home and work. “I don’t even remember when I first became involved in recycling,” says the current chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Sustainable Materials Management Unit (SMMU). “It may have been as a ‘junior litter picker-upper’ while camping with my family, or through a school field trip in the 5th grade when we visited the county landfill.” In any case, Oyer has worked for the DEQ for 22 years, starting as an enforcement specialist for solid waste and scrap tires. “When I got my degree in biology, no one could have predicted I would spend my career ‘talking trash!’” she adds, laughing.

“But seriously, most people give very little thought to what they throw away,” she explains. Recycling doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need a fancy area to sort or store your recyclables. “You just have to want to do it and take a little time to find out what can be recycled in your area. It is the right and responsible thing to do in our society to manage our planet’s shrinking resources,” she says. At home, Rhonda recycles through the Charlotte Area Recycling Authority.

She has lived most of her life in rural areas that are served by electric co-ops, first in Antrim County (Cherryland Electric Cooperative) and now in Eaton County as a member of Tri-County Electric Co-op, and notes that many rural areas have recycling opportunities that require residents to bring their materials to a drop-off location. Currently, only 24 of Michigan’s 83 counties have convenient access to recycling, through either drop-off or curbside collection, for all residents in single family homes.

Generally, Rhonda drops her own recycling off once every few months, and sorts the items in her garage, in…yep…recycled containers. “I have a big cardboard box that a shelving unit came in to stash the containers I use to sort things in, so they are easy to take back.” The containers include kitty litter buckets, a few old laundry baskets, and a fruit box for sorting cans, glass, plastic, boxboard, newspapers, magazines, junk mail and occasionally, batteries and lightbulbs. She usually puts out less than a half-bag at the curb for trash pick up. “So, if I forget to take out the trash one week, it isn’t a big deal,” she laughs.

A shift has occurred over the last few years in how trash is viewed, she continues, and it’s called sustainable materials management (SMM). Rhonda’s DEQ unit uses the SMM approach to redirect trash in the most productive and sustainable way throughout its life cycles, from extraction through recycling or final disposal. This minimizes the amount of materials involved and all the associated environmental impacts, while accounting for economic efficiency and social considerations. “This aligns with the efforts of both the United States Environmental Protection Agency to address waste issues in the SMM framework and with Michigan’s 2007 Solid Waste Policy, which recognizes solid waste as a resource that should be managed to promote economic vitality, ecological integrity, and improved quality of life in a way that fosters sustainability,” she says.

Her unit is also responsible for programs that involve solid waste planning, residential recycling and composting, beneficial reuse of industrial materials, dredging, and electronic waste and scrap tire management. “We incorporate SMM concepts into our work so that the job creation, resource conservation, greenhouse gas reduction, and energy-saving benefits of viewing waste as a resource can be realized in Michigan,” she explains. They also try to lead by example, as the DEQ offices have a good recycling program in place and the building is being redesigned to have a recycling area on each floor.

A couple of particular waste streams are also being focused on. “Electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing source of waste, and includes computers, TVs and cell phones.” E-waste contains toxic materials that pose hazards to human health and the environment if not properly disposed or recycled. “E-waste also contains valuable materials,” she emphasizes, “and that’s why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages reusing and recycling over land-filling and incineration.”

Organic waste is another area where there’s a lot of opportunity to shift waste to sustainable uses. Yard clippings are currently banned from landfill disposal, and the DEQ has a program for registering yard waste composting sites. Food waste and the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge (source reduction, feeding people and animals, industrial uses [rendering/fuel conversion/digestion], composting, landfill) are also seeing increased interest. The DEQ’s food waste efforts are focused on assessing what is currently being done here and connecting interested parties.

State leaders have also recognized the benefits of recycling, Rhonda adds. Gov. Rick Snyder has specifically mentioned forming a 2014 plan for getting Michigan up-to-speed on it and DEQ Director Dan Wyant is working with stakeholders to identify the best plan for getting all residents to recycle.

With this new focus, Oyer adds, it’s clear the state needs to measure existing recycling efforts in order to identify areas for improvement and create a way to measure progress. Estimates show there is less than a 16 percent residential recycling rate. “Industrial recycling seems to be done at a much higher rate, but again there is no consistent measurement and what data we do have is submitted voluntarily,” she reports. The DEQ is working to establish a measurement system, and identify which residents and businesses have access to recycling opportunities.

Referring to the Michigan Recycling Coalition’s awareness campaign, “We want everyone in Michigan to be a part of ‘Recycle, MI’—a place where reducing, reusing and recycling is easy and convenient,” Rhonda says. “It is really exciting to see our leaders recognize the importance of recycling to our economic recovery and rebuilding efforts. I’m looking forward to what the future holds for recycling in Michigan.”

– Rhonda Oyer & Gail Knudtson