CLOSER LOOK: Business offers innovation, recycling solutions

Pollution is a concern for communities of all shapes and sizes. For this series, Leader Publications takes a closer look at various pollution issues throughout southwest Michigan. First in this series, we examine a local company with an innovative take on recycling.

Most people throw recycling in a bin and forget about it — even if it consists of a child’s favorite toy that is now broken, or an expensive bottle of wine.

But once that bin is picked up, where does it go? Is everything in the bin really going to be reused, repurposed or recycled? Is it worth it to recycle?

The recycling industry has steadily grown throughout the United States for the past several decades, yet, the state of Michigan is lagging.

According to a report from Gov. Rick Snyder on Feb. 2, Michigan’s recycling rate is just 15 percent — one of the lowest in the country.

“As a state, we need to be smarter about how we manage waste in order to protect our environment,” Snyder said. “I’m proud the State of Michigan will lead this effort by making recycling opportunities available at all state government facilities, parks and rest areas. The Re:Source initiative also will help strengthen Michigan’s foundation for the future by promoting the value of repurposing used materials in a way that boosts economic development opportunities.”

While Snyder and the state are working to change this, many local waste management companies are also pitching in with innovative and effective ways to collect and process recyclable materials.

Michiana Recycling and Disposal Services have served Berrien and Cass County with weekly recycling pickup since June 2007. Over the years, the facility and disposal process has become increasingly efficient and environmentally friendly.

One way Michiana Recycling has been able to do this is by only using the same trucks for both trash and recycling. Instead of having a separate bin or can for recycling, customers use Michiana Recycling’s yellow bags, which they put directly into their trash bin. This process decreases fossil fuels and simplifies the process for customers.

Another development the company has made is to pick through trash to find recyclable materials that customers did not put in the yellow bags. This often includes large cardboard boxes and other large materials. One downside to this is that people often assume that they don’t need to use the yellow bags and they can put recyclable materials in the trash bin and Michiana Recycling services will simply dig through to find it.

“I have some people I’ve talked to that say ‘we don’t use our yellow bags. You get it all anyway,’” said Henry Valkema, the owner of Michiana Recycling and Disposal Services. “I always tell them, ‘we really encourage you to use the yellow bag.’ It helps us get 100 percent of it. If it’s in the yellow bag, we know where that’s going. If it’s put in a garbage bag, especially the hefty heavy sacks, those don’t readily open up. If it’s not in the yellow bag, unless it’s a big piece of cardboard or something, we might not find it.”

People often forget that there are certain items that are technically recyclable that aren’t allowed to be put into the yellow bag, such as dark glass or plastic grocery bags.

Valkema says grocery bags can easily get wrapped up in the company’s conveyors and dark glass often comes from beer bottles that are thrown away in large quantities, like at a party. When this happens the glass is compacted by the equipment, the bottles shatter against each other and are likely to harm a worker. In contrast, clear glass is acceptable because it’s not as typically lumped together.

“It’s very abrasive on our equipment, and it has a low dollar value,” Valkema said. “Glass is made from sand and it has the most abundant natural resource in the world, so it’s not only of low value. If someone’s going to get cut or poked — it’s from shattered glass.”

Instead, dark glass can be taken to Michiana Recycling’s facility in Niles and grocery bags can typically be dropped off at a local grocery store.

“Ultimately, people just need to read the instructions that are in every sleeve of yellow bags,” Valkema said.

There are many other items that people need to be wary of recycling, no matter who their recycling provider is. On Waste Management’s website is a list “don’ts” of recycling. These include styrofoam, broken glass, fast food containers, batteries, plastic utensils, food scraps and many other items.

“Just because someone says it’s recyclable doesn’t mean it is,” Valkema said. “It might be recyclable, but does that means there’s a market for it. To have a market means [that it has to be worth it] to set it aside, to process it in such a fashion that it’s portable, and then you have to have enough that it makes sense to take it somewhere.”

The next story in this series will look at the oil and gas industry in Cass County.

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