Ann Arbor’s Environmental Commission Votes to Put City’s Recycling Program Back on Track

and the Ann Arbor City Council voted 11-0 to award Recycle Ann Arbor the interim contract for the MRF

NEWS UPDATE (June 6th, 2017). At last, there's a resolution. And, the results are in– Monday, June 5th, Ann Arbor City Council voted 11-0 to award Recycle Ann Arbor interim operations for the Materials Recovery Facility over Waste Management. This is a step in the right direction toward getting Ann Arbor's recycling program back on track. Recycle Ann Arbor's interim plan will produce less GHG emissions than the alternate plans would have, and Ann Arbor's glass will now be recycled into fiberglass and glass containers instead of landfill cover.   

NEWS UPDATE (April 1st, 2017). City Council votes in favor of Recycle Ann Arbor. Next step, the City of Ann Arbor to negotiate a contract with Recycle Ann Arbor to handle the sorting of the city's recyclables. Recyclables will be loose loaded and shipped to a state of the art Rumpke facility to be sorted and recycled. Glass will be sorted and sent to Rumpke's glass benefication facility and used as glass containers or fiberglass. 

NEWS UPDATE (March 3, 2017): Ann Arbor City Councilpersons Chip Smith and Jason Frenzel have proposed an interim contract with Recycle Ann Arbor, in partnership with Rumpke Waste and Recycling, to process recyclables for the City, in accordance with the Environmental Commission resolution.  City Council will be voting on the resolution Monday night.

On Thursday, February 23, the Ann Arbor Environmental Commission unanimously endorsed the Recycle Ann Arbor / Rumpke proposal to process City recyclables until the City’s materials recovery facility (MRF) is back up and running.

RAA/Rumpke’s price was neck-and-neck with another bidder, Waste Management Inc., and far lower than a third bidder, Emterra.  But what distinguished the RAA/Rumpke proposal was its technical and operational excellence.  In particular, the RAA/Rumpke proposal flatly rejects the practice– used by Waste Management and embraced by City of Ann Arbor staff– to compact and bale recyclables before shipping them to a distant MRF.

“Baling unsorted recyclables leads to the interlocking of items, making materials much more difficult to segregate at the MRF, which leads to far higher residuals at the end of the sorting lines, and at the end markets,” said Todd Bukowski, a senior packaging consultant who testified before the Commission.  “Those materials then end up in landfills.  For quality recycling, you want to bale materials after sorting, never before.”

Over the last three months, several recycling experts, including the Executive Director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, have advised the City about the damage done to recyclables by baling before sorting, with some estimates that up to 33% of all recyclables handled that way end up in a landfill.  Recycling industry groups recently commissioned a report on the topic that came to the same conclusion.

City staff responded that there were reasonable levels of residue from processing pre-baled recyclables at Waste Management’s Akron MRF, but they’ve offered no response about the additional residue at end markets, which is where recyclers say the real problem lies.

At the outset of the Environmental Commission meeting, Chair Susan Hutton declared the matter was settled– that if the City has to long-distance haul its recyclables, then loose-hauling is far better for recycling and the environment.

In addition to the loose-hauling advantage, Environmental Commissioners pointed to several other advantages to the RAA/Rumpke proposal.

1. The RAA/Rumpke proposal brought together an outstanding team of service providers.

The proposal from homegrown nonprofit Recycle Ann Arbor was provided in conjunction with Cincinnati-based Rumpke Waste and Recycling Services, the tenth largest solid waste company in the United States. The team of service providers provides outstanding technical and operating capabilities. Rumpke operated eight recycling facilities in the Midwest, processing, and marketing over 400,000 tons of recyclables each year.  It runs a state-of-the-art glass processing facility in Dayton, allowing Ann Arbor’s glass to be sold to glass container and fiberglass markets, not landfill cover, as it had been marketed in recent years by the City’s former MRF operator.  The trucking contractor, Custom Ecology, has been hauling Ann Arbor’s trash from the City’s transfer station for over a decade.  And Recycle Ann Arbor is a nationally recognized community-based recycler that created the first curbside recycling program in Michigan.

2. The RAA/Rumpke proposal is best for the environment.  

The bid encourages “recycling best practices” by hauling recyclables loose, and by actually recycling glass (instead of using it as landfill cover).

3. The RAA/Rumpke proposal is best for the workers.  

The proposal would pay the recycling employees above living wage; the employees would be represented by a labor union; and all three key partners (RAA, Rumpke, and the UAW) bring outstanding health and safety practices and resources to the project.

4. The RAA/Rumpke proposal is the local solution.

Recycle Ann Arbor brought in additional regional expertise for the project, but their proposal is the only one from a local company.  For that matter, it’s the only one from a company based in Michigan. It’s the only one based in the Midwest.

5. The RAA/Rumpke proposal is the community-based environmental solution.  

RAA is a nonprofit organization, governed by a community-based volunteer Board of Directors, with the sole mission of environment and community.  In contrast, one of the other bidders, Waste Management, downsized its corporate recycling division three years ago, since it wasn’t generating enough profits for its shareholders.

For nearly 50 years, we’ve been explaining why it’s important to know what happens to your recyclables after you put them in a bin.  Not all recycling is alike.  It matters who runs your MRF.

This coming Monday, March 6th, the Ann Arbor City Council will be voting on the Frenzel/Smith resolution in support of the RAA/Rumpke proposal and the Environmental Commission recommendation. This is the first key step in restoring Ann Arbor’s recycling program. Get involved. Contact Mayor Taylor and your councilmembers, urge them to support the resolution and thank them and City staff for working on behalf of the environment and the community.

Ann Arbor City Council Meeting 

7 pm Monday, March 6th, 2017

Larcom City Hall - Third floor

City Council meets in the second floor Council chambers

301 E. Huron St. 

Published on February 27, 2017

Breathe Free Detroit

Speak out against Detroit's air-polluting trash incinerator by March 8th

Where does trash go when we throw it “away”? If you live in Metro Detroit, it’s very likely some or all of your discards go to the world’s largest trash incinerator, located in the heart of Detroit.  The incinerator’s smokestack rises up from the cement near the intersection of I-75 and I-94. One might think that such an area, bisected by freeways and host to a large industrial polluter, would be vacant of families and homes. On the contrary, 7,280 people—including 1,544 children—live within just one mile of the incinerator. The area is also home to numerous schools and a new housing development.

The incinerator, constructed in 1986 and now owned and operated by Detroit Renewable Power, has been a bone of contention with resident Detroiters from the very beginning. And with good reason.  It has not been a good neighbor. In the last two years alone, DRP’s incinerator has violated the Clean Air Act 379 times. That’s a violation at least every other day!

Community members recently gathered in a local church basement on a 60-degree day in February to learn more about the violations and what could be done. The meeting was hosted by Breathe Free Detroit, a campaign started by the Ecology Center, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and concerned community members.

Attendees learned that even though DRP violated federal air pollution laws 379 times, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has proposed to fine the company for only 6 violations, totaling $149,000. Sixty-four continuous days of emitting excess particulate matter—a known cause and trigger of asthma—were counted as one single violation. Over 300 violations of carbon monoxide (CO) releases were excused because they occurred during start up, shut down, or a malfunction of the facility.

Event speakers acknowledged that while the recent spell of warm weather is lovely, other results of global warming are catastrophic. And carbon monoxide (CO) is a major greenhouse gas, contributing to the problem greatly. Additionally, “…when CO levels are elevated outdoors, they can be of particular concern for people with some types of heart disease [due to reduced oxygen],” according to the U.S. EPA.

Margaret Weber of Zero Waste Detroit notes that according to the analysis by Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CA-PHE), emissions from the DRP facility can be linked to premature deaths, hospitalizations, and asthma incidences among children. The total monetized value of the health impacts attributable to the DRP facility alone is $2.6 million each year.

What bothers local community members just as much, however, is the fact that most of the trash burned comes from outside of Detroit. At least 60% comes from Oakland County alone. All of the Grosse Pointes send all of their trash to the incinerator. “This is a classic case of environmental racism as a community of color is burdened with the negative impacts of incinerating the trash from majority white, affluent communities”, according to Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

But, the recent community meeting was not all bad news. Concerned residents were pleased to learn that they have an opportunity to have their voices heard. The MDEQ’s proposed consent decree, detailing the penalties tied to the incinerator’s recent violations, is currently open for public comment.


The last day to comment is March 8, 2017.

Also on this day, MDEQ will host a public hearing at the International Institute in Detroit to receive verbal comments. Many community members are planning to attend. Any Michigan resident can submit a comment. Here’s how:

Comment by mail:

Jason Wolf, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Air Quality Division,

P.O. Box 30260, Lansing, MI 48909

Comment by email:

Comment in person: Public Hearing WEDNESDAY, MARCH 8, 2017

International Institute, 111 East Kirby Street, Detroit, MI 48202

6:00pm—Public Informational Session

7:00pm—Public Hearing/Comments

For more information, contact Melissa Cooper Sargent  or Kathryn Savoie 

Published on February 27, 2017

Why We March

On Saturday, January 21st the Ecology Center family marched for the environment and for justice. We were marching across the nation in Washington DC, Lansing, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Dallas Texas, Oakland California, Portland Oregon, Montpelier Vermont, just to name a few.

We are not strangers to conflict, to fighting hard battles for justice. We see that the health of the environment is intimately connected to the health of our children and our communities. We see that in order to fight for environmental justice we must be accomplices to our friends and partners fighting for racial and gender justice, for LGBTQIA+ rights, immigrant rights, and disability rights.

We are women, we are black, we are Jewish, we are Native American, we are gay, we have disabilities. Our children are mixed race, transgender, and the children of recent immigrants. We serve our Arab American and Muslim neighbors through our recycling education program in Dearborn, the Latino community in SW Detroit via Fresh Prescription, and the children of Flint and across Michigan in our work to end lead poisoning.  Our families, our identities and our fight for justice are intersectional. 

We will continue to march for you and with you.  




Published on January 30, 2017

Safer Soap

Use of antibacterials may lead to bacterial resistance and other health concerns

How many times a day do doctors wash their hands? Dozens, perhaps. And they encourage us to follow effective hand-washing techniques as well.

“But, the conversation shouldn’t end there”, according to Dr. Paula Kim, MD with Beaumont Health System, clinical professor at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, and associate professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. She says, “The next questions are: What type of soap is used at home? Is it an antibacterial? Or is it plain soap and water?”

The Centers for Disease Control, American Medical Association, Food and Drug Administration and others overwhelmingly encourage people to use non-antibacterial (plain) soap, warm water and to rub hands together for a minimum of 20 - 30 seconds.

Why plain soap? Isn’t an antibacterial product more effective? In 2013 the FDA challenged manufacturers of antibacterial hand and body soaps (which are Over the Counter drugs) to prove that their products are more effective at killing germs than plain soap and water. And they couldn’t do it.

“There’s no data demonstrating that these drugs provide additional protection from diseases and infections. Using these products might give people a false sense of security,” says Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products.

In fact, this past September the FDA issued a rule banning manufacturers from using nineteen different antibacterial active ingredients, including the widely-used triclosan. The agency cited health risks, including bacterial resistance, as a main concern. Manufacturers of hand and body soaps (soaps intended to be used with water) have until September 2017 to switch their formulations. The new rule affects the majority of liquid hand soaps and bar soaps currently on the market. It does not affect hand sanitizers or hand wipes.

Health Risks

According to the FDA, “...laboratory studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Some data shows this resistance may have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments, such as antibiotics.” The FDA has also expressed concern over triclosan’s potential hormonal effects. According to the FDA, “...recent studies have demonstrated that triclosan showed effects on the thyroid, estrogen, and testosterone systems in several animal species, including mammals, the implications of which on human health, especially for children, are still not well understood.”

A 2014 report, Chemicals in Consumer Products Are Draining Trouble into the Great Lakes Ecosystem, published by the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), found--in addition to concerns about endocrine activity--triclosan carries moderate risks for reproductive toxicity, developmental neurotoxicity, neurotoxicity (a single dose), and human systemic toxicity (repeated dosage).


Triclosan is the most commonly used active ingredient in antibacterial products, of which there are thousands. It is added to household cleaners, cosmetics (including soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and mouthwash), clothing, furniture, lunchboxes, backpacks, food packaging, kitchen utensils, children’s toys, and more. But, it doesn’t stay in those products. Researchers have detected triclosan in household dust, in streams and other waterways, in wildlife, in human plasma and breast milk, and in drinking water. Indeed the multitude of exposure paths was a driving factor behind the FDA’s original request for safety and efficacy data from manufacturers. According to a September 2016 FDA Consumer Update fact sheet, Antibacterials? You Can Skip It--Use Plain Soap and Water, “...people’s long-term exposure to triclosan is higher than previously thought, raising concerns about the potential risks associated with the use of this ingredient over a lifetime.”


Much of the triclosan washed down the drain ultimately finds its way to our local waterways, since wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter out the chemical. CELA’s 2014 report found 90% of surface water sampled in the Great Lakes is contaminated with triclosan. They label triclosan “a chemical to be avoided” due in part to the very high risk of aquatic toxicity and its persistence in the environment. Once triclosan-laced wastewater is discharged into local waterways it reacts with sunlight to form dioxins, which can produce a spectrum of toxic health effects.


Many people use antibacterial soaps without knowing they are using an OTC drug. Shoppers should watch out for the word “antibacterial” or the phrase “kills germs”. Generally, we find these words and phrases reassuring. But, remember that it is not necessary to kill all the germs, but to simply remove them with plain soap and water. Then wash them down the drain. A Drug Facts label on a soap or body wash is a sign a product contains antibacterial ingredients. As Dr. Kim always encourages her patients, “Read the label on anything you buy. Read what’s in it!”

More Information

You don’t have to settle for toxic triclosan in your household cleaners either. Dr. Kim suggests her patients to, “Use natural things if possible, such as vinegar and water.” White vinegar is a food-grade antimicrobial which can kill germs on surfaces. Or, look for Clean Well brand soaps and sanitizers, which use thyme oil as the active ingredient to kill germs. Some of the Seventh Generation brand cleaning products include the Clean Well technology also.


Published on January 30, 2017

Public Health and the Environment Will Suffer Under the New Administration, Fight Back.

One week down, and the environmental report is in regarding the new Administration:

Scientific data scrubbed from federal websites.  Two oil pipelines resuscitated.  Three Cabinet nominations of climate dissemblers pushed forward. 

And over two million people protesting in the streets.

It’s hard to focus on what’s truly important when a new outrage gets issued by executive order on a daily basis.  Today, it’s the immigration ban.  A few days ago, it was the chaos around the country’s health care law.  Before that, it was over the Administration’s “alternative facts.”

But this week, what’s truly important is that, in response to the inauguration, large numbers of people stood up, fought back, and resisted.  That’s the only response that’s ever won freedom in the past.  It’s the only force that’s persuaded those in power to lighten their yoke.

The Women’s March on Washington, along with all the Sister Marches around the country and around the world, united people with vastly different agendas behind a common purpose.  But it’s led others to wonder what holds it together, beyond opposition to Donald Trump.  For example, what does the movement for healthy people and a healthy planet have to do with women’s rights, civil rights, health care access, and economic justice?

In our opinion, everything.

When President Trump ordered federal agencies to reconsider plans to complete the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, it portended significant new climate emissions and water pollution and a renewed threat to sacred Native American burial sites, at the same time.

When Congressional Democrats grilled former climate deniers and Cabinet nominees Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry about climate science, the nominees did their best impression of “reasonable” – by consenting that climate change was not a Chinese hoax.  And then they added that it wasn’t something to worry too much about.  Maybe the impacts are not yet that visible where they live, but right now, climate disasters in low-lying communities are destroying life for low-income people of color all over the world.

And at the same time that the nominees were testifying, the White House was ordering all climate research down from its websites, and forbidding EPA officials from discussing the topic.

What binds our movement for healthy people to other social movements are the most basic rights we’ve asserted as Americans – the “preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We’re bound together by one of America’s core principles, not always carried out in practice – that inalienable rights belong to all, even to political minorities – and that through the First Amendment to the Constitution, we are all guaranteed the right to free speech, to assemble peaceably, to petition the Government, and to freely exercise our religious beliefs.

It’s not just that we’re fighting the same adversary.  It’s that our grievances spring from a common source.

Here in Michigan, we know those grievances all too well.  We’ve seen a predominantly African American city have its entire drinking water supply poisoned in the name of fiscal responsibility.  We’re home to the country’s most polluted zip code, on the southwest side of Detroit, the country’s largest majority-minority city.

We needed less than a week for the verdict to come down on the new Administration’s environmental directives.  In Michigan, we can see where things are headed if we don’t fight back.  We’ve seen what happens when science and people get ignored in the name of profit and power.  We’re not going to let that happen this time.  We’re not going down without a fight. 

-- Michael Garfield, Ecology Center Director

Published on January 30, 2017

Scott Pruitt Will Serve Industry Not the People If Confirmed to Lead the EPA

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is yet another extreme choice in a long list of reprehensible cabinet nominations by President Trump.  

Ecology Center has signed on to a letter, along with 172 other environmental organizations, opposing the nomination of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The letter asks our senators to reject his nomination based on his troublesome track record as Attorney General in regards to protecting human health and the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency was created to protect people and the environment from corporate polluters who would pollute our air, our water, and cause great harm to our environment. As Attorney General, Scott Pruitt has sued the EPA numerous times for regulating carbon emissions, improving interstate air pollution, preventing airborne mercury, and for cleaner water standards. In short, Scott Pruitt has opposed every measure taken by the EPA to protect the health of families.

This leads one to question why in the world would Scott Pruitt want to lead an organization that he has such disdain for? The answer to this important question lies in his questionable alliances, his ties to the oil and gas industry. A 2011 letter signed by Pruitt sent to the EPA disputing the EPA’s methane emissions estimates of natural gas was authored by one of Oklahoma’s largest oil/gas companies. In addition to this blatant conflict of interest highlighted by the 2011 letter, his political campaigns have received significant financial contributions from Fossil Fuel industry giants. Pruitt's loyalties lie with industry, not the people.  

If questionable alliances and obvious disdain for the EPA were not enough to substantiate that Pruitt is unfit to lead the EPA, there is more. Pruitt denies or minimizes that climate change is a manmade phenomenon. He also believes that the federal government oversteps its bounds and advocates that the power to protect human and environmental health rest in the states. However, this completely ignores that when the power to protect air, water, and the environment was regulated by the states in the 50s and 60s, the states demonstrated incapable of effectively doing so. Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1990 due to state negligence. In fact, the EPA was created due to the state’s inability to regulate air, water, and the environment. And, since the EPA’s creation, air pollutants have dropped by an average of 70%.  Regulations by the EPA (many of which Pruitt has aggressively fought against) prevent premature deaths, heart attacks, and asthma. It’s worth noting that Michigan’s asthma rate is higher than the national average and we have some of the most polluted areas in the nation. A Pruitt-led EPA will not benefit Michigan. A Pruitt-led EPA will protect industry over the people.

Scott Pruitt is the wrong choice for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Period. Now is the time to act. Congress is scheduled to vote on Mr. Pruitt's appointment on Wednesday. Don't delay, contact your Senator now and tell them to reject Scott Pruitt's nomination. 

--Mara Herman, Ecology Center Health Outreach Coordinator


Published on January 30, 2017

Midwest Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Investment, the Silver Lining of the VW Emissions Scandal

The litigation surrounding Volkswagen’s emission cheating scandal has come to an end and the details of the settlement are out. The German automaker has agreed to a $14.7 billion settlement, which makes this the largest auto company settlement in U.S. history. While most of the settlement is targeted at reimbursing owners of VW diesel vehicles to replace the emitting vehicles, $2 billion of that was set-aside for electric vehicle infrastructure and education projects. An additional $2.7 billion will be distributed to states for emission mitigation projects that include the replacement of diesel vehicles as well as additional infrastructure investments.

The Ecology Center worked with its partners in a new Charge Up Midwest Campaign to encourage VW to give particular attention to the Midwest region when making its investment plans. The Midwest is home to more than one-fifth of the nation’s population and is ripe with opportunity for EV expansion. There are strong existing relationships between Midwest environmental advocates and utility companies on the development of charging infrastructure and many other programs aimed towards market acceleration. At the crossroads of America, the Midwest must play an integral role in any highway corridor DC Fast Charging network and with numerous thriving metro areas, the Midwest is a prime candidate for deploying charging stations at multi-unit dwellings, workplaces, and disadvantaged communities. Along with our Midwest allies, we urged VW to create a coordinated, transparent program to develop EV infrastructure, education, and outreach programs that will mitigate air pollution, safeguard our climate, and strengthen our economy.

The Ecology Center also worked with national partners including the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, and others to ensure that funds from the settlement are used wisely. Our recommendations to VW, contained in a letter, fell into the following four categories:  Investments should: 1) consider environmental impact, 2) plan strategically based on existing infrastructure, 3) focus on economic benefit, and 4) promote transparency and engagement with existing organizations dedicated to electric vehicle policy.  

Environmental Impact

It is important that VW prioritizes investments in areas that are disproportionately exposed to air pollution. Consideration should be given to disadvantaged and low-income communities that are impacted by air pollution at much higher rates. In addition, VW should focus on supporting charging technology with load management capabilities in order to keep air pollution from increasing. For example, as EV market share increases owners should be incentivized to charge their vehicles when the grid is underused, like overnight. Owners could also be directed to charge their vehicles at times when the sun is shining or wind is blowing and renewable energy input is high. This will keep the air cleaner and utility bills low.


Experts have identified particular areas that are key to accelerating EV adoption, such as apartments, condominiums, workplaces, and highway corridors. VW should focus on the expansion of infrastructure in these areas while keeping in mind existing and planned investments by third parties, utilities, or governments.


Investments in infrastructure should focus on continuing to keep costs low and incentivizing consumers to purchase electric vehicles. VW should seek opportunities to ensure that EV drivers are not overpaying at the plug.

Transparency and engagement with dedicated organizations

VW must make this process transparent by sharing all third-party proposals and allowing for meaningful public input. They should reach out to organizations already working in communities to promote EVs to help create an effective public education plan.

VW’s investment plan is due to be submitted on February 22, 2017. Look for more updates from the Ecology Center as they come, we will make sure to keep you updated at each step!

Published on January 30, 2017

What Does Research Say? So Many Benefits of Environmental Education

Research indicates that environmental education provides beneficial effects for students, especially those students who are at risk or have some form of disability. In the three research articles summarized below, we provide synopses of the research methods and findings for each study.

Kransy, M., Kalbacker, L., Stedman, R., & Russ, A. (2013). Measuring social capital among youth: applications in environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 21(1), 1-23.

Kransy, Kalbacker, Stedman, and Russ (2013) developed a tool to measure the impact of environmental education on social capital among youth.  Social capital is defined as the reciprocating benefits that arise from social networks based on trust and cooperation.  Asking questions about student attitudes and behaviors, they examined civic engagement, volunteering, and collective decision-making of 10-18-year-old youth. The research found that exposure to environmental education that involved teaching students management of natural resources and ecological systems, led to an increase in social capital among youth, which then transferred to a community scale. Students engaged in more informal socializing and tended to have more diverse friendships and associations. While much environmental education focuses on building awareness of environmental issues and educating about how individual behaviors can impact the environment, community-level action is needed for systemic response to environmental issues. The authors identify social capital as a critical condition for the kind of collective action that is needed to address environmental concerns at local and global levels.

Price, A. (2013). Improving school attendance: can participation in outdoor learning influence attendance for young people with social, emotional and behavioral difficulties? Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning. 15(2), 110-122.

Taking an action research approach, Price (2013) documented the effects of environmental education on school attendance for his class of 11-16 year old students with social, emotional and behavioral challenges. Price describes evidence linking school attendance to academic performance. Implementation of an outdoor learning program with his students led to more consistent and frequent attendance, as well as greater punctuality, enthusiasm, and reduced incidents of disciplinary issues. Price noted that home conditions, sickness, and access to transportation were the other factors that affected the students’ attendance. Price suggests that the fact that students looked forward to the outdoor learning contributed to their effort to be there and led to other benefits for these students, including improvements in focus, participation, and sense of well-being.

Schusler, T., & Kransy, M. (2010). Environmental Action as Context for Youth Development. The Journal Of Environmental Education, 41(4), 208-223.

Schusler and Kransy (2010) relate environmental education to increased physical, intellectual, psychological, and social well-being. The authors interviewed 33 educators from across the United States who facilitated environmental education programs, and interviewed 46 youth participating in environmental education programs in New York State. Nine facilitation methods were identified as helpful for improving attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors towards the environment. These methods included:

  • creating an emotionally safe space for learners,
  • conscious effort to bridge differences among youth,
  • focus on building relationships between youth and adults,
  • adults providing structure for activities while being flexible and adaptable,
  • program mixes rigorous physical activities with intellectual discussions,
  • clear expectations that are established and evaluated by both adults and youth,
  • adults support youth in taking on leadership roles, and
  • program expands horizons by connecting youth with their community and by connecting local with global.

The greatest challenge identified by educators was the ability to balance their direction of activities to keep focus or momentum and stepping back to allow students to take the lead. Interviews with students confirmed that environmental education improved not only their environmental awareness and attitudes, but also provided a host of other physical, emotional, intellectual, and social benefits for youth.  The findings were consistent with other studies that suggest environmental education is beneficial for youth development.

Collaborators: Katy Adams, Sydni Jourban, and Camille Hollins 

Published on January 12, 2017

Environmental Topics to Teach: Recycling

The need to protect the environment has become more imperative with the advancement of technology.  Materials that have become common over the past century, such as plastics, are not easily returned to the Earth through natural processes.  Modern manufacturing processes place a considerable strain on the Earth’s capacity to meet our growing population’s desire for materials, even compostable ones like paper. The average child generates approximately 67 pounds of discarded school packaging waste every year.

Advances in technology have also been used to improve our ability to protect resources.  Throughout the past century, humans have found a variety of ways to reuse or remanufacturing materials that are scarce or inefficient to produce. In the 1970’s these efforts evolved into what we now recognize as the first systems of modern recycling. With about 75.5 million school-age people, the need to improve schools’ recycling programs is imperative. Although access to recycling services is a critical piece, education about recycling is just as important.  If recycling education is neglected, we run the risk of compromising the quality and effectiveness of the recycling systems and fail to help students understand the value of such systems. By reaching students on a daily basis and helping them to understand the recycling process, students have the opportunity to develop sound habits and connect recycling with an ethic of care for one another and our larger world.

Encouraging recycling habits in young students provides them the skills and expectations that our society needs to cultivate for sustainability, but also provides some exciting opportunities to connect environmental education with academic learning goals at all ages. Recycling practices and policies integrate the social and scientific spheres, offer opportunities to explore engineering, and to engage students in real world math, writing, and reading comprehension exercises.

With all learners, we suggest taking a systems approach to recycling education.  Asking students to remember a list of what is recyclable and what is not amounts to rote learning, which we know is one of the least effective ways of teaching.  Instead, it is helpful to give students an understanding of what happens to their recycling once it is picked-up.  The recycling truck carries materials to a regional recycling center or Materials Recovery Facility (abbreviated MRF, pronounced “murf”).  At the MRF, different types of materials are sorted, bundled, and put on trucks that will carry them to different remanufacturing facilities (e.g. Plastic milk jugs are sorted apart from plastic water bottles and from cardboard and aluminum cans.  They all go to different factories.)  The rules for what can and cannot be recycled within a specific community are often determined by what kind of materials the local MRF is able to process.  There are physical limitations and market limitations to recyclables a MRF will accept. On the physical side, MRFs are outfitted with different technologies to help with the sorting process.  These machines may not be able to handle certain materials, and if they cannot then the materials will not be okay to put in our recycling carts at home or school. On the market side, if the MRF does not have a buyer for a particular recyclable, like type 3 plastic or glass, then they have no place to send the recyclables and cannot accept them from the public.

Since most people are unaware of the role that a MRF plays in the recycling process, the recycling rules changing or differing from place to place causes confusion and frustration.  Giving students the opportunity (1) to explore MRF technologies or (2) to trace the path of a specific recyclable through the recycling loop are both great ways to help them develop “rules of thumb” for identifying what is recyclable in a way that does not rely on memorization.  Students have room to be creative, identify patterns, and invent solutions.  These activities also establish a foundation for understanding why recycling rules always seem to be changing or differ depending on the community.  New technologies are invented or installed at a local MRF. Products made from recyclable materials are being invented as well, which creates or changes markets.  Teaching recycling from a systems perspective allows for better education and opens the door to countless learning possibilities.  Students can apply this “system” approach to critically examine and propose methods to improve the effectiveness of their school’s recycling process by performing simple “recycling audits”, analyzing the data for patterns, and identifying what works well or causes problems.

If you are interested in further resources for recycling education or would like to invite one of the Ecology Center recycling education programs into your classroom, please contact


You may find the following links useful as recycling education resources:

ReCommunity Lesson Plan

EPA Educator Handbook

Video of Ann Arbor MRF Tour

Case Studies from RRS

Recycle Ann Arbor Information Pages

Minnesota Materials Exchange

Collaborators: Katy Adams, Sydni Jourban, and Camille Hollins 

Published on January 12, 2017

Local Trend Setters: Thurston Elementary Green Team Programs

We rarely visit a school these days that does not have a green team.  These student groups can take many forms but share a common purpose – to take a leadership role on school projects to investigate or address environmental issues.  This month we are pleased to share the story of the Green Team at Ann Arbor’s Thurston Elementary, where students have made participation in this organization both a privilege and responsibility.  As school leaders, members of the green team do more than pilot environmental initiatives, they do so in a way that models good citizenship.  However the evolution of Thurston’s Green Team did not happen overnight, and their story can both inspire and instruct the rest of us to keep refining our efforts to build this kind of community spirit and environmental ethic in our youth.

The green team program was started 7 years ago by a parent and has developed into a volunteer, student-led program with two supervising teachers.  Founded on a desire to reduce the amount of waste in Thurston’s cafeteria, their work has grown into an environmental stewardship program with many dimensions.  Green team activities include monitoring recycling and composting at all lunches, student gardening, landscaping and invasive species removal on school property, as well as building an outdoor classroom area. 

Establishing recycling and composting at Thurston started out slow.  In 2009, the City of Ann Arbor had services, but gaining school access was not straightforward. Mrs. Manthley, one of the original founders and now one of the overseeing teachers, described the difficulties the school faced in gaining access to that system and its rules.  At first, the school was only able to recycle plastics, clean from food waste, as well as white napkins, but not brown ones. In the early days, the school was not able to recycle milk cartons or compost meat products. And a short while after the program began, the guidelines changed, allowing for expansion in terms of what could be recycled, but posing new challenges for making sure everyone stayed informed.

Today the school recycles everything from plastic to paper to aluminum cans and composts all food scraps. The city provides curbside service for both the recycling and compost.  In addition, the students coordinated the collection of juice pouches in 10 lb bundles, which, until recently, were recycled through TerraCycle, a private agency.  Each year the City of Ann Arbor supports Thurston’s efforts to keep students and staff informed about solid waste issues by sponsoring free environmental education workshops, including programs on composting, recycling, zero waste, and pollution prevention, led by Ecology Center educators.  Each year 250 of these programs are delivered in Ann Arbor’s public and private schools.

The 4th and 5th-grade students who are dedicated to Thurston’s green team demonstrate their passion and commitment on a daily basis. Instead of joining their peers on the playground at recess, they donate their time to help guide students in the lunchroom on what can and cannot be recycled/composted. At school events such as Bagel Fridays and the Fun Run, an annual fundraiser, you will find them speaking with students and visitors in order to make sure napkins and popsicle sticks are thrown in the correct bin. The fifth-grade volunteers spend the second half of the year training third graders how to become green team leaders. Each year the adult supervisors plan a special holiday party and a field trip for the green team to show appreciation for their effort.  But Mrs. Manthley is quick to point out that the field trip is not what motivates them. “These students are a part of the green team because they truly care, and they are dedicated to making a difference at their school.“

The green team program at Thurston Elementary has been a huge success with the students and serves as a model for other schools that desire to take on an environmental program such as this. Starting a green team may be difficult, as Mrs. Manthley can attest, but it also brings great benefits to the students who choose to take part.  The volunteer experience teaches them a variety of organization and communication skills, creates friendships, and gives them the personal knowledge that their actions can make a positive difference in the world.

While I was at Thurston Elementary I asked Mrs. Manthley how she hoped to improve the program in the future and how we might get other schools to consider implementing these types of programs. She noted the importance of connecting the green team program with the school curriculum so that the learning can be better shared with all students.  The school’s new outside classroom is one way the green team is helping to take Thurston in this direction.  Spending time surrounded by the vegetable, rain, and butterfly gardens, which the green team is helping to design and construct, helps to create daily opportunities to connect learning to the natural world. Mrs. Manthley noted the value in having all students understand the meaning and implications behind recycling and get hands-on experience with the topic.  In Ann Arbor, the sixth-grade curriculum has included a trip to the Ann Arbor’s Recycling Facility, but education about recycling and composting could start long before this field trip through a program like the green team.  

Mrs. Manthley also had some suggestions specific to implementing recycling programs in other schools. From her personal experience, Mrs. Manthley says that easy access to information about your local government’s waste management system is key. Schools shouldn’t have to jump through hoops or be given a different set of guidelines by each person they talk to. She also suggested an incentive program for schools that choose to implement recycling/composting. The incentives could be a system in which points are tallied for each pound of recycling/compost, then the points turn into savings on items that schools buy frequently. Mrs. Manthley also offered the idea of a system that gives schools a small amount of money equivalent to what they are saving the city/state by recycling at lunch. Whether the money goes directly to the school that is recycling or back into the budget for all local schools doesn’t matter, what matters is that this is an incentive for schools to start a recycling and composting program.           

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Collaborators: Katy Adams, Sydni Jourban, and Camille Hollins 

Published on January 12, 2017