These programs became models for the community-based recycling programs that spread throughout the United States in the 1990s and 2000s, and that still today serve as examples of recycling done right. Over 50 years, the recycling programs run by the Ecology Center and Recycle Ann Arbor have recovered approximately a half million tons of materials, dramatically reducing air pollution, natural resource depletion, and carbon emissions. Along with a few other early nonprofit community-based recyclers, they transformed the way people think about trash, and how U.S. communities manage solid waste. Today, the United States recycles and composts approximately 30% of what it used to call “trash.”
In 1978, Recycle Ann Arbor created one of the country’s first curbside recycling services, and soon after that, the two organizations merged. Naysayers said recycling would never catch on, that people would never change the way they think about their trash. We proved them wrong. The Ecology Center’s recycling program grew, year after year, into a citywide service, with complementary programs throughout Washtenaw County and beyond. Large waste industry interests tried to block us, but we overcame their influence with persistence and innovation. In the 1990s and 2000s, communities throughout the United States started providing their own recycling services. Some states established strong recycling policies, and these developments forced the waste industry to provide its own recycling services.
Overseas end-markets have banned the low-quality recyclables generated by those programs, creating a glut of material -- and a nosedive in prices -- on the domestic market. With its focus on high-quality materials, though, Recycle Ann Arbor has retained strong markets for its recyclables. In 2019, it is proposing to re-build the City of Ann Arbor’s materials recovery facility and move the City forward toward zero waste. Along with the country’s other major nonprofit recyclers, it’s created a new national voice for a recycling industry with integrity.