Two images: an adult in a hard hat talks to children in hard hats at the recycling center; the recycling center

From Leaky Landfill to Material Recovery

One of 50 stories, from 50 years of action

by Matthew Woodbury

A Garbage Barge

Trash is rarely front page news. In the spring and summer of 1987, however, a garbage barge called the Mobro 4000 captured the attention of Americans as it travelled up and down the Atlantic seaboard. The ensuing saga of what to do with the Mobro 4000’s cargo - after seven months at sea the tons of trash ended back where they began - encapsulated fraught national conversations about waste management. More than just a single sensational event, the episode  represented the grim consequences of an economic model that profits from generating and disposing of waste.

As the Mobro 4000 sailed from New York to the Caribbean and back, Ann Arbor was facing its own disposal dilemma. Though the city had pioneered municipal recycling in the 1970s, by the late 1980s it, like many cities around the country, was struggling with a surging volume of trash. Ann Arbor’s municipal landfill was overflowing, leaky, and out of compliance with state regulations.

The Ecology Center saw an urgent need to reduce the city’s dependence on conventional disposal methods. In place of the existing approach, we proposed reimagining the city’s recycling program by educating residents about reducing household waste and taking ambitious steps to recover a wide range of materials before they reached the landfill.

Redesigning Material Lifecycles

Following the introduction of curbside collection in 1978, recycling in Ann Arbor grew rapidly. By the 1980s, pickup extended into every neighborhood, over 100 area businesses used Recycle Ann Arbor’s commercial recycling service, and Ecology Center block coordinators continued to build support for the program. 

Despite these successes, resource recovery was constrained by Recycle Ann Arbor’s small processing facility and limited collection capacity. The restriction of curbside collection to single-family homes made recycling burdensome for residents living in multi-family housing, recyclers had to painstakingly sort materials by type into bins they provided themselves, and collection only took place once a month. Surveys revealed widespread support for recycling but the program’s limitations meant the city only recovered 3% of its waste.

In November 1988, the Ecology Center developed a two-part plan redesigning the scale and scope of municipal recycling. First, we proposed a mandatory recycling ordinance in order to boost recycling rates. Voluntary measures resulted in household participation rates of between 15 and 40 percent but jurisdictions with mandatory recycling reached between 70 and 95 percent of residents. An effective program also required frequent pickups, convenient curbside carts, and minimal sorting - all elements that were beyond the capacity of Recycle Ann Arbor’s existing infrastructure.

To process recovered materials, the plan’s second priority was acquiring a new fleet of collection trucks and building a modern materials recovery facility (MRF). The MRF,  pronounced “murf,” would be able to handle large volumes of recyclables. Alongside a facility that turned organic material - then comprising about 10 to 15 percent of the city’s waste - into useful compost, the MRF formed the core of a larger resource recovery complex. The Ecology Center’s vision prioritized making recycling convenient for all residents, redirecting materials away from landfills, and collecting and reusing organic matter.

The Environmental Bond

Building the MRF and its associated infrastructure required significant investment. The MRF cost over $5 million and other expenses like trucks, the compost facility, and recycling bins brought the total to $10 million. Estimates calculated $2 million in other start-up costs and projected an annual operating budget of $1.75 million. The city was eligible for three state grants paying for 75 percent of the capital costs, but Ann Arbor still needed to finance the remaining 25 percent.

Appearing on the April 1990 ballot as Proposal A, voters were asked to strengthen resource recovery in Ann Arbor by approving a $28 million bond. Timing was auspicious, with the nation set to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day later that month recycling and ecological issues were on the agenda. In a letter to the Michigan Daily, Carolyn Becking of Recycle U-M said the bond measure represented “a commitment to action [and] more convenient and pervasive recycling.”

Not everybody was in favor and the bond was strongly opposed by the waste industry. To raise support, the Ecology Center recruited over 200 volunteers who went door-to-door, expanded the Ann Arbor Recycling Coalition to include business and religious organizations, and recruited two former Ann Arbor mayors (and political rivals) Al Wheeler and Lou Belcher to chair the campaign. 

On election day the majority of voters in every Ann Arbor precinct supported the environmental bond measure. That vote provided for long-term, safe, cost-effective integrated solid waste management for Ann Arbor residents and businesses. Funding from the bond allowed Recycle Ann Arbor to purchase trucks so that every resident in the city could benefit from weekly recycling and composting pickup. Instead of sorting recyclables by type, the city now provided two curb carts - one for paper and one for containers - where residents put materials for collection.

Within a year RAA had switched from monthly to weekly curbside pickup; distributed new collection totes to single- and multi-family houses; upgraded collection equipment; and renovated the processing facility. New equipment allowed the city to accept and process brush as well as leaves and yard clippings. Educational outreach also received a boost through the opening of two new recycling education centers at the Recycling Drop-Off Station and at Leslie Science Center. In 1995-96, the City constructed the MRF, and the recycling education center was moved into the new facility.  Many of these programs, still uncommon on a national level, were the first of their kind in Michigan.

The Ann Arbor Recycling Coalition

The second part of the Ecology Center’s plan - mandatory recycling - needed participation from the entire community to overcome vocal and well-funded opposition from local haulers, many of which had been acquired by large national companies but still operated under their original names. To help build support for the environmental bond, Ecology Center staff had established the Ann Arbor Recycling Coalition as a joint undertaking between eight environmental and community organizations who supported expanding the city’s recycling infrastructure. Playing major roles were the local chapters of the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters. Other active members included the Association for the Advancement of University Women, Project Grow, Huron Valley Greens, and the Augusta Environmental Strategy Committee.

The coalition tapped into national debates about resource disposal and recovery as it organized residents, students, and neighborhood associations in support of a revitalized recycling program. The plan was introduced in 1989, but a city council vote was delayed as opponents called for even more information, additional consultation, and also questioned the inclusion of composting and recycling in the same ordinance. At the time, Ann Arbor’s city council was majority Republican and the council’s leader on solid waste issues argued for going slowly on recycling and privatizing municipal solid waste operations. Through the leadership of Liz Brater, then on the city council and a future mayor and state legislator, the council eventually unanimously approved a comprehensive recycling ordinance in November, 1990. The ordinance made Ann Arbor the first Michigan city to enact mandatory recycling.

Listen to Liz Brater [3:45 - 5:40] talk about the Environmental Bond and RAA's work to improve A2 recycling

The ordinance extended collection to multi-family housing, mandated that single and two-family houses separate recyclables from trash, and required businesses to sort their refuse. As a space-saving measure for the landfill and to encourage commercial use of the MRF, the ordinance also banned disposing of recyclables and organic matter at the landfill.

What’s Happening Now

The programs and facilities supported by the Environmental Bond boosted recycling rates and established Ann Arbor as a national leader in resource recovery. Over the next two decades the recycling program collected over 10,000 tons of recyclables each year from Ann Arbor curbsides, saved the city millions of dollars in disposal costs, and provided a sorting hub for other recycling programs throughout southeast Michigan.  At its height, the Ann Arbor MRF was the sorting facility for all recycling programs in eastern Washtenaw County, western Wayne, and for more distant communities, as far removed as Toledo and Lansing.

However, a growing state, national, and global backlash against recycling efforts in the first decades of the 2000s created an excess of landfill space, a global glut of unrecyclable plastics, and general disinvestment from zero-waste strategies throughout most of the United States, including Ann Arbor.  In 2016, the Ann Arbor MRF had fallen into disrepair.  The City of Ann Arbor terminated its contract with the MRF operator, and the facility was converted into a recycling transfer station.

Fortunately, 2016 wasn’t the end of the story.  Since then, Recycle Ann Arbor has proposed rebuilding the Ann Arbor MRF with private capital, and, in July 2020, the City was poised to approve an agreement with RAA to do just that.  Fifty years after the Ecology Center opened the first recycling program in the state of MIchigan, and thirty years after leading the campaign for the Environmental Bond, the Ecology Center and Recycle Ann Arbor are leading efforts to promote zero waste.  In Ann Arbor, that vision is outlined in the City’s A2 Zero carbon neutrality plan.  In Michigan, it’s embodied in the Michigan Recycling Coalition’s efforts to expand the Bottle Bill and recycling infrastructure.  And nationwide, we’ve joined together with like-minded recyclers to tackle large-scale policy and economic challenges through the newly formed Alliance of Mission Based Recyclers.

Research for these stories provided by the Environmental Justice HistoryLab at the University of Michigan. For more details, check out our history archive.