What in the World Is Going on with Ann Arbor's Recycling Facility

On July 7, 2016, the City of Ann Arbor evicted ReCommunity, the long-time operator of its materials recovery facility (MRF), for safety violations at the City’s facility.  Since then, City actions have sowed confusion throughout the community about recycling.  Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a series of recent decisions that have undermined recycling in Ann Arbor.  It’s not too late to reverse course, but the Ann Arbor community is at a pivot point on this issue. 

Here’s what’s going on:  

40+ Years of Recycling Leadership

Over the last four decades, the City of Ann Arbor – working in close partnership with the Ecology Center, Recycle Ann Arbor, and other parties – developed one of the country’s top recycling programs.  The Ecology Center started Michigan’s first recycling program in 1970.  Recycle Ann Arbor started the state’s first curbside collection program in 1978.  The City started investing operating and capital funds in these services back in 1981, and City voters approved a $30 million funding package in 1990 to expand them into one of the country’s most comprehensive recycling programs.

By the early 2000s, national recycling experts frequently held up Ann Arbor’s recycling program as a leading example of how to run a great recycling program.  Recovery rates hovered near 50%; residential participation was almost universal, and services were provided at low cost.  As recently as 2006, Recycle Ann Arbor was acknowledged as the country’s top community-based recycling organization by the National Recycling Coalition, an award it received in part due to its strong partnership with the City of Ann Arbor.

Then Something Changed

In recent years, though, something changed.

The City’s four long-time senior recycling staff retired, and their expertise was not replaced.  The City’s long-time, locally-based, recycling consultants were shelved in favor of a global engineering firm with limited recycling experience.  The City’s ambitious recycling plans went mostly unimplemented.  The City ran operating surpluses, year after year after year, but the funds remain sequestered in the City’s reserve funds.  A key recycling ordinance has gone unenforced, and recycling participation has suffered as a result.  Here are few specifics:

  • The City of Ann Arbor has planned – for over a decade – to build a new Drop-Off Station. The property was purchased for this purpose in 2006; capital funds were allocated; site and facility plans were designed . . . and nothing has happened.  Today, the City has ceded leadership of this issue to Washtenaw County.
  • In 2009, after 18 months of deliberations with a community-wide stakeholder group, the City developed a commercial recycling ordinance and program for the purpose of increasing recovery rates.  The ordinance requires recycling by businesses; provides a collection service for those businesses free of charge, and funds the service through fees paid for a franchised waste collection service.  The City chose not to enforce the recycling mandate or the commercial franchise, and the program stalled.
  • Over the last three years, City Council calls to expand the organics (compostables) collection in the City as outlined in the City’s Solid Waste Plan have moved forward at an excruciating pace.  In 2014, staff downsized a proposal for year-round organics collection service to a consulting study, which is still not complete.

The bottom line is that the City has backed away from its strong commitment to recycling, and Ann Arbor’s ambitious and decades-long initiative is now struggling.  While the City has a progressive goal to recycle or compost 60% of its waste by 2018, and while it has a visionary goal to eventually become a zero waste community, our recovery rate now languishes around 40%.

Self-Inflicted Crisis at the MRF

The most recent events make the situation worse.

On July 7, the City of Ann Arbor terminated its contract with ReCommunity, the for-profit company that had managed the City’s materials recovery facility (MRF) for 20 years.  ReCommunity is now suing the City over their eviction, and we will be staying out of that dispute!

But what we are most concerned about is how the City handled the transition.  To all appearances, the City’s management of “recycling processing” since it terminated the ReCommunity contract was unplanned, haphazard, and expensive.

In the first two weeks after termination, the City issued rapidly shifting orders about where recyclables should be taken for processing after collection.  First, Recycle Ann Arbor (RAA) was directed to haul materials to the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority, in Chelsea.  This facility is too small to handle Ann Arbor’s materials.  

Later, the City directed RAA (and the City crews that collect recyclables from businesses that use dumpsters) to haul materials to the City’s transfer station, where they were loaded onto trailers, and hauled 200 miles to a MRF in Akron (OH), that is run by Waste Management, Inc. (WM).  

Later, the City directed RAA to haul materials to Royal Oak Recycling, which is located in Romulus.  This facility only processes paper products, not single-stream recyclables.  

Before terminating the contract with ReCommunity, the City should have had a reasonable plan about how to get its recyclables processed.  In addition, it should have communicated that clearly to the community.  Instead, confusion reigned.  One city councilperson even advised residents not to put out recyclables for collection because the material wasn’t getting recycled!  Many residents began to question if their recyclables were being handled correctly.

At the end of the month, though, the City disclosed that there was a plan in place all along, but that plan was even more disturbing than the apparent chaos in July.  On the day City Council terminated the ReCommunity contract, City staff issued an emergency purchase order to hire Waste Management to conduct a “facility evaluation” of the MRF, and to handle the City’s recyclables for six weeks.  At the end of the six weeks, the plan was that City staff would then bring an operating agreement to City Council to have WM run the MRF for a longer period, presumably 6-12 months.

The Ecology Center believes that course of action would sound the death knell for recycling in the City of Ann Arbor.  Waste Management is the country’s most influential advocate against recycling programs and pro-recycling policy.  Even though the company operates MRFs, they lobby aggressively in Congress, state capitols, and local governments against recycling incentives and high-recovery programs.  

If the City of Ann Arbor were to hand over its core recycling facility to Waste Management, the City would be effectively declaring defeat in its sustainability efforts.

Is There an Opportunity Hidden in Here Somewhere?

At the end of July, the Ecology Center, the City’s Environmental Commission, and several City Councilpersons communicated their concern about the MRF transition and the Waste Management arrangement, and City staff have corrected course.  The City now plans to seek out other potential operators to run the MRF on a 6- to 12-month basis, during which a long-term RFP will be developed.  This is a move in the right direction, and the City of Ann Arbor – particularly new Administrator Howard Lazarus – deserves credit.

Now the City stands at a turning point:

Will the City of Ann Arbor turn its renowned recycling initiative into a run-of-the-mill “waste management” program?  Or will it reinvest in its “materials recovery” infrastructure, and lead the way toward becoming a zero waste community?

It’s not too late for the City to reestablish a “materials recovery” framework, and move back in the right direction.  We are urging City leaders to undertake the following steps over the next year:

  1. Find a recycling company to run the City of Ann Arbor’s MRF – first in the short-term, and then on a longer-term basis.
  2. Hire a senior recycling staff person as soon as possible.  (The position is in the budget.)
  3. Educate businesses about the commercial recycling program, and enforce the commercial recycling and waste franchise provisions.
  4. Expand organics collection services, with year-round collection for residents and start-up programs for businesses.
  5. Develop regional service initiatives with Washtenaw County, which is now updating its Solid Waste Plan.

These five steps would put Ann Arbor back on track toward meeting its goals, and to fulfilling the proud vision held by many residents and businesses about the community’s commitment to real sustainability.

Published on August 9, 2016