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recycling truck, Ann Arbor, 2013

Not So Green

The city pushes back its recycling goal

by James Leonard

From the January, 2013 issue

Ann Arbor's decision to cancel its Christmas tree collection two years ago left a lot of folks unhappy. But as disappointments go, it's nothing compared to the switch to single-stream recycling.

The city rolled out the new all-in-one-cart system in mid-2010, and the next year, collections of paper, glass, and plastic jumped 16 percent, to 10,127 tons. But that was it. In the fiscal year ending last June, volume increased by less than 1 percent.

"We got the big increase because of bigger carts and taking more materials," says Kendra Pyle, senior recycling coordinator at Recycle Ann Arbor. "We expected it to level off."

But nobody expected it to level off so soon. A consultant had assured the city that volume would double, to 18,000 tons a year--thanks largely to an incentive program run by a company called Recyclebank. When the promised increase failed to materialize, council canceled that contract last year.

The underwhelming response saddled RAA, an independent nonprofit, with a $338,000 shortfall in the first year of the transition. The city voluntarily renegotiated their contract, and between that bailout and internal cuts, there'll be no shortfall this year: "We're tracking to roughly the same $4.5 million budget," says Kirk Lignell, the group's new CEO.

Amazingly, Ann Arborites are recycling less today than they did at the turn of the millennium--the city's all-time high for collections, 12,011 tons, was set twelve years ago. But don't blame diminished environmental awareness. The biggest factor in the decline appears to be the loss of the city's daily newspaper.

Back in 2000, the Ann Arbor News printed more than 22 million copies a year. Today the biweekly AnnArbor. com prints just 3.5 million. If the average paper weighs a pound, the 2009 transition alone took more than 9,000 tons of newsprint out of the waste stream. City solid waste coordinator Tom McMurtrie believes that if it weren't for the switch to single-stream the following year, Ann Arbor's recycling volume would actually have fallen.

Single-family households still

...continued below...

recycle and compost about as much as they send to the landfill--but that 50 percent "diversion rate" is unchanged from ten years ago, when the city adopted its last recycling plan. The previous plan aimed to get the diversion rate to 60 percent by now. Why did it fall short?

"Recycling has gone up," explains McMurtrie in an email, but tonnage at the city's compost center "has gone down with the elimination of the pickup of loose leaves on the street."

McMurtrie is now drafting a new ten-year plan. Once again, the goal will be to get homeowners' diversion rate to 60 percent, and raise the overall recycling rate from 31 percent to 45 percent. McMurtrie expected to present the draft at a city council working session in December, and hopes to have the plan finalized early this year.

Pyle says one way the city aims to get there is by increasing commercial recycling, which currently serves only 40 to 50 percent of the city's businesses. "Downtown already does really well," she says, and RAA piloted a commercial recycling program on Jackson and Stadium last fall. It plans to roll the system out citywide this year--just in time, since city council made recycling mandatory for businesses by the end of 2013.

Ann Arbor's biggest challenge is the same as always: getting more people who live in large apartment and condo complexes to recycle. "It's a struggle nationwide," says Lignell. "Nobody's cracked multifamily." RAA estimates that only 10 percent of its collections come from apartments and condos--even though they make up half of the city's households.

No one any longer expects recycling to double, but McMurtrie believes the city can at least match its former record of 12,000 tons. "Three percent growth would get us there in 51/2 years," he emails. "I think it's reasonable that we will do at least that good."


This article has been edited since it appeared in the January 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of Kirk Lignell's last name has been corrected.    (end of article)

[Originally published in January, 2013.]


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