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Lansing plans its own recycling facility

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The big noisy garbage trucks trundle through Lansing over potholed streets, a regular beeping presence that often just fades into the sounds of the city, unnoticed. 

But the city of Lansing has some significant changes in store that could save money while boosting conservation.

Mayor Andy Schor made an executive decision to phase out blue bags for city garbage customers beginning in December, and later this year, a recycling processing center should open in central Lansing, eliminating the need to haul all the city’s recyclables nearly 100 miles down I-96 to Wayne County. 

Emterra, a Canadian company with American offices in Flint, was the sole bidder for a Lansing recycling plant, which will separate the plastics, metals, paper and glass and sell the raw materials to companies that can turn them into new products.

The value of recyclables collapsed after China decided to quit accepting most of America’s trash, leaving local governments and recycling companies to scramble for a place to haul their rubbish. Southeast Asian markets picked up some of the slack while American manufacturers have restarted operations after years of being undercut by Chinese companies.

Recyclables had been a money-maker for cities, but the loss of the Chinese markets has tanked commodity prices and it now can cost more to recycle than to simply haul everything to the dump.

“With commodity revenue dropping so much, the net processing cost was close to the actual cost,” Lansing Public Service director Andy Kilpatrick said. “This is the reason many communities decided to get out of recycling, at least temporarily — recycling costs are in the range of landfill costs for many communities.”

Kilpatrick said domestic markets have reopened for paper, but almost all plastics are still shipped across the Pacific.

In 2017, the total costs for Lansing to cart away its recycling was $51 a ton, a price that would have gone up to $78 a ton, because of an increase in hauling costs and a spike in processing costs for recyclables with very little value. With Emterra, Lansing can eliminate hauling costs as well as its dilapidated transfer site and keep the cost of recycled trash to $57 a ton — a price that would drop if more recycling markets come online and commodity prices increase.

The city has not disclosed the exact location of the proposed recycling facility, but it is in an industrial area near downtown and 600 feet from the nearest residence. Emterra is conducting environmental testing of the site, which has existing warehouse infrastructure, to determine if the property has any contaminants that must be cleaned up before the plant can be installed.

Schor insisted that the new recycler, which will employ about a dozen people, be located within the city limits, where Lansing can collect property and income tax revenue. 

East Lansing will also switch its recycling to the new Lansing facility to avoid the haul to Detroit. The bid for Emterra’s new facility was boosted by East Lansing’s promise to go along with Lansing, as well as the potential for the rest of central Michigan to make the switch and lower their hauling costs. Currently, recycling haulers have to go to Grand Rapids or Traverse City if not the Detroit area.

Bye, bye blue bags

On garbage, Schor’s decision to eliminate the blue bags has caught some flak from candidates for local office. Brandon Betz, who’s challenging Jody Washington for the 1st Ward seat on the Lansing City Council, attacked the loss of bags as hurting the poor and working class.

Another candidate, Farhan Sheikh-Omar, said he prefers the city’s top garbage pickup competitor, Granger, and believes the private company provides good competition. The city, he said, was only interested in ripping off residents. In addition to renting carts out to customers, Granger sells bag tags for people who use less trash.

Schor said he was mindful of these concerns and implemented a new fee structure designed to help price-conscious customers avoid the $16 monthly cart rental and encourage people to conserve waste and recycle. “We want to make it more efficient but not make more trash,” he said.

The blue bags cost just $2.25 apiece, but the city plans to launch a biweekly pickup at $8 a month — half the price of weekly pickup, and less than bag-users would spend currently if they put out one bag a week. The city has about 12,000 garbage cart customers and 2,500 blue-bag customers.

The bags can be messy — they break, animals get in them, and city sanitation workers have hurt their backs lifting them up. The carts can be picked up by a mechanical arm and hydraulic lift. The driver rarely has to leave the garbage truck.

The city also has no idea which residents might toss out a bag for pickup, forcing trucks down streets where they don't have customers.

Kilpatrick said Granger picks up garbage for about two-thirds of city residents. That will continue for now, although a debate is brewing about whether the city should switch to just one garbage collector. Lansing actually has four private companies permitted to haul trash in the city, although besides Granger, only Eric’s Refuse currently serves anyone, and then only a small percentage of residents. “We opened the city to any hauler that abides by the rules,” Kilpatrick said, under a policy going back to the 1990s.

Betz supports a move to a single operator, which would make pickup more efficient, lower carbon emissions and reduce wear and tear on neighborhood streets from the heavy trucks.

Washington said she wasn’t opposed to going to a single collector, but she would fight any attempt to eliminate public sanitation jobs. At the same time, it may be hard politically to force a majority of the city’s residents to give up their preferred garbage contractor — Granger.

East Lansing does not allow private companies to pick up its trash. Other Michigan cities, such as Kalamazoo, rely on private companies.

In East Lansing, property owners pay for garbage and recycling pickup through their taxes. There’s less incentive to conserve than under Schor’s new proposal, because residents pay the same regardless of how much trash they create unless they create a lot.

Despite this, East Lansing residents produce 10 percent less trash than they did in 2012, when the city had fewer homes. “We’ve seen our trash use go down year after year,” Cathy DeShambo, East Lansing’s environmental services administrator, said.

East Lansing customers pay a fee when they buy a cart, and then get charged a yearly fee for its giant 96-gallon trash cans. Customers who do not wish to buy a cart, which start at $55, may buy $1.85 yellow bags from the city for their trash, but DeShambo said few choose this option.

In Lansing, consumers do not buy carts — they pay a quarterly fee based on the size of their cart, and under the new rules, based on frequency of pickup.

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