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Recycling offers many returns, including cheaper products and less greenhouse gas

Recycled glass crushed and ready for remeltingBrenda Martinez always at least vaguely knew that recycling was good for the environment.

"It just seemed like general common sense that it was better to reuse things whenever possible instead of having them sit in landfills or wind up wherever," said the Clinton County resident, 59. "But now, the more I look into it, I'm starting to realize that recycling makes even more of an impact than I first realized, including economically and in helping to combat climate change."

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is hoping that more Michiganders will make the connection between how their recycling habits can help manufacturers operate more efficiently and reduce their carbon output.

"When most people think about having a positive impact on the climate, they think about driving less and putting solar panels on their house," said Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist for EGLE. "But one of the easiest things that everybody can do that is literally right at their fingertips is to use their recycling bins often and correctly."

That involves following the rules promoted by EGLE's Know It Before You Throw It recycling education campaign, including learning what materials are accepted by your local recycling provider and ensuring all items are free of contaminants such as food residue, he said.

Dirty containers aren't reusable and can actually ruin an entire recycling load, and having to remove nonrecyclable materials from the recycling stream drives up handling costs.

Waste not, want not

While the connection between proper recycling and mitigating climate change might not immediately occur to many state residents, it is powerful, Flechter said.

"If everyone were to use their recycling bin correctly, Michigan would be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking 1.5 million passenger vehicles off the road every year," he said. "Or looking at it another way, we could save the energy consumed by 760,000 households annually. Those are great returns for a simple lifestyle change."

Curious about just how much of a difference recycling can make in reducing greenhouse gases? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Waste Reduction Model (WARM) tool helps businesses and municipalities, as well as individuals, calculate the impact of their actions.

In general, recycling is so impactful because it almost always requires less energy to reconstitute materials that are already processed, such as glass bottles or aluminum cans, than it does to make new products from raw materials, said Robert Jackson, assistant director in EGLE's Materials Management Division.

The emphasis on proper recycling is one part of reaching the climate objectives in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's MI Healthy Climate Plan, which has a goal of achieving economywide carbon neutrality by 2050, Jackson said.

"Strengthening recycling infrastructure can help communities achieve their decarbonization goals," he said. "It also underpins EGLE's Catalyst Communities initiative, which fits perfectly into what the governor is trying to do to get the state to net zero."

The Catalyst Communities initiative provides education, training, planning and technical resources to local public officials as they prepare for climate impacts on emergency response and public health.

Recycling also promotes economic efficiency and sustainability, Jackson said.

While materials such as glass and metal don't emit gas while in a landfill, they do require handling, he said. "You have to do something with them while they're there, and that requires you to use heavy equipment, and that heavy equipment is what emits that greenhouse gas.

"So instead of sending the packaging you use every day on a one-way trip to a hole in the ground, make sure it recirculates in the economy. Spending money to move things around in a landfill and making it a burden on future generations to go in and clean up is just a bad waste of carbon resources. Let's put those carbon resources to work for us in new products."

Insulation maker on energy-saving mission

Flechter uses an aluminum can as an example of a product's life cycle.

"That can that contains Michigan-made cider could have come out of your neighbor's recycling bin and got processed into a new can, or it could have come from the ground in a bauxite mine in Australia, got shipped to Asia for processing and then got put on a boat and moved here," he said. "Four times the amount of greenhouse gas is saved by taking that already-mined aluminum and turning it into a new can."

Knauf Insulation is another, more specific example. The Indiana-based company has a plant in Albion that employs about 150 workers and is expanding to include a blown-in fiberglass insulation line.

George Phelps, public affairs manager, notes that the company is part of an industry that is the nation's second-highest user of mixed bottle cullet, which is recycled glass that is crushed and ready for remelting for use in another product.

Remelting recycled glass requires far less energy than making it from its source material, sand, he said.

"The bottom line is we run 24/7, and by melting glass cullet, that saves us about 1 1/2% on our energy use, and that equates to millions of dollars in energy savings," Phelps said.

However, the company's demand for recycled glass outstrips the supply, said Pat Noonan, director of product affairs.

"In my career at Knauf, I've never heard anybody say, 'Slow down, we've got too much cullet,'" he said. "That's a luxury we've never had."

Ultimately, improvements in both the quantity and quality of recycled glass benefits consumers, Noonan said.

"Because it's more efficient for us to use, we can get more melt in the furnace, and that lowers our cost and helps us pass that on to the consumers," he said.

Phelps noted that glass recycling offers various "returns," including the fact that the bottle placed in your bin for pickup could literally come back to you in the form of fiberglass insulation.

"This obviously has a great benefit on the environment in terms of glass not going into a landfill," he said. "It saves us a lot of money on energy use, and it also saves the consumer because it's going into their homes and saving them on their energy bills. It's a great story all the way around."

More information about how recycling benefits Michigan's environment and economy is available at

Photo caption: Mixed bottle cullet, recycled glass crushed and ready for remelting in another product.

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