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Northeast Michigan forges ahead to develop comprehensive rural recycling

Today's story is the latest in a series from NextCycle Michigan, an EGLE initiative.

 Nathan Skibbe, the vice chair of the Alpena Resource Recovery Board and Alpena Township supervisor, at the NextCycle Michigan Showcase 2022.

Nathan Skibbe, the vice chair of the Alpena Resource Recovery Board and Alpena Township supervisor, at the NextCycle Michigan Showcase 2022.


The challenge

Just under 5,000 square miles of the gorgeous “northern lower” make up Michigan Planning Region 9, the territory of the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG). Residents’ access to convenient recycling varied greatly across the region:

Two of the eight NEMCOG member counties - Alpena and Presque Isle - offer convenient drop-off sites for all residents and now want to improve operations or expand services.

Some townships in NEMCOG counties provide recycling services while others go without.

Yet, in other NEMCOG communities, there are no residential recycling programs.

The Solution

In 2022, NEMCOG used NextCycle Michigan’s Intergovernmental Initiatives and Public Private Partnerships (I2P3) Accelerator Track to strengthen recycling across the region. A stream of additional resources -- funding, technical support, and connections, both public sector and private -- has followed in the wake of that effort.

NEMCOG’s I2P3 Showcase pitch focused on a centerpiece of the region’s recycling infrastructure: the Alpena Resource Recovery Facility. Nathan Skibbe, the vice chair of the Alpena Resource Recovery Board and Alpena Township supervisor, presented the pitch. Alpena County’s longtime materials recovery facility (MRF) has provided great services to the county’s residents. However, Skibbe explained, it has been running well overcapacity for many years and, as such, its processes are labor-intensive and inefficient. He went on to describe the community’s excellent progress toward building a new MRF.

Alpena County has committed to providing the land and $500,000. With grants from the state and others, the project team had lined up a total of 72% of the $5.8 million price tag. Skibbe was seeking to close that funding gap. Through the NextCycle Partner Network, the project attracted funding from the Carton Council, the Foodservice Packaging Institute, and Closed Loop Partners.

From a state perspective, the new Alpena MRF - designed as a hub with the capacity to serve several neighboring counties - would fill a major geographic gap in processing services. A publicly owned rural MRF has many benefits, including keeping recycling jobs local and creating a competitive market for recycling services where solely private markets tend to leave gaps and/or develop monopolies.

NEMCOG’s timing was perfect for other communities in Region 9 as well. Just after NEMCOG’s NextCycle Michigan Accelerator cohort wrapped up in October 2022, an eight-bill package to update Michigan’s waste and materials management was passed into law. It is referred to as “Part 115” in the industry. Under one of Part 115’s provisions, Michigan counties will be required to prepare a Sustainable Materials Management Plan (in place of the former Solid Waste Management Plan).

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) was out ahead of this development, helping counties prepare for the planning process. “Materials Management Community Engagement Grants” (MMCE) were offered in 2022. Alpena County received one of these “preplanning grants” and used it to educate local elected officials about the value of improving recycling and their options in providing the services.

The Alpena MMCE work culminated in a forum on Recycling Market Development. The forum drew state, county, city, and township leaders and staff of regional recycling service providers. Seven of the eight NEMCOG counties and neighboring Iosco County were represented. Two manufacturers using recyclables as feedstock and a trade group shared their need for resources that are currently largely being landfilled: Holcim for glass, TABB for plastic bottles and jugs, and the Carton Council for aseptic cartons. Then, local forum participants reviewed their county profiles, data compilations about recycling systems and opportunities in their areas created by EGLE as part of establishing a baseline for the state. Critically, the local leaders also learned about funding pathways, both for developing or expanding systems and for operations.

The result

In 2023, the county, the city of Alpena, and townships formed an regional authority to oversee recycling and the new facility, taking over responsibility from NEMCOG. The authority’s name, the Northeast Michigan Materials Management Authority (NMMMA), reflects the intent to involve more counties in the region. NMMMA recently received a NextCycle Michigan EDA Build to Scale technical assistance grant to support continued progress on the MRF funding and development.

Crawford County, in the southwest corner of Region 9, went on to take part in the 2023 NextCycle Michigan I2P3 Accelerator, the Materials Management Community Engagement grant program, and the “Build to Scale” technical support offered through NextCycle Michigan’s EDA grant.

The Crawford County Recycling Task Force envisions a county-wide drop-off recycling program for day-to-day containers, paper, and cardboard. The program would bring together the five current township programs to save money by jointly contracting for hauling and processing services while making recycling convenient for all county residents plus businesses. None of the existing programs include businesses in their service models. In addition, the task force proposes to set up convenient recycling options for other materials, for example batteries, electronics, and mattresses.

As EGLE’s Materials Management Planning gets underway in the region, these NEMCOG counties are well positioned to continue to make great strides. Their consistent progress demonstrates the benefit of layers of funding and sustained technical assistance in developing regional infrastructure, programs, policies, and services. These rural communities are poised to reap the local benefits of comprehensive and convenient recycling for their residents and businesses.