COVID-19 crisis and recycling: What to do, how it helps

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With can and bottle return areas shut down statewide, what should you do with your containers?

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy says now is the time to pull out the storage bins.

The agency is encouraging residents to rinse, empty and dry all cans and bottles and store them in a dry area until the emergency order is lifted.

(An April 13, 2020 image shows material inside a recycling bin.)

EGLE’s recommendation also applies to other recyclable materials that may be piling up in garages after some communities temporarily suspended their recycling programs and closed drop-off centers.

“When we recycle, we are helping businesses with the valuable material they need to help respond in this crisis. So it’s a true opportunity for us all to play a role during this pandemic,” EGLE spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said.

RECYCLING MEANS MORE TOILET PAPER

The agency says recycled materials play a crucial role in creating new products, including one in high demand right now: toilet paper.

“Toilet paper is made mostly of recycled paper products,” Greenberg explained. “So if we recycle paper products and we do it properly, it can really help get that product back into the marketplace, which allows us to buy toilet paper again.”

Toilet paper sales have more than doubled since the pandemic hit and experts are estimating Americans are using 140% more of it than before, according to Greenberg.

She says Great Lakes Tissue in Cheboygan needs about 2,100 tons of recycled raw paper to pump out its toilet paper.

“(It’s) running at maximum capacity right now and they really need all the raw material that they can get their hands on so they can keep producing toilet paper,” she explained.

Greenberg said paper recycling is also key in creating the cardboard used for Amazon boxes and packaging medical supplies, food and personal care products.

“So this is where we can see a true impact through our actions coming back to us,” Greenberg said.

HOW TO SAFELY HANDLE RECYCLING

EGLE encourages residents to always wash their hands with soap and water after handling recycling, especially during this pandemic.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month found COVID-19 was detectable for as long as 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

Contact with COVID-19 is less of a concern for recycling processing systems, which EGLE says were designed to handle materials that have come in contact with people.

>>Online: COVID-19 and recycling FAQ

The reason the Kent County Recycling Center closed was because its processing work stations were too close together to maintain the 6-foot social distancing rule and some processors the center sends material to had already shut down.

Kristen Wieland with the Kent County Recycling Center says once it reopens, the facility will extend its operation hours to weekends as needed to sort and ship the backlog of recyclables delivered by collection trucks.

(An undated courtesy image shows the conveyor belt inside the Kent County Recycling Center.)

“If people are really fastidious about collecting their recyclables, it may take some time to get them out over several weeks of curbside recycling,” Greenberg advised.

She says people may be able to speed up the process if their local recycling facility has a drop-off option. To find out the status of your recycling program, visit EGLE’s online recycling directory or reach out to your city or township.

MICHIGAN WORST IN THE REGION FOR RECYCLING

Last year, Michigan’s recycling rate was 15% — the lowest in the Great Lakes region, according to EGLE. The state is hoping to double that number and reduce waste heading to landfills with its Recycling Raccoons education campaign.

The initiative focuses on what should not be recycled because it can damage machinery used in the recycling process or contaminate other recyclables.

Tuesday, the city of Kalamazoo said yard waste, tires, trash bags, household waste and other non-recyclable items were tossed into recycling, contaminating an entire load of recyclables — a total of 2.39 tons of material that couldn’t be processed.

“We understand that the Stay at Home Order may have resulted in increased trash per household, but everyone must do their part in keeping the recycle stream as clean as possible,” the city of Kalamazoo tweeted, along with a link to a website listing what residents should recycle.

“It’s just really important in general for us to recycle,” Greenberg said. “It helps the environment, it increases jobs, but more importantly, it takes product and it puts it back out into the marketplace to create other products that are helpful, especially even in this crisis.”

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