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Michigan’s statewide recycling education campaign seeks to promote better recycling practices and double the state’s recycling rate by 2025.

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April 24, 2020

Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy

Despite the state’s 10-cent bottle deposit law, Michigan currently has the lowest recycling rate in the Great Lakes region at just 15 percent. In an effort to double the state’s recycling rate by 2025, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) launched a large-scale campaign in the summer of 2019 called “Know It Before You Throw It.”

With the goal of educating audiences about statewide recycling rules, the campaign seeks to communicate the consequences of improper recycling, increase confidence in recycling correctly, direct people to the proper authority for specific community recycling rules and more.

“The goal of the campaign is to promote awareness of cleaner recycling practices and to reduce the amount of contaminated materials that go into recycling bins,” says Jill Greenberg, EGLE public information officer. “Our recycling rate is terrifically low—[EGLE] really thought hard about why that is, and we think it’s just a lack of awareness and a lack of education, which is where this campaign really shines. We’re [introducing] this education campaign so that people can look at it and say, ‘I can be part of that.’”

The initiative stemmed from a 2017 Governor’s Recycling Council (GRC) report, which outlined six recommendations to achieve the state’s 30 percent recycling goal. Within the report, the GRC advised EGLE (then known as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) to develop a statewide public education and engagement campaign to trigger behaviors that would increase the amount of material currently being recycled by residences, businesses and schools.

A new approach

According to an EGLE-commissioned statewide survey conducted in 2018, education is the key to residents recycling properly. Fifty percent of Michigan residents mistakenly believe plastic bags are allowed in curbside recycling, and 76 percent of residents are unaware that unrinsed items pose a risk of contaminating everything in the bin. Additionally, the survey showed that residents, particularly those who claim to recycle more than 30 percent of their household waste, are very confident about recycling rules. However, a majority incorrectly believe that everything with a recycling symbol is recyclable. Additionally, fewer than 3 in 10 respondents correctly identified the result of common contaminants, such as food or liquid remaining in containers and tanglers like hoses and ropes, on the recycling process.

To present the idea of properly recycling in an accessible way, EGLE introduced the Recycling Raccoon Squad. The six-member team of recycling experts features Paper MacKay, Carlos Cardboard, Gladys Glass, Precious Metale, Nyla P. Lastic and Frank, who serve as the campaign’s ambassadors. Each member represents a specific component of the recycling stream: paper, cardboard, glass, metal, plastic and “other.”

“The raccoon squad was definitely the most radical [campaign idea], and we took the most risk with that one,” Greenberg says. “With that came great rewards. It’s identifiable; people look at it, and they are eager to engage with it.”

The campaign, which includes TV ads, billboards and a website, has received $2 million in funding from the $15 million in statewide funding earmarked for expanding recycling efforts. The overall annual funding is the result of House Bill 4991, which was passed by state lawmakers and signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018. This bill increased the state’s annual recycling funding available through EGLE, which previously ranged from $1 million to $2 million each year, Greenberg says.

“The goal of the campaign is to promote awareness of cleaner recycling practices.” – Jill Greenberg, public information officer, EGLE

EGLE’s Recycling Raccoons approach recycling education with an element of humor. According to the squad’s website, raccoons—notorious for rifling through trash bins—“know garbage.”

The website assures residents, “Trust us, we know what you should be throwing out and what you should be recycling. It’s in our DNA.”

One of the most important things EGLE and the Recycling Raccoons want Michiganders to know is that, sometimes, well-intended efforts to recycle as much as possible can end up contaminating the entire recycling bin. Oftentimes, residents will “wish-cycle,” which happens when people aren’t sure if an item is recyclable but throw it in the recycling bin anyway, Greenberg says.

Employing a variety of promotional materials, the raccoons aim to encourage three basic recycling habits: rinsing and emptying all plastics, glass and metal containers; breaking down and flattening all cardboard; and not putting recyclables in plastic bags.

Funding recycling initiatives

The recycling industry in the United States has been challenged since China changed its import policies for recyclables in 2018. Without a market for low-grade, mixed recyclables, processing costs for material recovery facility (MRFs) rose, and some communities scaled back or suspended their curbside recycling programs.

EGLE recognized a need to grow awareness of proper recycling practices, and the department has worked to improve the state’s recycling infrastructure since 2018, awarding more than $5.9 million in grants to improve and expand recycling programs.

“We have a really strong relationship with [the recycling facilities],” Greenberg says. “What the [grants] are aiming to do is support the development of emerging opportunities for recycling. Some communities are using the additional funding for recycling trucks, while others, such as Marquette, Michigan, are using the grants to purchase a glass crusher.”

Lansing, Michigan, was awarded a $480,000 grant to help Ingham County’s two largest municipalities purchase a recycling collection truck that will address anticipated collection route increases from a new MRF that is being built in the state’s capital. The new MRF is expected to eliminate the city’s need to ship recyclables nearly 100 miles east to Wayne County for processing.

In addition, Orion Township was awarded $239,836 to support a plan by Oakland County to transition from subscription-based curbside recycling services to single-hauler, cart-based curbside recycling for township residents.

Increasing engagement

Greenberg says Michigan’s shift toward better recycling practices has generated positive feedback. From elementary schools implementing units on recycling to clubs asking if the Recycling Raccoon Squad can visit, EGLE’s outreach has seen growing engagement among residents.

“We started out with one raccoon [mascot] outfit,” Greenberg says. “Now we have six representing each of the raccoons, but we had to do it out of sheer demand. People are seeing Know It Before You Throw It and want to interact.

“I think that even when we’re good stewards of our states and environment and think that we’re great recyclers, sometimes it’s easier to forget the most basic of rules. And that’s what’s really great about this campaign,” she says.

The author is assistant editor of Waste Today, a sister publication to Recycling Today. She can be contacted via email at hrischar@gie.net.