The Rapidian

Waste Not, Want Not

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About this article

This article was written in correspondence with Professor Kevin Den Dulk's Democracy and Political Thinking class at Grand Valley State University.

/Britta Stifler

An Examination of Grand Rapid’s Recycling System by Frederick Meijer Honors College students at Grand Valley State University, Kevin Bergy, Kurt O’Hearn, Britta Stifler, Emily Schneider, and Robert VanVossen.

Everybody loves freebies.  Better yet is a freebie that benefits an entire community.  A freebie that benefits an entire community is usually a far-fetched idea.  However, the City of Grand Rapids provides its citizens with an opportunity to turn this fantasy into a reality.  The city’s Waste Not Recycling program does just that:  it offers free recycling bins and curbside pick-up to any household that chooses to participate. Given the countless benefits recycling can bring to a community, it is surprising that 40 percent of the households in Grand Rapids elect not to subscribe to the program, according to the statistic provided by Barbara Small, Streets and Sanitation Department Administrative Services Officer. This lack of participation suggests either significant apathy among the city’s population or lack of knowledge about Waste Not.

The City of Grand Rapids offers the Waste Not Recycling program to all single- and multi-family households within city limits.  Citizens simply have to sign up with the Streets and Sanitation Department and visit the office located at 201 Market Street in order to pick up two of the blue plastic bins used for curbside pick-up.

The current system requires customers to separate paper and cardboard recyclables from glass, metal, and plastic recyclables.  However, construction of a new recycling facility is underway in order to accommodate a single-stream process, which will allow customers to combine all recyclables in one large wheeled container.  This will make recycling even simpler and more convenient for customers:  paper and cardboard recyclables will no longer need to be separated from plastic, glass, and metal and the wheeled container will be much easier to haul to the curb than the two heavy plastic bins.

While it has been estimated that up to 75 percent of household-produced material is recyclable, curbside pick-up cannot accept all recyclables.  Appliances and electronics can be recycled, but they must be dropped off at specific recycling locations.  (For more information, visit the Waste Not website or call the recycling helpline at 616-456-3232.)  Curbside pick-up also cannot accept contaminated items.  Customers need to make sure glass, plastic, and metal food containers are empty and clean and that paper and cardboard products are not tainted with grease to ensure that these items can be recycled.

The City of Grand Rapids has created the Waste Not Recycling program so that its citizens can benefit both directly and indirectly by properly disposing of recyclables.  The program allows citizens to make a positive impact on the environment without making financial sacrifices.  Instead, the community of Grand Rapids can benefit in ways that are not limited to environmental sustainability.

By recycling, citizens can save money not only for themselves, but also for the city.  Individually, recycling reduces the cost of tags for refuse disposal; recycling is free while trash removal is not.  Higher volumes of recycling and lower volumes of refuse save the city in disposal costs.  (Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s, Recycling Program saved the city over $700,000 in disposal costs in 2008.)  These savings can then be reinvested into programs to benefit the community as a whole, such as environmental and recycling education programs for schoolchildren.

Grand Rapids is also looking to add an incentive program that will reward citizens for recycling.  The addition of incentives linked to a household’s recycling amount will likely coincide with the switch from dual- to single-stream processing about a year from now.  This will allow citizens to have immediate, tangible returns when they recycle.

In addition to the current, individual benefits recycling offers, there is also an intergenerational obligation to preserve the environment.  Much like the obligation a parent has to care and provide for a child, it is an obligation of this generation to ensure a clean environment for the next.

As if all these benefits were not enough, the citizens of Grand Rapids are already funding the recycling service!  Waste Not is paid for through the refuse millage and a portion of the property taxes that go to refuse removal.  It only makes sense for citizens who are already paying for the service to take advantage of it, especially considering the enormous benefits recycling can bring both today and in the future.

The benefits can only be realized, though, if citizens actively participate.  A participation rate of only 60 percent cannot optimize the benefits recycling can offer; the greater the participation rate, the more the individual and community benefits will be enjoyed.  So don’t stand by and allow the environment to deteriorate!  Instead, save some green both in the environment and in the pocketbook.

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I was not surprised to read that only 40% of people in Grand Rapids are using the free recycling service that I currently pay for in Rockford.  My Dad and brother live in Grand Rapids, and didn't know for the first year that there was a free recycling program.  I was the one who informed them!  Then I had to pester them to get the bins and sign up, but now that they went through the inital dicomfort of learning how to recycle, they are die hard!

The other aspect is, I have been working with students around Kent County, and there are two obvious difference between GRPS and suburban disctricts in this respect.  The suburban districts create awareness about recycling withe kids, even implying that if they don't the polar bears will die, and guess what?  The kids want to recycle, they encourage their parents to recycle, and are probably life long recyclers.  In GRPS, they have not instituted the "Paper Gator" that every other disctrict has to collect paper recycling and make money.  It is another way that GRPS is missing the target with the kids and encouraging them recycle, and creating a "buy-in" with their environment.  (Exception would be CA Frost Environmental Academy who just did a Green Expo). 

It would be great if GRPS would catch up with the times, encourage students to think about the world as theirs, and their responsibility and it will trickle through to the parents.

The other obvious apsect here is that Grand Rapids should advertise this service so people know it is available.  A city bus would do the trick....

I love this article. I really hope it gets seen. My house has been recycling every two weeks since we moved in. We even have a printout of what is recyclable and what is not. This is such an important service and it's appalling that only 60% of residents take advantage of this.

I feel that the amount of money it saves our house in city trashbags alone is a very nice monetary incentive, though recycling isn't any work, and should not require any sort of bribery.

I was actually considering writing about this program to raise awareness, so I'm glad to see someone else had the same idea!  Your article is very informative :)

I'm not surprised by the number of people who don't take advantage of this.  The issue here is likely awareness.  A couple of years ago I volunteered with Clean Water Action by going door to door and informing GR residents about this service, and encouraging them to participate.  Only a few households were already recycling, and most of those who weren't before signed up that day.  I'll re-post this and try to get the word out!

Grand Rapids has the best recycling/trash system of any city I've lived in.  Unfortunately, it seems the only way to encourage good behavior is through financial incentives.  So giving the recycling bins away free and having folks pay for garbage they create by purchasing the bags from the city is simply a brilliant way to encourage recycling!