Water bottle recycling is increasing over time in Flint, Mich., as the city continues to face a tap water crisis.
Talking to some of those on the ground and in the know about the situation does not provide a definitive answer regarding just how much of the used bottle stream is being recycled, but the number certainly has grown with as the months-long problem drags along.
Still, there's plenty of room to improve.
Mike Soboleski is sales and customer service manager with Schupan Recycling, which is helping out with the processing of many of the bottles being collected. He knows how much his company has handled — 118,000 pounds — in the months since the use of water bottles spiked in the city after it became widely known that Flint's tap water is tainted.
The bigger recycling picture, in terms of numbers, is one that's more difficult to see.
“I don't know if anybody knows. I'll be honest with you,” he said.
Schupan is handling empty bottles returned by residents through water distribution points located throughout the city, but there are other ways to capture all of those empties.
Republic Services Inc. has been handling curbside collection. Metro Sanitation LLC also has set up a network of drop-off sites. A consortium of companies have come together to provide water and recycling at schools. And then there are very localized, grass roots efforts developed by private citizens to service places like nursing homes, community centers and multi-family housing.
“It's a tough situation, obviously, when you are trying to deliver an entire city's water supply in single-serve containers. There's a lot of material that really has never needed to be managed before. We've seen a spike in the need to help residents manage those bottles,” said Kerrin O'Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.
O'Brien's group represents recycling interests across the state and has been working to establish a committee to help increase water bottle recycling levels in Flint.
Flint's opt-in curbside recycling program has a participation rate of 15 to 20 percent according to some estimates, O'Brien said.
“Those bins, they get filled up really fast when a person needs to use anywhere from 20 to 60 bottles of water a day for their consumption and cooking and sometimes bathing needs,” she said.
‘There still is a crisis'
Matt Fletcher, as a recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, is involved in helping find water bottle recycling solutions in Flint.
“There still is a crisis and there's still water bottles that need to be recycled. We've taken some important steps to bring the community partners together to make a long-term solutions. We're not done yet, though,” he said.
“It's not nearly what it should be and it's making a steady increase up,” he said about curbside participation. “There's more work to be done.”
Fletcher holds out hope that the city will move to a cart-based recycling system that will give residents more room to store their empty plastic water bottles until they are collected.
Aside from the curbside option, residents are receiving recycling bags for their empty water bottles when they pickup fresh cases of water at nine distribution sites in the city. They are being asked to return their empties in those bags when they come back for more water.
From those various distribution locations, the bags of returned empty water bottles are being backhauled to the city's main bottled water distribution location where they are loaded into trailers, Soboleski explained. Trailers, once they are full, make the 45-mile trip to Schupan's processing location in Wixom, Mich.
“The public understands the bags need to come back with the [empty] water bottles,” he said. “Flint has never really had a good, hard-core city recycling program. Hopefully we're jump-starting this for long-term. What Schupan Recycling is doing is short-term help.
“I think the people are receptive. But I think some of those people are taking that recycling bag and they are either using it for a trash bag or something else. I'm just calling it what it is,” he said.
While it's hard to determine a plastic bottle recycling percentage in Flint these days, evidence shows that the figure has to be higher than before. Just look at the number of times the Schupan's trailers or Metro Sanitation's roll-off boxes are filling up.
Schupan now has three trailers parked at the main distribution site, up from two in the summer, to handle higher volumes. And the number of times they are being hauled away for processing also is increasing.
Earl Alexander, district manager at Metro Sanitation, sees an upward trend.
“The recycling part of the plastic bottles for the city of Flint had been in the very beginning kind of slow. But now it's blossomed,” he said. “The community knows it has to be recycled. We are pulling several of the containers a couple or three times a week.”
“It's very clean material,” Alexander said.
The district manager said use of his company's drop-off sites has leveled off to a point where “we know how many times a week we need to have to empty them.”
He pointed to one particular drop-off site as an example of how participation has increased over time. “We used to do [empty] one container there every three or four weeks. Now it's once a week at least,” he said.
Metro Sanitation takes its water bottles to Averill Refuse & Recycling Inc. in Flint, where they are bailed and shipped off for processing. Averill could not be reached for comment.
Schupan grinds the bottles it receives before moving them along to Clean Tech Inc. of Dundee, the recycling affiliate of Plastipak Packaging where the material is washed and processed. Through the efforts of Schupan and Clean Tech, some of the Flint plastic is now finding its way into a part for the Chevy Equinox as well air filtration components used at General Motors plants and even insulation for coats for the homeless.
Just last month, GM said 2 million Flint water bottles have been recycled through the program.
“We worked really hard to get to the point that we have a relatively logistically sound short-term solution and I think that's in place now with the nine-hub distribution and distribution warehouse. And the used bottles come back for recycling. That's huge,” said Thomas Emmerich, president of Schupan Recycling and chief operating officer of parent company Schupan & Sons Inc.
Emmerich and his company are members of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, a trade group. APR has “passed the hat,” Executive Director Steve Alexander said, to come up with about $20,000 to help the water bottle recycling effort in Flint.
The APR money is being routed through the Michigan Recycling Coalition, which has established a committee to help determine the best way to spend the limited resources. The money is expected go for both on-the-ground help as well as educational outreach to the community regarding the need to recycle the bottles.
“We endeavor through this APR grant to provide as many drop-off related services as we can provide and at the same time educate people about opting in to the [curbside] program. But even opting in to the program that they have right now doesn't fully cover the material that's there,” O'Brien said.
“These water bottles aren't fitting into bins, so it's taking longer. But I think everybody's focused on how we address these problems so we have long-term solutions,” she said.
Republic Services, which currently finds itself in a contractual battle to continue providing waste collection and curbside recycling services to the city, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
“We want to capture as much of this material as we can, so there's a vested self-interest. We don't want to see these things going to landfill,” APR's Alexander said.
Soboleski said the city's deep financial problems means “it's very hard to capture” city money to help out with recycling at this point. And that's why it is so important that the private sector is stepping up, he said.
Schupan is not making money, and “probably” losing money on providing the service, he said.
“But again, it's the right thing to do. We're not in it for anything but to try and help these folks up there and capture containers,” Soboleski said.