Michigan is rolling out big changes to its solid waste management laws, taking a slow and steady approach to a complicated modernization process.
In 2022, a package of eight bills updating Michigan’s solid waste law, Part 115 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, was signed by the governor. The package took effect March 29, 2023, but many parts will take longer to become fully active.
Liz Browne, director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Materials Management Division, said that was deliberate.
“When we were working on the amendment, we knew there were a lot of moving parts and a lot of players that would be involved, so we tried to be pretty thoughtful and purposeful about having staggered implementation dates,” she said.
A change in mindset
The state’s previous solid waste management plans focused on landfill capacity, Browne said, a holdover from when that was an issue.
“The state wanted to ensure that we had sufficient landfill capacity. It was very successful in that regard,” she said. “We have over 30 years of landfill capacity and some landfills have over 75 years permitted at this point.”
However, landfill capacity is no longer the sticking point, according to Browne. “The issue is that we’re throwing a lot of stuff into holes in the ground that still has a use,” she said.
“Everybody agreed that a focus on reuse, recycling and in some areas resource reduction, and pollution prevention was really where the state needed to be focusing,” she added.
Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, said the original Part 115 mostly had not been updated in the last two decades.
“The new planning process is more about assuring that there’s also recycling capacity and composting capacity for the material generated in the county,” she said.
Under HB 4461, one of the eight bills, the requirements for county solid waste plans got an update. They’re now county materials management plans and require counties to provide a baseline level of recycling access to meet state diversion goals, including organic material.
“The issue is that we’re throwing a lot of stuff into holes in the ground that still has a use,” –Liz Browne, director of EGLE
The state will provide $60,000 to each county for each year of the five-year planning cycle, and an additional 50 cents for each resident of the county during the first three years, up to a cap of 600,000 residents. By providing an extra $10,000 per year for counties that work together, regional planning is encouraged over county-by-county planning.
“These facilities really are regional in nature and building cooperation into the process is really important to building the economies of scale that are necessary to maximize the function and capacity,” O’Brien said.
Browne said while larger, more urban counties will likely not be interested in working together, it will make a lot of sense for more rural counties to create a hub-and-spoke model. EGLE’s planning specialist has been holding monthly meetings for over a year to help with that process.
The state’s goal is a 45% overall recycling rate, with no hard deadline, but with an interim step of 30% by 2029. That target is set by HB 4455, which also sets benchmark standards for access. Municipalities with over 5,000 residents must provide 90% of single-family households with curbside recycling service for one or more materials by 2028.
By 2032, counties with less than 100,000 people must offer at least one drop-off recycling center per 10,000 residents who don’t have curbside recycling access. Counties with over 100,000 residents have to provide at least one drop-off for every 50,000 residents who don’t have curbside access.
As for the other bills in the package, HB 4454 updated the list of definitions used in Part 115. HB 4456 updated landfill licensing, while HB 4457 updated the financial assurance levels required of facilities. HB 4458 updated documentation and inspection processes and HB 4459 brought current state grant program language into alignment with the new laws.
HB 4460 created regulatory requirements for composting facilities, including which, where and in what manner materials can be composted.
O’Brien said those new requirements on facilities are an effort “to level the playing field between disposal and other material management methodology and to get a handle on actors who are operating outside of best practice composting.”
It was the composting industry itself pushing for more regulations, Browne noted. After a few bad actors cropped up, “legitimate composters were like, ‘you need better regulation so that we can be successful and we can get sited.'”
There were similar situations with some operations that collected large amounts of items and then had no end markets for them, Browne added.
“We didn’t have very good statutory regulatory ability to manage that material and take action where action was necessary,” she said, but the updates provided it.
Since March, EGLE has been doing a lot of education and outreach to those who will be affected by the changes, Browne said, and her staff have been in high demand at conferences this spring.
O’Brien said although the entire bill package just went into effect, many portions of it will have a slow rollout, such as the added regulatory requirements on recycling and compost facilities, which won’t come fully into play for another two years.
The county plans will also likely take more time to start moving, she added. The process doesn’t kick off until EGLE calls for plans, and O’Brien said though the statute instructs EGLE to call for plans six months after the act takes effect, the agency is considering waiting until the beginning of January 2024.
Browne said that staffing turnover, especially in the director role, is part of the reason for the longer timeline. It’s the director who makes the call for the plans, she noted, but the draft letter is prepared. The department has also been doing internal training and making sure all new forms and paperwork are prepared.
“What remains for us is helping municipalities and local governments step up,” –Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition
EGLE is also exploring whether counties need extra time, because the deadline clock starts ticking once the director puts out the request for plans.
The Michigan Recycling Coalition has been working on this suite of bills for the past six to 10 years, O’Brien said, and it’s exciting to be “poised to really see growth and development.”
“I think what remains for us is helping municipalities and local governments step up to being a part of the provision of services that’s really necessary for all of those to work, because those services have to be paid for,” she said.
That includes “moving political will and supporting education efforts so that everything is aligned to work effectively together,” she added.
“It’s this planning process that’s going to be important,” O’Brien said. “Frankly what we hope is that in the planning process the state, local municipalities, service providers and governments are all going to be having a conversation that elevates these issues and get the attention they deserve and we get a more fully functioning circular economy functioning in Michigan.”
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