WEST MICHIGAN — Rather than sit in a landfill, some waste can still be put to a good second use. The trouble is that companies looking for the waste materials often struggle to find it or have regulations in their way.
But that situation is changing thanks to two initiatives: One that provides a matchmaker service linking companies that have waste to others that could reuse it and another that aims to break down regulatory barriers to reusing waste byproducts.
Many West Michigan companies want to reuse waste products created through their manufacturing processes, but the legal issues surrounding the beneficial reuse of waste can be thorny and complex, said Andy Such, director of environmental and regulatory policy at the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA).
And those issues aren’t easily resolved, said Such, noting that the MMA has been trying to get beneficial reuse laws on the books for about two decades. The organization recently formed a study group to investigate how to “tackle this issue from a legislative standpoint.”
MMA worked with State Rep. Matt Huuki, R-Atlantic Mine, to introduce House Bill 5953 in September. The legislation focuses on a fairly narrow group of “low-hazard” materials, including fly ash, foundry sand and paper residuals. The bill would allow companies to use the materials in road construction for road bed and as an ingredient in concrete and asphalt, provided that certain environmental criteria can be met. Such said the goal of the proposed legislation is to streamline the processes companies go through in order to reuse waste materials while not increasing risk to the environment.
If the legislation gets passed, it could help divert hundreds of tons of waste that normally goes into landfills by allowing it to be reused as road construction materials, Such said.
The issue was highlighted earlier this year when the Office of Regulatory Reinvention (ORR) recommended the adoption of a state law pertaining to beneficial reuse.
“Many suitable byproducts are treated as waste under current regulations. Michigan should be a leader in beneficial reuse of byproducts from the manufacturing industries in our state,” the ORR said in a release.
Since the legislation is in its early stages, Such is hopeful that the final product will encompass more than just ash, sand and paper.
“I’m not sure what the end result is, but our goal is to streamline it so it is not part of the regulatory scheme,” said Such. “Probably, in the end, we will have some general legislation that allows for the use of other things.”
But the effort has run into some snags with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Such said. While the concept has support from the governor’s office and Michigan manufacturers, these roadblocks have considerably slowed progress, he added.
“There are people who think there shouldn’t be any rules, but usually there are rules for a reason,” he said.
While companies wait to see if the beneficial reuse legislation will be adopted, The Employers Association of West Michigan is moving forward with a project of its own: EXchange.
EXchange launched from a partnership of The Employers Association, West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and Muskegon County and is funded through a pollution prevention grant from the DEQ.
Lisa Sabourin, president at The Employers Association, said the goal of EXchange is to help companies with non-hazardous waste find other companies that can put their waste to good use.
That’s what happened in the case of Nichols Paper & Supply, which had a customer that would regularly send its used lab coats to the landfill because parts of the coats such as the snaps were non-recyclable. Nichols put a notice out to area school districts to see if any science teachers wanted to reuse the coats, and in the end 40 teachers were outfitted with the used lab coats.
“The question for us became: How do we automate this?” Sabourin said.
EXchange is supposed to be a streamlined version of this cold-calling process. The program offers a website similar to Craigslist where companies can post waste materials they want to get rid of and other companies can contact them to take it off their hands. The website is not aimed at any specific industry, and the whole process is designed to be confidential, without any fees.
Sabourin also anticipates that much of the material up for grabs on the site will be offered for free because companies simply do not want to deal with the disposal.
The program is currently in beta testing, and one future goal, according to Sabourin, is to develop EXchange so that it identifies concentrations of waste materials geographically. The advantage would be that waste from multiple companies could be easily collected and baled, or that pickup and delivery trucks could do “milk runs” to zones that produce particular wastes that are in high demand.
However, EXchange is not meant to deal with potentially harmful types of waste or waste that might be toxic to the environment.
“Right now we’re not doing anything with hazardous waste,” Sabourin said. “We’re mainly dealing with waste materials that are intended for organizational use.”
Some area companies are looking to encapsulate hazardous materials like paint for use in either consumer products or building materials. MMA’s Such recommends those companies get in touch with him, because the beneficial reuse legislation is far from finalized.
“If there’s other things that people want in, they should let me know or call the governor’s office. Anything I can do to help Michigan manufacturers, I will do,” Such said. “If someone says, ‘I have a process that creates 500 pounds of this stuff a day,’ give me a call and let’s have a meaningful discussion about how it can be reused.”