As Alpena-area landfills fill up, leaders push for better recycling
ALPENA — Alpena County residents threw away more garbage in 2020 than the year before, and the landfill that holds that garbage could run out of room in 14 years, state officials say.
While Michiganders and out-of staters dumped less garbage statewide, Alpena County sent 72,500 cubic yards — 5% more than the previous year — to the Montmorency-Oscoda-Alpena Solid Waste Management Authority in Atlanta.
Dumping by Alpena County residents and businesses, which account for most of the trash at the landfill, increased by a third since 2015. Other counties contributing to the Atlanta landfill have increased their dumping, as well.
As of the end of 2019, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy estimated the landfill would last another 21 years.
But, after the 200,000 cubic yards of waste added to its hills in 2020, the state now predicts the landfill will fill in 14 years.
By agreement between Alpena, Oscoda, and Montmorency counties, all garbage originating in those counties must go to the Atlanta landfill. Most Presque Isle County garbage goes to the GFL Northern Michigan Landfill, south of Onaway, and Alcona County garbage ends up either in the Atlanta landfill or other landfills.
The Onaway landfill should last until about 2026, by state estimates.
Hampered by inadequate storage space and a lack of cost-effective places to send recyclables, current county recycling programs can’t stop the swell of garbage shortening the life of the landfill.
But state officials have hope for the future.
Northeast Michigan leaders hoping to expand recycling services have studied other regions’ successes in keeping trash out of landfills, according to Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist for EGLE.
“I really do see growth on the near horizon for Alpena County,” Flechter said. “You’ve got a success story in the making.”
Check out the video below of officials talking about Northeast Michigan waste management. Viewing on mobile? Turn your device horizontally for the best viewing experience. Story continues below video.
The Atlanta landfill increased capacity by opening new holes to hold garbage — called cells — twice in the past decade: first in 2013 — after the state estimated it would fill within three years — and again in 2017, buying it another 10 years of life.
Landfill workers try to turn every three cubic yards of raw garbage into one, a bulldozer shoving dumped trash up and down garbage hills while a compactor drives over it repeatedly, tamping it down.
“Space is expensive around here,” said Doug Baker, operations manager at the landfill.
The landfill reports — and pays for — every new cubic foot of garbage. Money paid by the three counties that jointly own the landfill covers some of that cost, as do dumping costs charged to commercial haulers, construction companies, and residents.
Though some items brought to the landfill couldn’t end up anywhere else, the giant hills of dirt-covered garbage — and often the surrounding trees, according to Connie Gerrie, landfill administrator — also contain bottles, jars, cardboard boxes, and other items residents could have recycled.
The Atlanta landfill at one time took recyclable goods, but a lack of companies to buy the products made the practice not cost-effective, Gerrie said.
Michiganders throw away about $368 million-worth of recyclable materials each year, especially plastic packaging, cardboard, and paper, according to a 2016 state report that looked at the content of landfills.
Bills currently before the Legislature would promote new recycling and composting requirements that backers say would increase recycling opportunities and enforcement in the state.
The bills seek to increase Michigan’s 18% recycling rate — compared to the national average of 34% — by requiring counties to create recycling plans, increasing regulation and the cost of dumping in landfills, and encouraging development of new uses for recyclables.
The bills passed the state House in April and now await a vote by a state Senate committee.
‘A BUILDING ENERGY’
Northeast Michigan’s increase in waste in the past year, even as the state threw less away, might correspond to fewer recycling options in the region than downstate, according to John Ozoga, assistant district supervisor for the EGLE Materials Management Division.
Flechter, the recycling specialist for EGLE, said a statewide analysis showed a need for improved collection and processing opportunities in the region.
The Alpena Resource Recovery facility, where workers sort the region’s recyclables and send them to processors, is the smallest such facility in the state, according to NextCycle Michigan, an EGLE initiative focused on reducing the 6.8 million tons of recyclable material in Michigan landfills.
Recycling generated in the county long ago outgrew the facility on M-32 West, near the Alpena airport, according to Diane Rekowski, who oversees waste planning for the Alpena region as executive director of the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments.
Check out the interactive graphics below showing details of Northeast Michigan waste management. Story continues below graphics.
Alpena County commissioners approved a request from the Resource Recovery board to use land at the Alpena County Regional Airport for a new recycling facility, pending approval by the Federal Aviation Administration. The building would occupy space on the west side of the property, away from the airfield.
A project 20 years in the making, a new building would provide space for mechanized sorting and set Alpena up as a hub for recycling from area counties, Rekowski said.
The state and other sources would help pay for such a building, according to Flechter.
Northeast Michigan has caught the eye of the state as an area “ripe for investment in the recycling system,” he said.
A lack of processing facilities — which turn plastics and other goods into new products — within easy reach of Alpena drives up the cost of recycling here.
However, Flechter reported “a building energy” among Northeast Michigan government leaders eager to solve the problem.
Government officials and other leaders have visited a processing facility in Emmet County that Flechter called a “shining star” in recycling, learning how a similar system might work in the Alpena area, Flechter said.
Such interest could keep local landfills from filling fast and give residents a better option than throwing their trash away, he said.
When it comes to trash, “there is no ‘away,'” Flechter said. “Landfills are just storage places for our children’s children to take care of after we’re gone.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.