I love recycling.

Kristen Kiluk

I have a purse and an umbrella made from recycled water bottles, a collection of recycled-newspaper pencils and each fall I’m excited by the prospect of purchasing new recycled notebooks.

I pick up water bottles from the street and stoop down to rescue paper tumbleweeds on my way to class — but I have to admit that I don’t always rinse the residue from my peanut butter jars.

I didn’t realize this mattered until last week when I took a tour of Ann Arbor’s Materials Recovery Facility. This is where our milk cartons, condiment jars, soon-to-be-banned water bottles and all other acceptable recyclables are delivered, then sorted out and sent off for a new purpose in life.

Though I thought I was well versed on Ann Arbor’s recycling prior to my visit, some of my small oversights have been burdening the system. Materials received with food residues, for example, must be hauled to a landfill. They don’t accept plastic caps or lids either. The Materials Recovery Facility must pay to dispose of these items due to my occasional error.

Education and clarity are key to any successful recycling program — but are they really enough? No matter how hard a busy American citizen works to keep up with their local facility’s changing and detailed requirement, many still miss the fine print. Some won’t ever be motivated to self-educate themselves about recycling.

With consumer-driven recycling limited by these constraints, I have to wonder: Would it be more appropriate for manufacturers to facilitate recycling programs given their much greater knowledge base, direct interest and ability to provide consumer incentives?

Many writers, politicians and industry leaders have tinkered with this concept. William McDonough, author of “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” is fervent about the benefits of urging manufacturers to take responsibility for their products at life’s-end. McDonough’s ultimate and lofty ideal is to completely eliminate the idea of waste by restructuring manufacturing to cut out practices that necessitate third-party recycling services in the first place.

Countries including Sweden and the Netherlands have developed policies regarding automobile disposal, which embody some of McDonough’s values. In the 1990s, the Netherlands introduced a “disposal fee” into the cost of new cars purchased in the country to cover expenses for dismantling, transporting and recycling old autos.

Sweden has used a “deposit-refund” system since the 1970s. This system necessitates that the producer or importer of a car pays a “recycling fee” to the Vehicle Disposal Fund. The fund pays the final owner to extract materials from their car once it’s deregistered at the end of its life.

In Japan’s Fuji-Xerox plants, a longer-range economic perspective is adapted than in the United States. Its assembly facilities include product take-back and disassembly units. The products are broken down into component parts and then manufactured for future sale. Though their disassembly processes aren’t completely cost effective yet, the company aims to make its system more efficient and anticipates benefits from future legislation that will help drive down its costs.

Companies shouldn’t be able to profit without paying the complete costs. Legislation should require more manufacturers to take responsibility for their end waste.

Of course, these systems still involve consumer education and compliance. The main difference from municipal or separate, privatized materials recovery programs, though, is that a recycling process managed by the manufacturer can be more standardized, with clearer consumer incentives explained on a more palatable scale.

In Michigan, the trash disposal fee, or tipping fee, has been notoriously low for years, making our state a dumping ground and particularly difficult region for profitable recycling. In September 2011, a motion to increase Michigan’s $.07 per ton tipping fee to $.12 per ton was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. But according to a study conducted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Biocycle, a waste industry jounral, the average U.S. tipping fee in 2010 was $44.09/ton. Michigan’s fee is a pittance.

Considering how well money speaks in the United States, higher tipping fees could also be part of the waste disposal puzzle. It could increase recycling volumes and also present an incentive for industries to use materials that can be profitably recycled.

For the time being, though, the Ann Arbor community is paying for the city’s materials recovery services. It’s our civic duty and direct financial interest to educate ourselves and support the most efficient recycling system we can.

So, excuse me while I go review its guidelines.

Kristen Kiluk can be reached at kkiluk@umich.

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