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Zero Waste and the Future of Recycling, with Mike Garfield, Director, Ecology Center

Wednesday, December 08, 2021, 7:00 PM until 8:30 PM
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LWV Washtenaw Event
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Much has been written in the last few years about the “collapse” of recycling worldwide. For decades after the first Earth Day in April 1970, American communities grew recycling programs from small drop-off sites where dedicated individuals could take their flattened, label-free cans and bottles, to municipally-operated and -funded weekly curbside pickups from single-stream recycling bins. By 2000, Americans were putting millions of tons of consumer waste into recycle bins annually, and watching it disappear, secure in the illusion of having done something good for the planet.
A few of the problems with recycling as we’ve been practicing it include:
  • Consumer products are packaged in half a dozen different types of confusingly-labeled “plastic,” most of which is not recyclable at all, or is made unrecyclable by hard-to-remove labels.
  • Directions for consumers wishing to recycle are chaotic, with each community (or school, business, apartment, etc.) forced to devise its own messaging. As a result, a large majority of potentially recyclable material is contaminated by waste, and dumped in landfills.
  • Consumption has continued to rise: In 1960, the average American generated 2.68 pounds of garbage per day; by 2017, that number had grown to 4.51 pounds.
Add to these problems the fact that powerful corporations (who spend billions of dollars a year “greenwashing” their brands) profit from the failure of recycling, and we have a daunting challenge.
Hundreds of organizations and hundreds of thousands of employees and volunteers are working creatively to reduce consumer waste, greatly increase the use of recyclable materials, and conserve natural resources through a continual process of re-use. We’re joined on December 8 by Mike Garfield, a nationally recognized leader in the field of waste reduction and recycling.
Mike Garfield
Mike Garfield is Director of the Ecology Center, which was founded in Ann Arbor just after the first Earth Day in 1970. Mr. Garfield has worked for health, environment, and justice in Michigan for over 30 years, serving as Director of the Ecology Center since 1993. Garfield has been one of Michigan’s leading voices on environmental issues, and an architect of some of the state’s most ambitious municipal initiatives in land use, transit, and solid waste. He is one of four founders of the new Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers (AMBR).
Under his leadership, the Ecology Center has grown from a primarily local organization focused on Washtenaw County into a regional innovation center with a national reputation. Over the past two decades, the Ecology Center spearheaded a statewide campaign that closed all of Michigan’s medical waste incinerators, established the Midwest’s largest locally- funded land preservation program, created the country’s premier consumer product toxic testing service, and won the nation’s Top Community Recycler award. The Ecology Center has offices and facilities in Ann Arbor and Detroit, and is the parent organization of Recycle Ann Arbor.
Garfield’s advocacy work has specialized in environmental health, climate, zero waste, and land use policy. He was one of the principal architects of Ann Arbor's nationally regarded recycling program, leading campaigns that funded major public investments in the program’s infrastructure. Between 1999 and 2005, he led or co-led six successful ballot campaigns that are preserving over 10,000 acres of land in southeast Michigan, including campaigns that created the Washtenaw County Natural Areas Program, and the Ann Arbor Parks and Greenbelt Program. He was one of the leaders of the 2014 ballot campaign to expand transit service in Washtenaw County. He’s testified before congressional, state legislative, and local committees, and served on numerous nonprofit and public boards and commissions.

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