2017-04-08 / News

Recycling Program Requires Participation From Residents,Visitors

By Jacob A. Ball


The staff for the Mackinac Island Solid Waste Facility in front of bails of cardboard waiting for shipment, (from left) David Andress, Manager Gabe Cowell, and Lorne Cowell Tuesday, March 28. The staff for the Mackinac Island Solid Waste Facility in front of bails of cardboard waiting for shipment, (from left) David Andress, Manager Gabe Cowell, and Lorne Cowell Tuesday, March 28. On Mackinac Island, recycling is far more than an environmental concern. With any waste produced on the Island needing to be shipped to landfills on the mainland, the Department of Public Works continually searches for ways to limit the costs for transporting and disposing of garbage. The most effective strategy to reduce their intake of trash is to increase the amount of recyclable and compostable material they receive.

DPW Director Mike Olson wants to expand the range of items that can be recycled. A more comprehensive system such as Emmet County’s program, that accepts a wider range of materials, could increase participation, especially for seasonal residents, tourists, and summer workers who often come from communities with this type of recycling already in place. Recycling bins will be placed around the state park this summer to collect more materials, which should increase the amount of money made from recyclable materials, as well.


Recycled materials are bailed and stored in a pole barn at the Mackinac Island Department of Public Works Solid Waste Facility. The facility must store the recyclables until they have compiled enough of a given product to fill a semitrailer. This amount varies depending on the weight of the material; for instance, a shipment of cardboard would be about 38 bales, while a shipment of plastics could be more than 70 bales. Recycled materials are bailed and stored in a pole barn at the Mackinac Island Department of Public Works Solid Waste Facility. The facility must store the recyclables until they have compiled enough of a given product to fill a semitrailer. This amount varies depending on the weight of the material; for instance, a shipment of cardboard would be about 38 bales, while a shipment of plastics could be more than 70 bales. The DPW sells recyclables and compost to offset the costs of solid waste disposal. A recent survey of trash collected on the Island found a considerable portion of garbage destined for the landfill was recyclable, such as cardboard and plastics. Finding a more efficient system that encourages residents and visitors to sort their waste could lead to a significant increase in revenue from recycling.


A dray for the Mackinac Island Service Company arrives with mostly blue bags destined for the landfill. During the winter, trash is collected only twice a week, but during the summertime, enough waste is created to fill about 500 garbage bags every day. A dray for the Mackinac Island Service Company arrives with mostly blue bags destined for the landfill. During the winter, trash is collected only twice a week, but during the summertime, enough waste is created to fill about 500 garbage bags every day. The relatively small size of the operation, however, forces the DPW to limit which items can be sold at a profit in small quantity. Some items can earn considerable revenue. Aluminum, tin, corrugated cardboard, and some plastics yield decent profits. Recycled glass has little value in today’s market, however, and by the time it is transported off the Island to a recycling company, it rarely yields a profit.

“We actually spend more to haul the glass than we receive revenues from it, but it keeps it out of the landfill,” Mr. Olson said.


The Mackinac Island Solid Waste Facility Tuesday, March 28. This building is used for collection of garbage, and the processing of compostable materials for the cultivation of nutrient-rich soil. The Mackinac Island Solid Waste Facility Tuesday, March 28. This building is used for collection of garbage, and the processing of compostable materials for the cultivation of nutrient-rich soil. In 2016, the DPW earned almost $12,000 from its recycling program and roughly $4,000 from compost sales. Mr. Olson said he would like to see all possible materials recycled to avoid being sent to landfills. Recycling more materials could lower the costs of waste disposal but might require the DPW to partner with a larger operation on the mainland.

The Eastern Upper Peninsula has been working over the last few months to develop a regional recycling program, and Mr. Olson has been attending the meetings to provide insight.

“It’s still in the infant stages,” he said, “but there seems to be a common goal there to increase recycling and try to decrease expense by some type of shared services.”


At the solid waste facility on the Island, plastics are divided by type Tuesday, March 28. Once one of these stalls is full, the plastic is then bailed and stored. Facility Manager Gabe Cowell said plastics are usually shipped to a buyer every other year, depending on the amount accumulated. At the solid waste facility on the Island, plastics are divided by type Tuesday, March 28. Once one of these stalls is full, the plastic is then bailed and stored. Facility Manager Gabe Cowell said plastics are usually shipped to a buyer every other year, depending on the amount accumulated. These could include a centrally located transfer station or the sharing of transportation costs, but because of the Island’s isolation, such a program may still not be practicable.

Mr. Olson has also investigated a partnership with Emmet County. Emmet runs a compre- hensive recycling program that accepts many of the items that are not worth enough money for the city to collect. For instance, wide-mouth plastic containers, such as butter tubs and yogurt cups, are not currently recyclable through the Island’s program but are accepted by Emmet County’s recyclers.

Partnership with a county or regional recycling program would allow Mackinac Island to accept a wider range of materials by increasing volume. Items such as glass that currently do not generate profits would be able to bring in more money if transportation costs were shared with a larger operation. Profits, however, would decrease if Mackinac Island partners with a larger operation. The current system limits what materials are collected, but allows the DPW to control where and when to sell a given commodity. Mr. Olson said it would not make sense to combine the entire operation with Emmet County, because revenue from the recycling program would most definitely decrease. The DPW may be able to offer their less valuable materials to them to avoid sending it to a landfill, however.

The Island’s solid waste facility manages the collection, transportation, and disposal of all waste and cultivates the piles of compost. It has been operating under a new manager, Gabe Cowell, since Paul Wandrie retired from the DPW last October. Mr. Cowell has been working at the solid waste facility since 2003 and spent the last summer shadowing Mr. Wandrie in preparation of taking over management of the facility. Mr. Cowell enjoys the work and Mr. Olson has been pleased with Mr. Cowell’s performance.

During the winter, the facility has three full-time employees, including Mr. Cowell, and a fourth is added during the summer to handle the increased workload.

During the summer, the solid waste facility collects roughly 500 bags of garbage a day, seven days a week. In the winter, collections fall to twice a week. Material for the mainland is transported early in the morning to the State Dock at British Landing by a truck operated by Mackinac Island Service Company.

In addition to the environmental benefit, recycling reduces the volume of trash that must be taken to a landfill, which lowers landfill dumping costs, but the added transportation cost to get the items to a recycling center eat those savings. To keep transportation costs down, Mr. Cowell schedules the transportation of materials only when enough product has accumulated to fill a semi trailer. This means the facility must store bales of cardboard, metal, plastic, and paper for long periods before selling it. Increasing the amount of recyclables that residents and businesses sort out of their garbage would allow the city to fill a trailer more frequently.

The DPW has tried many strategies to encourage more sorting. Residents are given the option of separating paper and other compostable materials into compost bags. Other material goes into a bag destined for the landfill. The price of compost bags is lower than landfill bags to encourage more sorting. Sorting out recyclables also reduces the volume of trash that is stuffed into a landfill bag. Mr. Olson said the recycling and compost programs bring in enough funds to not only to offset the cost of transporting and cultivating the material, but also to help finance the disposal of materials destined for the landfill.

Compost is produced from papers and horse manure sold primarily for landscaping. Mission Point Resort and Grand Hotel are two of the biggest customers, but residents can also purchase it. The compost sold is produced the previous year and Mr. Cowell says the DPW typically will sell out during the course of the summer.

Students and researchers from Michigan State University’s Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department have been working on a process to increase the amount of compost created on the Island. Their concept is to turn biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant into composted dirt by removing the toxins. The DPW, up until now, has had to ship this sewage treatment byproduct, called sludge, off of the Island separately from other waste. The system they are developing would allow this sludge to be repurposed for a positive use and remove transportation costs entirely.

“This is fundamental biology at its finest,” said Mr. Olson.

The students will present their project at MSU Thursday, April 27, and Mr. Olson will be in attendance. Their proposed system would allow all of this sludge to remain on the Island. Processing the biosolids into compost would be done on two large concrete pads, but Mr. Olson the researchers will figure out how large the pads need to be and how long the process will take. He has high hopes for the viability of this project and would like to see construction begin by the spring of 2018.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2017-04-08 digital edition