As global and local environmental changes continue to reshape area rainfall patterns, wildlife behaviors and public health concerns, the City of East Lansing is tackling a large number of projects aimed at increasing public awareness and minimizing harms.
East Lansing’s Environmental Specialist Cliff Walls gave an update on several of the city’s environmental services and projects at the Oct. 18 City Council meeting. While most of Council seemed satisfied to simply receive the information, Councilmember George Brookover raised some sharp questions about the city’s recycling program.
The city takes care of the municipally-owned sections of East Lansing’s urban forest.
East Lansing celebrated its 35th year as a “Tree City, USA” by planting an oak tree at Green Elementary School on Arbor Day. Walls said the city is on pace to do about 110 or 120 tree plantings this year. That figure is similar to past years, but he’d like to increase plantings going forward.
On the downside, the city will remove about 50 trees this year. Walls said removal is a last resort, but necessary at times.
“It breaks my heart every time,” he said. “We only remove trees when they are diseased, dying or a threat to public safety or infrastructure.”
Last year, for example, the city decided to cut down three mature honey locusts from in front of the East Lansing Public Library because they were causing damage to the sidewalk and clogging the roof drains.
To reduce the number of removals necessary in the future, new trees are carefully chosen based on the size they will be when fully grown to ensure there aren’t conflicts with nearby infrastructure, Walls said. In practice, that often means small trees where large trees used to bloom.
Walls focused on the city’s actions, but hundreds of trees in East Lansing have been removed in the last decade because of BWL’s tree removal program after the devastating ice storm of 2013. Diseases like emerald ash borer have wiped out thousands more. As ELi reported last year, area oaks are now threatened by oak wilt.
ELi has heard from a number of readers who note that the loss of large trees means bigger water drainage problems. A mature oak, for example, can process 40,000 gallons of water in a year.
Beyond just recycling, the city is looking at compacting, composting and educating.
Walls next discussed areas where the city’s recycling program was making strides.
First, he displayed “Recycle Coach,” a website, widget and mobile app that can help East Lansing residents know where and when to recycle what. The online tool can be used to get notifications when collections for things like recycling or yard waste are imminent.
Recycle Coach also lets residents know where they can recycle certain materials like plastic foam and batteries. Hopefully, Walls said, Recycle Coach will cut down on the call volume to the Department of Public Works.
Walls also said there are two ongoing projects from grants awarded to East Lansing and Lansing. The first is researching the development of a composting program. It is uncertain how the information will be used, but it could be used to implement a local program or marketed to private businesses that want to implement a composting program in another community.
The second grant, also in partnership with Lansing, is meant to develop a recycling education center.
“The thought behind that is to have a place to bring students, legislators, just having a place in the capital city where there can be conversations and education around [recycling],” Walls said.
Walls told Council the city is pursuing another grant with over $320,000 in funding to add two 40-yard compactor units for DPW to compact cardboard. Walls said the compactors could allow the city to reduce staff time and truck miles (including carbon emissions) 10-fold.
Additionally, the grant would fund a Styrofoam densifier, which removes 98% of the air in Styrofoam, and can turn a truckload of styrofoam into a pallet. The created product can then be sold for special uses.
Contamination of recyclable materials is a big problem. The city is using AI to try to fix it.
Walls also provided an update on the city’s pilot program to cut back on contamination in curbside recycling bins. When people put things that are not recyclable in recycling bins, it can contaminate entire loads of and send them to the landfill. Additionally, just because something is labeled as recyclable, it does not mean that the city’s Material Recovery Facility will accept it. (A Material Recovery System is where recycling materials are sent to be prepared to be sold to buyers. East Lansing uses the Emterra facility in Lansing.)
“We recognize that is very confusing,” he said. “Something says it’s recyclable, it’s marketed as recyclable, it has a recycling symbol on it. That doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s what is accepted and what technology exists at your local Material Recovery Facility to process it.”
The city has a contractual obligation with its Material Recovery Facility to keep a contamination threshold below 8%. But East Lansing’s contamination level has been over 15%. That not only sends “recycled” material to landfills, it raises East Lansing’s costs as the city must pay for the disposal.
Councilmember Brookover asked a series of questions, in response, about what the recycling program is costing the city and whether there are less expensive alternatives. City Manager George Lahanas said he would obtain that information.
On the matter of contamination, Walls explained that Lansing has workers check what is in recycling bins to directly communicate with residents if they are putting waste in their bins. However, this requires a lot of time, is weather dependent, leaves incomplete data and is expensive.
As an alternative, East Lansing has teamed up with The Recycling Partnership, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and Prairie Robotics to launch the U.S.’s first pilot municipal campaign that uses artificial intelligence to try to cut down on recycling contamination.
For the program, which was announced this fall, cameras were installed in the recycling trucks that identify large objects that contaminate recycling. The cameras also look for plastic bags, plastic film and other “tanglers” that can damage recycling equipment.
Artificial intelligence identifies these contaminants so a postcard with a picture of the contaminant can be sent to the address where the problem occurred. The postcard also links to the Recycle Coach website so the resident can learn more. Ohio State University is studying the efficacy of this approach.
Brookover expressed alarm about the prospect of having a camera take pictures of people’s recycling.
But Lahanas noted anything put into the garbage becomes public and said if people are concerned, they should shred sensitive documents. Walls added the items that are not waste are blurred out and the photos are taken at low resolution.
Impervious “hotspots” are identified through a new system.
Walls highlighted East Lansing’s involvement in the Catalyst Communities Leadership Circle, a cohort of Michigan communities seeking to be leaders in sustainability. Through the program, the city received a grant that allowed it to hire a graduate student to a fellowship for 10 weeks and 40 hours weekly.
The fellow was a GIS expert who spent his time mapping impervious surface hotspots in the city. Impervious surfaces are surfaces that cannot absorb water. The project can be helpful for flood mitigation and to determine what areas are in the most need of new infrastructure.
Walls said the project has gotten a lot of attention statewide because this information is usually very expensive to obtain. The fellow was able to train the algorithm to be “90-something” percent effective, which gives a municipality a first look at areas that need particular attention.
The city is aiming for more renewable energy.
Walls told Council the city is still in talks to develop a solar array at the Department of Public Works on State Road. He said that with the amount of space available, the solar array could cover 330% of the department’s energy costs.
“If we could do something like that, it would really help us towards our goal of meeting 100% renewable electric energy by 2030,” he said.
Walls said that there are still hurdles to making the solar array, like working with utility partners to lift restrictions.
Walls wrapped up his presentation by speaking to two grant opportunities.
The first is through EGLE and would address flooding, stormwater management, and extreme weather through green infrastructure and nature-based solutions. There is $14.25 million up for grabs in this pool, with a maximum request limit of $1.5 million.
Another $50 million is being made available by the Michigan Public Service Commission, funds to be used for low-carbon energy infrastructure development and enhancement.
“We need to learn more, but there’s potentially a funding avenue for something like the DPW solar array or other projects like that,” Walls said.