The small towns of Emmet County sparked a recycling revolution that has the whole state taking notice. Here’s how their plan may become a statewide model. Plus, check out this additional article for five easy green habits you can start today.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

Materials once headed straight to the landfill are now finding new uses in Northern Michigan. Paper cartons and cups become toilet paper in Cheboygan, plastic plant trays get another go around in East Jordan and South Haven, and yard waste returns to local gardens as compost. These tangible outcomes are a direct result of Emmet County Recycling, a thriving system with more than 80 percent resident participation.

“Emmet County is a shining star, not just in Northern Michigan, but across the country in the programming they deliver and the services they provide,” says Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of Michigan Recycling Coalition (MRC), which fosters resource use and recovery initiatives across the state.

Economic incentives and a pay-as-you-throw system divert materials toward recycling and composting. The program is comprehensive and convenient, recovering over 60 materials through 13 drop sites, a drop-off center and curbside collection.

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo by Dave Weidner

“A lot of people look at recycling as just [for] people who want to save the Earth,” says Andi Tolzdorf, the program’s director. “But really, it’s an economic driver that creates a lot of jobs and fuels the local economy.”

All waste is required to come through Emmet County’s facility, allowing the county to see what’s being thrown away and devise new purposes for commonly trashed items—like roof shingles, which are in the process of being approved for recycling as road aggregate through NextCycle Michigan, a business incubator. The aim is to create a basis for fostering a circular economy.

“It’s about making sure that at the end of life of any product, there’s already a new life built in,” O’Brien says. “There’s never a straight line into the landfill.”

Emmet County’s success is driven by collaboration not only with other organizations like MRC and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, but also with local businesses. Many of their pilot programs have been initiated by business owners looking to recycle their own materials, such as a marina that sought out a more sustainable option for dealing with used boat shrink wrap.

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo by Dave Weidner

Currently, there’s a bill stalled in the Michigan Senate that would make Emmet County’s program a statewide model. Part 115 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act covers funding and policy changes around disposal practices, along with materials management solutions like waste reduction, recycling and composting.

Getting policy changes through the government can be a long and arduous process, but that hasn’t stopped Emmet County from urging other localities to imitate their model.

“A rising tide lifts all ships,” says Lindsey Walker, who heads Emmet County’s market development and commercial accounts. “We can offer other communities the opportunity to come and see our facility because what we do is replicable, scalable and absolutely shareable.”

Photo by Dave Weidner

Katie Dudlets is a freelance writer, content strategist and professional storyteller. Explore her work at

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner