Throw-away stories

Throwing something away is a thoughtless act — something we all do every day, usually without much attention. Yet collectively, our millions of thoughtless actions have a big impact on the environment and public health.

How can journalists draw more public attention to garbage? What kinds of stories can be told about our landfills and recycling facilities? How can reporting make people care about the stuff they throw away?

The University of Michigan’s environmental and public health journalism class will be visiting the City of Ann Arbor’s Metropolitan Recycling Facility this week. Ann Arbor has a reputation for being sensitive to environmental concerns. So it’s no surprise that the city has one of the oldest recycling programs in the state. What is surprising to many is that the city’s 40-year-old recycling program is embroiled in controversy and allegations of financial misdeeds, as uncovered by A2Politico, an independent investigative news site.

Of course, controversy and allegations of political favors and kickbacks are not new to the nation’s huge — and hugely profitable — landfill industry, as Tribune columnist Andrew Leckey pointed out a few years ago.

The fee charged for a garbage truck to dump its load at a landfill is called a tipping fee. In Michigan, we have one of the lowest allowable tipping fees in the country, a problem that some legislators have been trying to address for years.

Why do you think the tipping fees are so low in Michigan? What role do you think journalists played in creating this situation?

College campuses are one place where recycling efforts often capture student energy. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is trying to capitalize on that with its Game Day trash-reduction competition, which is focused on campus stadiums. What should journalists be pointing out about this kind of effort? What is effective about it and what is not?


About emiliaaskari

Journalist, teacher, news game designer. Promoting digital literacy and content creation in the public interest.

4 Responses to “Throw-away stories”

  1. Recycling is HARD. There I said it, and I feel better having said it. I am majoring in environmental science and call myself, admittedly, a fledgling environmentalist. I can say a day doesn’t go by without me reading the news on some new environmental story, and despite this I still feel unsure about my confidence in recycling. What can and cannot be recycled changes in every county and every state as well as with the advent of new technologies. It is difficult to keep up with, and when people feel confused or likely to fail at some activity, they will have negative feelings for it, and perhaps even just ignore it. The apathy of the population, or, rather, the ease to which most people can throw something away without thinking about any further implications mixed with the lucrative waste disposal industry is a perfect storm for corruption and inaction. Because people feel frustrated or confused with recycling, they ignore the need for it, and by ignoring the problem as a whole, those who have the most to gain from the apathy can work with little resistance. I would say that any industry with the amount of money that the waste industry does, has the potential to have policial power and thus corruption. This fascist political system can mean waste management executives getting richer as well as rampant environmental degradation. There needs to be a more transparent view to the facts of recycling as well as the economics and implications of waste disposal. Adopting strategies that make recycling easy and nearly second nature will make a large scale change, that can call for the breaking of the political ties with these large corporations. I feel that we as a society must examine who is benefitting from laws and regulations passed to understand ulterior motives that are inevitably found between politicians and large corporations.

  2. I was shocked when I read the A2Politico article on the financial statistics of Ann Arbor Recycling. I feel that sustainability is one area that Ann Arbor prides itself in and if this information was better communicated, it would have become a more controversial issue with the public. I thought that I may have been oblivious to this issue because I don’t follow the Ann Arbor news as well as I could and have only lived in the area for a few years. However, when searching, I did not find the flood of angry opinion articles as I expected.

    However, I did find this article from Ann that mentioned how the new curb carts that would have radio identification frequency chips in them to monitor participation and award points for households to win vouchers. I personally thought that this was a ridiculous investment to try and bribe people to participate which in general is not a sustainable model. There is not as many strong comments as I would have thought but some definite skepticism.

    This also made me wonder how the University handles their recycling. There are still two stream recycling bins on campus and in the dorms.

  3. jacquelinegamache Reply March 20, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    I attended the Energy Commission held at the end of February where they finalized their new five year waste disposal plan. I was not aware of the city’s history with regard to recycling and during the presentation was incredibly surprised by the lack of concern there seemed to be in the room about the numbers they were presenting. Trash increases and recycling decreases where attributed to the inclusion of the University for the first time and the close of Ann Arbor news. They never discussed whether they should revert back to two stream recycling. The main focus was discussing the residents concern for compost smell and spent quite some time talking about the new plan for year round compost pick up. A practice they hope their residents will do more of if the city facilitates more regular pick ups. Maybe they had addressed all these concerns at prior meetings. But shouldn’t there still be a reporter there to relay the message to the public? The room was instead filled with high school and college students only there to fulfill a requirement for class. The meeting was broadcast, but who watches public television before the age of 65? The coverage of the issue in the A2politico article was strong and gave the public the information they needed to speak up the next meeting. Yet unfortunately, no one did. Maybe they are waiting for the city council to review the proposal first and speak out against the plan infront of a larger audience. I hope that is the case, but unfortunately really doubt that the public wants to spend their time discussing their trash.

  4. As a journalist, I believe that the most compelling element to stress in garbage stories lies in the amount of waste and irresponsibility related to it. Most people don’t know how to properly dispose of electronics and other items. Many items we use in the process of recycling can be reused for other purposes. Stories about landfills and recycling facilities need to stress the importance of doing the proper thing when it comes to throwing stuff away and recycling other stuff.
    I had no idea about the controversy in the Ann Arbor recycling program. Those who exploit an environmental cause for profit really do not care about the issue, and that is sad. People in those kinds of positions should have a genuine passion for recycling and waste reduction.
    Tipping fees in Michigan could be so low in Michigan because not enough public support has been generated to raise them. In the Traverse City Record-Eagle article, the author writes that increasing the fee could generate $145 million annually, which is a huge amount to add to the state of Michigan.
    I think with waste-reduction competitions like Game Day, journalists should be pointing out how the younger generations are making a headstrong effort to take better care of the planet than their parents did, and how people should follow that. Effectively, it makes the mistakes of the past come out, while highlighting that change will be needed in the future, and in fact is already happening.

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