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GM, Schupan partner to turn Flint water bottles into coats, car parts and more

Environmentalists have never liked plastic water bottles much, but they became indispensable for Flint families during the city’s water crisis.

Although the federal government declared in June that filtered Flint tap water was safe for children, pregnant women and nursing mothers to drink, the Detroit Free Press reported in July that, “More than two years after issues first surfaced with Flint’s drinking water, many residents have no plans to switch from the bottled water upon which they’ve come to depend for their daily needs and say they don’t trust filters.” At the height of the water crisis, a CNN reporter found that one Flint family of three used 151 bottles of water per day.

Now General Motors, Schupan Recycling and other partners are stepping in to make the best of a bad situation. GM announced in August it has collected more than 2 million water bottles from Flint and is feeding them into its Do Your Part program that turns empty plastic containers from five of the company’s Michigan facilities into useful products.

“Even though there’s a very, very challenging situation in Flint, there’s also an opportunity to make things better, put a smile on people’s faces and develop collaborative efforts in the community,” says John Bradburn, GM global manager of waste reduction and a Flint native.

Schupan Recycling has trailers for collecting empty bottles at the State of Michigan’s central water distribution facility in Flint. The company sorts and bales the material at its Wixom facility. Clean Tech, in Dundee, washes the plastic and processes it into flakes.

Additional links in the supply chain convert those flakes into fleece, which is then used to make noise-reducing fabric insulation that covers the Chevrolet Equinox engine, components for air filtration systems at GM body and painting plants, and insulation in specially designed coats for homeless people.

The water-resistant coats convert to a sleeping bag and can be worn as an over-the-shoulder bag when not in use. Each coat’s insulation—cut to size by the Detroit-based workwear company Carhartt—contains plastic from 31 water bottles.

They’re a product of The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based nonprofit that not only provides warmth in winter for people without a roof over their head, but also trains homeless single parents to manufacture the coats, providing families with a stable income that helps them get back on their feet. Read more

MEC’s back-to-session list for lawmakers

The Legislature returned to Lansing last week after a summer recess. While there are just 18 House and 20 Senate session days remaining in 2016, our lawmakers have many opportunities this fall to make Michigan a cleaner, safer and more sustainable state.

Here are five of the top issues MEC’s staff will be focused on and key outcomes we’d like to see from the Capitol in the next few months.

1. Flint follow-up.

Doing everything possible to help the people of Flint and taking action to prevent anything like the city’s water crisis from happening elsewhere in Michigan must be top priorities and guiding principles for Michigan policymakers.

Bills in both the House and Senate would require testing of lead levels in water at schools around the state. It’s just one of many policies that must be part of a robust state response to the Flint crisis—and only part of the comprehensive approach needed to address all the ways in which our children are exposed to toxic lead—but lawmakers should unite behind this common-sense measure to demonstrate they are committed to protecting Michigan kids.

Another priority is toughening Michigan’s implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule. The rule sets minimum regulations for keeping lead out of drinking water, but it allows states to set their own, stricter rules. In April, Gov. Snyder proposed reforms that would make Michigan’s implementation of the rule the most stringent in the country. Following the Flint crisis, Michigan must set the national standard for safe drinking water. Legislators should approve the governor’s plan and make these reforms law before the end of the year.

2. Clean energy reforms.

Lawmakers let the clock wind down on 2015 without updating the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards that reached a plateau at the end of the year. Those are the clean energy laws that have driven $2.9 billion in economic development since 2008 and saved Michiganders more than $4 for every dollar invested in energy efficiency. They’ve trimmed coal’s slice of our energy-production pie from two-thirds to less than half.

Despite the unequivocal economic success of Michigan’s renewable power and energy efficiency programs, some elected officials have not only been slow to embrace those programs, but are still trying to gut themRead more

Gov. Snyder visits Michigan’s “Big Wild”

Our ears perked up when we learned recently that Gov. Rick Snyder and his family took a trip this summer to the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

For one thing, we’re always hungry for stories from the “Big Wild.” We wanted to hear about the governor’s adventures and find out if he saw any of the roughly 1,300 elk that live in and around the rugged, 106,000-acre forest.

The main reason we were so interested in the governor’s trip, though, is that MEC’s Brad Garmon serves on the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council, the 18-member body that provides recommendations to the director of the Department of Natural Resources about management of the largest contiguous tract of public land in the Lower Peninsula. As we wrote in a newsletter story announcing Brad’s appointment, the advisory council “was created to uphold the Concept of Management the DNR adopted in 1973 after years of contentious litigation over oil and gas issues. The goal is to forever safeguard the forest’s wild character.”

When Brad heard about the visit through the advisory council, we contacted Gov. Snyder’s office to ask about highlights and to see if the governor thinks there’s potential for adopting the advisory council model to involve citizens in guiding the management of other special pieces of public land in Michigan.

Our thanks to Gov. Snyder and his staff for not only answering our questions, but for producing this video and sharing some photos from the trip!


Guest post: Other hidden costs of Line 5

Editor’s note: The following guest post was written by Stanley “Skip” Pruss and originally ran on the blog of 5 Lakes Energy, where he is principal and co-founder. It is re-posted here with permission.

Pruss is also a member of the Board of Directors for FLOW (For Love of Water)—one of MEC’s many partners in the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign to prevent a catastrophic oil spill from the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.


“You wouldn’t site, and you wouldn’t build and construct pipelines underneath the Straits today.”
—Attorney General Bill Schuette [Begging the question:  If a state-of-the-art, 21st Century pipeline presents an unacceptable risk, why is the continued use of an aging, mid-20th Century pipeline acceptable?]

Many compelling reasons exist to terminate the use of Line 5, the twin 20-inch pipelines carrying crude oil and natural gas liquids that cross the state-owned bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac.  Much research, analysis, and modelling has been done by scientists, engineers, lawyers and academics demonstrating that Line 5 poses an unreasonable risk.  Yet Line 5 continues in use, operating under the inherent illogic that a 63-year-old undersea pipeline can function indefinitely without incident.

To the many arguments compelling closure, let me offer another – one that is decidedly minor when compared to the potential catastrophic impacts of a Line 5 failure – but an argument that might manage to nudge your outrage quotient up a notch:

You and I are subsidizing Enbridge to maintain and operate Line 5.

But before addressing the many ways public resources are being expended to benefit Enbridge, let’s review some of the facts that should have already been determinative.

  • There exists an imminent risk of catastrophic harm to one-third of North America’s surface water that is Lakes Michigan and Huron (one lake).  UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute’s analysis indicates that more than 700 miles of shoreline in Lakes Michigan and Huron and proximate islands are potentially vulnerable to an oil release in the Straits that would result in accumulation requiring cleanup, and that more than 15% of Lake Michigan’s open water (3,528 square miles), and nearly 60% of Lake Huron’s open water (13,611 square miles) could be affected by visible oil from a spill in the Straits.
  • “Imminent risk” has two components – the likelihood of a failure and the potential magnitude of the harm.  The UM study and the National Wildlife Federation report Sunken Hazard have amply demonstrated the magnitude of potential harm through dispersion modelling.  The likelihood of failure cannot be regarded as zero as Enbridge’s own inspections have revealed corrosion in nine locations, 55 “circumferential” cracks, and loss of wall thickness in the pipeline itself.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard has acknowledged its limited capacity to launch an effective remedial response should a spill event occur in winter or with waves over 4-5 feet – a common occurrence in the Straits.
  • Enbridge pipelines have had 804 document spills through 2010 with at least five additional spills since 2012.

These facts illustrate a risk of substantial harm to Lakes Michigan and Huron – a globally unique freshwater resource – as well as to the coastal communities and the tens of millions of people connected to and served by these waters.

So let’s start there – who bears the risk?

First, Enbridge has transferred the risk of harm to people of the Great Lakes Region.  The risk of harm can be quantified, modeled and monetized.  Read more

MEC uses panel appointment to push for more recycling and composting, less landfilling

Michigan’s landfill-first approach to waste management is getting a much-needed overhaul, and MEC is helping to lead the charge.

For more than a year, Deputy Policy Director Sean Hammond has served on the state’s Solid Waste and Sustainability Advisory Panel, created by the Department of Environmental Quality to review part 115 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, which regulates solid waste management. The SWSAP also includes the MEC member group Michigan Recycling Coalition, along with local governments, waste industry representatives and others. It is distinct from the Governor’s Recycling Council created a year earlier specifically to increase residential recycling rates.

The 13-member panel recently put forward its draft recommendations for input from Michigan residents. The Department of Environmental Quality is accepting public comment on the proposal until Monday, August 1. (You can comment on the draft recommendations here.) After incorporating those comments, the SWSAP will present its formal recommendations to the DEQ director this fall, and the plan will eventually go before the Legislature for approval.

In our view, Michigan has been too reliant on landfills to manage our waste stream. That’s because the last time the state updated its solid waste policy, in the 1990s, there were concerns that we were running out of landfill capacity. As a result, Michigan built more landfills than we needed, which in turn created extraordinarily low costs for disposal. Today there are more than 45 landfills statewide.

As MLive reported recently,

In each landfill, there’s treasure getting buried. A new DEQ-funded university and business study found that Michigan garbage contains an estimated $368 million worth of recyclable material. The largest chunk, 13.6 percent, is food waste that could be converted to energy through composting or anaerobic digestion.

Michigan waste experts say as much as 40 percent of landfilled garbage is organic material that can’t necessarily be composted, but could be digested.

The study concluded 42 percent of thrown-away materials have market value, including all standard recyclable commodities except glass, plus textiles.

Through the SWSAP, we are working to capture more of that value and conserve resources by encouraging recycling, composting and electricity generation (via anaerobic digestion) so discarded materials can be put to their best, highest use.

Here are some highlights from the SWSAP’s recommendations for Michigan’s solid waste policy:

Rename it. The panel’s first draft recommendation is a change of terminology. Read more

Experienced fundraiser Joe Bower joins MEC as Director of Development

We are happy to announce that MEC has hired Joe Bower to expand our fundraising efforts as our new Director of Development. Joe’s efforts will be focused on expanding MEC revenues by strengthening our relations with individual and corporate donors.

Joe joins longtime staffer Andy Draheim to bolster our outreach to MEC’s supporters.

Joe has 14 years of development experience, the last 10 of which were spent with the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, overseeing activities that included memberships, sponsorships, donor relations, grant-writing, annual appeals, and special events. During his time with the KIA, development revenues increased by nearly 80 percent.

Before moving into the development field, Joe worked as a reporter for two Michigan newspapers: The (Greenville) Daily News and The Herald-Palladium in St. Joseph. Later he was an editor and freelance writer for a number of regional and national magazines, authoring stories for Audubon, Sports Illustrated, and National Wildlife, among others.

“Joe is a great addition to our team and we’re excited to have someone with such impressive skills and experience focused on growing the community of generous financial supporters who make our work possible,” says Chris Kolb, MEC president. “He has a proven track record of raising funds to help nonprofits succeed, and I’m confident he will help MEC grow into an even stronger and more effective organization.”

Joe has a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

“I’ve appreciated and followed MEC’s activities for years,” he says. “Joining such a fine staff is like the perfect job for me because it lets me combine personal interests with professional skills.”

A native of Southwest Michigan, Joe has a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He grew up on a 240-acre farm with beef cattle, horses, chickens and other livestock in Mattawan. As a boy he didn’t always relish the daily chores that came with farm life—bailing hay, cleaning barns, chopping wood—but that lifestyle made a big impact.

“I really appreciate hard work,” Joe says, noting that he still visits his parents there to help with chopping wood, making maple syrup and other projects. “At the time, I didn’t necessarily like that. But I enjoy it now.”

He lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, Maria, and their children, Sam and Matilda.

His rural upbringing notwithstanding, Joe—who spent six years in San Francisco before moving back to Michigan 20 years ago—says he appreciates that MEC’s vision for Michigan encompasses everything from pristine wild places to thriving, sustainable downtowns. When it’s family vacation time, good food and vibrant urban areas are usually on the menu.

“Our idea of fun,” he says, “is exploring new cities and searching out great restaurants.”


Denby High project hits milestone as Skinner Park takes shape in Detroit

What began three years ago in the classrooms of Detroit’s Denby High School—and the imaginations of its students—took a major step toward becoming reality this week.

Students, community organizations and business leaders gathered Monday for the official kickoff of a $1.5 million transformation of the unused playfield next to the school into a green space and community gathering place to be called Skinner Park.

When complete, the park will offer something for everyone. Replete with basketball and volleyball courts, a performing arts pavilion, and a putting green, the plan also includes several features to make the neighborhood more resilient and sustainable, including community vegetable gardens, a fruit orchard and a rainwater catchment system.

Life Remodeled, a Detroit nonprofit that recruits a huge volunteer workforce to revitalize a troubled city neighborhood each year, has selected Skinner Park and the surrounding Denby community as its focus for this summer. Along with work in the park, thousands of volunteers will remove blight and beautify 300 city blocks, renovate 50 homes and chart safe pathways to school, among other activities planned for August 1-6.

(Please consider signing up to be part of the volunteer workforce in the Denby neighborhood! You can register here.)

The Skinner Park renovation marks a significant milestone in a long-term project that challenges students to confront the city’s challenges and collaborate with local residents to make transformative improvements to their neighborhood.

The project was hatched in the 2013-2014 school year, when Denby students proposed focusing a required senior capstone project on the Detroit Future City (DFC) framework, which aims to stabilize neighborhoods, repurpose vacant land and put more Detroiters to work, among other goals.

Sandra Turner-Handy, MEC’s community engagement director, a Denby neighborhood resident and a DFC leader, was called in to guide seniors in understanding and implementing the framework and has been deeply committed to the project ever since. She leads the Denby Neighborhood Alliance—an intergenerational, student-and-resident collaboration for planning and action—and is known affectionately by students as “Mama Sandra.” Read more

Senate energy plan: Summer school needed to fix failing grades

The Michigan Senate is likely to vote this week on a pair of bills to reform our state’s energy policy. Throughout the debates leading up to this point, MEC has maintained that any credible strategy for Michigan’s energy future must accomplish five goals: control costs for utility customers; minimize the risks of future price spikes; protect natural resources and public health; promote economic development; and improve reliability.

Since it’s graduation season, we decided to use those goals as the basis for a report card on Senate Bills 437 and 438. (You can read this recent post for a more detailed analysis.)

Unfortunately, although they were recently revised, these bills still get failing grades. Without major changes, the Senate energy plan isn’t ready to graduate.

Report card for SB 437 and 438

Control costs. Michigan utility customers pay some of the highest rates in the Midwest. The current legislation would increase those costs by $4 billion over the next 10 years. The bills abandon the use of competition and the free market to control energy costs. They also repeal the renewable energy and energy efficiency programs that have been highly effective in reducing energy waste and controlling costs. This legislation would allow the utilities to hold on to the $120 million in renewable energy surcharges they don’t need, since renewables are now the cheapest energy sources.

Grade: F

Minimize risks.  Renewable energy is the cheapest electricity available from new facilities and offers fixed prices over a 20-year period because it is not dependent on fuel costs. However, these bills would scrap our wildly successful renewable energy standard. Utilities are guaranteed a profit of more than 10 percent on every dollar they spend to meet customer needs, but Michigan families and businesses will take on all the risks when those dollars are spent on utilities’ first choice—large, expensive new natural gas-fired power plants. Unfortunately, it seems many current legislators don’t remember when the per-unit price of natural gas skyrocketed from $2 to $15 between 2002 and 2005. By failing to lock in low and predictable long-term prices, these bills will put Michiganders at risk of sharp price spikes.

The bills would continue energy efficiency programs through 2021, which would reduce our overall need for energy and therefore reduce risks for ratepayers. Between 2009 and 2014, energy efficiency programs helped Michigan customers avoid the use of more than 6 million megawatt hours of electricity. The programs save Michiganders $4 for every dollar invested, a total savings of more than $100 million every year.

Grade: D

Protect natural resources and public health. Coal-fired power plants are the #1 source of air pollution in the country and are major contributors to climate change. Michigan’s renewable energy standard has helped to reduce our dependence on dirty coal, which provided two-thirds of our power when the standard was adopted and now provides only half. These bills will stall that progress by immediately repealing our renewable energy standard and phasing out our waste reduction programs over the next five years. Meanwhile, Michigan residents pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year to deal with the health impacts of dirty coal plants. Our asthma rate is 25 percent above the national average, and more than 100 Michiganders die prematurely from ailments tied to coal plant pollution.

The bills set a new goal for waste reduction and renewable energy, but the language is non-binding.

Grade: D-

Promote economic development. Michigan’s clean energy law triggered $2.9 billion in economic development in Michigan from 2008 to 2015. For the first time, our economy began to diversify beyond the automotive sector. We became a top state for clean energy patents. Energy efficiency service companies have sprouted up across the state. That growth is largely attributable to provisions in the 2008 law that half of renewable energy projects be built by private developers, rather than the utilities themselves, to promote competition and innovation. All of those benefits will go away under the current legislation. The bills would not only free the utilities from competing with other companies, but would also allow them to make money off energy they played no part in generating.

Grade: F

Improve reliability. The bills add new sections that attempt to ensure all energy providers have sufficient resources to serve their customers. It also recognizes that our regional grid operator is taking steps to improve overall reliability.

Unfortunately, the Senate package takes a step backward by hampering efforts to use time-of-day rates to take advantage of the advanced meters we have already paid for to reduce peak demand.

Grade: C-

With grades like these, it’s no surprise the Senate energy proposal faces stiff opposition from a broad range of players across the political spectrum. The Legislature breaks after this week for summer recess, but without major changes to these bills, it looks like summer school is in order.


Top photo courtesy Theodore Scott via Flickr.

Other images adapted from photo by Jack Amick via Flickr.

‘No stricter than federal’ bill aims to make Michigan mediocre again

Our state has invested more than $260 million over the past decade in promoting tourism under the banner of “Pure Michigan.” A bill moving through the state House of Representatives would undermine that campaign by broadcasting the message that Michigan plans to do nothing more than the bare minimum when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes, our natural resources and the health of our residents.

The House Regulatory Reform Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that bars Michigan from passing any rule stricter than a federal standard unless the state can accomplish the daunting legal feat of proving such a rule is necessary.

House Bill 5613 is just the latest version of this “no stricter than federal” proposal, which now awaits action on the House floor. Gov. Snyder already vetoed a similar bill in 2011, and the same House committee failed to pass a different version of the bill last April.

This new iteration has the slight improvement of allowing the state to adopt stricter-than-federal rules if the governor can prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that such rules are necessary. (Unfortunately, that change also gives this misguided proposal the best chance of moving forward it’s had since the original 2011 bill.) But even with this exemption it is clear that approving the bill would be a big step backward for Michigan, for three major reasons: It takes away Michigan’s ability to be proactive in protecting our environment and quality of life; it would likely lead to sky-high legal costs for state taxpayers; and it cedes Michiganders’ right as a state to govern ourselves as we see fit, rather than following the whims and snail’s pace of the federal government.

Waiting for another crisis

In an attempt to downplay concerns about the impacts of this bill, its proponents have given examples of when the state could use the exemption to adopt a stricter-than-federal rule, including the Flint water crisis. But while we agree this extreme example certainly meets the bill’s clear and convincing evidence standard, we have serious doubts that the executive branch would be granted an exemption in similar circumstances without the benefit of hindsight. Read more

Three key questions in Michigan’s energy debate

The Senate Energy and Technology Committee continues to deliberate on a package of bills that lay out a misguided approach to Michigan’s energy future—one that would suspend Michigan’s transition to cleaner energy sources, lead to major rate increases for Michigan families and throw a wrench in economic development in our state.

During three weeks of hearings on the bills last summer, strong opposition from MEC and many other groups made it clear that Senate Bills 437 and 438, as introduced, did not have the support to move forward.  Bill sponsors Sens. Mike Nofs and John Proos went back to the drawing board, and introduced substitute versions of the bills in late April.

Nofs, who chairs the committee, recently announced he had the votes lined up, but he now appears to again be working on new drafts. Such a broad range of groups have voiced opposition—environmental groups, energy efficiency contractors, major corporations (including Steelcase, Whirlpool, Johnson Controls and others) and even the conservative group Americans for Prosperity—that it’s hard to imagine the bills moving out of  committee without significant  revisions. Similar bills cleared a House committee last fall but have languished on the House floor.

Throughout this process, the issue of “electric choice” has been a major point of debate. (The term refers to the 10 percent of the state’s electric load allowed to come from alternative electric suppliers, rather than from utilities.) That small slice of the energy pie has dominated much of the discussion and disagreement between major industrial facilities and the utilities.

While energy choice is an important issue, the debate should not lose sight of the other 90 percent of our energy. The focus there should be on answering three basic questions:  How do we generate electricity? Who gets to generate it? And how much should we generate?

How do we generate it?

The case for making renewable energy Michigan’s go-to source of electricity is growing stronger all the time. For example:

  • The latest Michigan Public Service Commission update on the state’s renewable energy programs found that wind energy now costs less than half as much as it did in 2009.  More importantly, it costs less than any other new generation built today.
  • The MPSC also reported that more than $2.9 billion has been invested in renewable energy projects in Michigan since 2008, helping to diversify Michigan’s economy.
  • Michigan’s clean energy sector supports 87,000 jobs, according to a recent report.

Even setting aside jobs and investment—and the huge cost savings from the avoided health impacts of air pollution—it’s clear that renewable energy sources offer the best bang for the buck.  And yet, the current legislation proposes eliminating the state’s renewable energy standard.

Michigan’s electric utilities and supportive legislators have often claimed we don’t need a renewable energy standard, like the current one which required them to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. The companies say they’ll invest in more renewable sources as costs come down. So, with wind and solar at record-low prices, the utilities must be buying up clean power like crazy, right?

Wrong. DTE Energy has told shareholders it will develop 100 megawatts of wind power in 2019, but that will result in a minuscule .2 percent increase in renewable energy per year. Similarly, Consumers Energy’s plans for three new, 100-megawatt wind farms over the next decade will only increase its renewable portfolio by .25 percent annually (in contrast to the nearly 1.5 percent per year they built to reach the 10 percent renewable standard).

That’s why MEC and a growing portion of the business sector are advocating for including language in the legislation to set a clear expectation that utilities will continue to transition to clean energy sources.  We have proposed language clarifying that, if renewable energy prices exceed the cost of building and operating new natural gas combined-cycle power plants, the utility’s obligation to invest in renewables would cease. MEC is encouraging legislators to approve the next phase of clean energy by increasing our current 10 percent standard by 1.5 percent each year from 2017 through 2022. Read more