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Flint's newest challenge: a flood of plastic bottles (+video)

Donors have responded generously in Flint, donating hundreds of thousands of water bottles to help residents through a water quality crisis. Properly recycling all that plastic poses a challenge. 

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    Herbert Biggs collects bottled water at a fire station in Flint, Michigan to distribute to his neighborhood. The city is relying on bottled water and faucet filters during an ongoing crisis in the public water quality after the city switched providers.
    Jake May/ The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP
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Everyone from Cher to the Detroit Lions has been shipping water bottles to Flint, Michigan, where the saga of the city's dangerous water crisis continues. But as hundreds of thousands of bottles arrive, authorities are faced with another environmental problem: where to put them?

The dilemma is exacerbated by the same thing that made Flint's water unsafe in the first place: budget cuts.

In 2001, the city of 99,000 cancelled curbside recycling because of costs. Curbside pickup started up again in 2013, but only about 13 to 16 percent of residents are participating, a waste and recycling worker told Michigan Radio. Not everyone realizes that the service is available, and although everyone's taxes pay for it, houses need to call the contracted provider, Republic Services, to opt in. 

"We definitely want to encourage everyone to recycle the bottles rather than place them in the trash," Republic Services spokeswoman said Jennifer Eldridge told Michigan Live. 

In October, the city told residents to stick to filtered or bottled water because of unsafe levels of lead, a problem that developed after it temporarily switched to using water from the Flint River in order to cut costs. But residents had been trying for more than a year to get officials' attention about the dirty water coming out of their taps, and many allege that the city's demographics have something to do with the slow response. Nearly 42 percent live under the poverty line, and 57 percent are black.

"It's hard for me to imagine the indifference that we've seen exhibited if this had happened in a much more affluent community," US Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, told CNN. 

Michigan mobilized its National Guard to help distribute water, and dozens of charities and celebrities have pitched in as well. 

But many residents seem unsure what to do with the sudden influx of plastic, and much of it is headed to landfills, where each bottle takes hundreds of years to decompose. 

When Khalid Iqbal delivers water from the Flint Muslim Food Pantry, he tries to encourage people to recycle. When he asks what they'd planned to do, "They have no clue, no answer," he told Michigan Radio. "And I’m afraid it’s going to end up in the dumpsters."

Nonprofit organizations and other companies have stepped in to help residents recycle. Young's Environmental Cleanup, a hazardous waste removal company, has been posting large bins throughout town, collecting 680 pounds in less than a day, NBC reported. Empty bottles are also accepted at water stations around the city, and will be picked up curbside each Monday by the Mission Protect Flint Recycling Project. 

At Durrant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School, the district's largest, teachers have turned the crisis into an opportunity to teach students about recycling, organizing student groups to collect bottles from campus and deliver them to recycling bins in the parking lot. 

"We're just taking this opportunity to make it real life for them," Principal Shelly Umphrey told Michigan Live.

Long term, that awareness may be the key to Flint's recycling program. But education requires funds often overlooked in the service's budget.

"Public education is usually the last item that is considered, but probably the most important for keeping a quality system going," Steve Montle, who works with Resource Recycling Systems, told Michigan Radio. 

Nationwide, Americans recycle about one third of their trash, an average of 1.51 pounds per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

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