As global and local environmental changes continue to reshape precipitation patterns, wildlife behaviors and public health issues, the City of East Lansing is tackling a slew of projects aimed at increasing public awareness and minimize damage.
East Lansing Environmental Specialist Cliff Walls provided an update on several city environmental services and projects at the Oct. 18 city council meeting. While most council members seemed content to simply receive the information, council member George Brookover raised pointed questions about the city’s recycling program.
The city looks after the municipal sections of the East Lansing Urban Forest.
East Lansing celebrated its 35th year as “Tree City, USA” by planting an oak tree at Green Elementary School on Arbor Day. Walls said the city is on track to plant about 110 or 120 trees this year. This figure is similar to previous years, but he would like to increase plantings in the future.
In contrast, the city will remove about 50 trees this year. Walls said the withdrawal was a last resort, but sometimes necessary.
“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 shoot down three mature honey locusts in front of the East Lansing Public Library because they were damaging the sidewalk and clogging roof drains.
To reduce the number of removals required in the future, new trees are carefully selected based on the size they will be when fully grown to ensure there are no conflicts with nearby infrastructure , Walls said. In practice, this often means small trees where large trees used to flower.
The walls focused on city actions, but hundreds of trees in East Lansing have been felled over the past decade due to BWL’s tree-cutting program after the devastating 2013 ice storm. Diseases like the emerald ash borer have wiped out thousands more. As ELi reported last year, oak trees in the region are now threatened by oak wilt.
ELi has heard from a number of readers who note that the loss of large trees means greater water drainage problems. A mature oak tree, for example, can handle 40,000 gallons of water in a year.
Walls highlighted the city’s online forums where residents can request that a tree on public land be removed if it is diseased, damaged or poses a threat. The city also has guidelines for planting trees.
Beyond simple recycling, the city is considering compacting, composting and education.
Walls then discussed areas where the city’s recycling program was making progress.
First, he introduced “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 receive 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 reduce the volume of calls to the Department of Public Works.
Walls also said there are two projects underway through grants given to East Lansing and Lansing. The first is research on the development of a composting program. It is unclear how the information will be used, but it could be used to implement a local program or marketed to private companies who wish to implement a composting program in another community.
The second grant, also in partnership with Lansing, is to develop a recycling education center.
“The idea behind it is to have a place to bring students, lawmakers, just to have a place in the capital where there can be conversations and education around [recycling]Murs said.
Walls told Council the city is pursuing another grant with funding of more than $320,000 to add two 40-yard compaction units for DPW to compact cardboard. Walls said the compactors could allow the city to reduce staff time and truck miles traveled (including carbon emissions) by 10 times.
In addition, the grant would fund a polystyrene densifier, which removes 98% of the air in polystyrene and can turn a truckload of polystyrene into a pallet. The product created can then be sold for special uses.
Contamination of recyclable materials is a big problem. The city is using the AI to try to fix it.
Walls also provided an update on the city’s pilot program to reduce contamination in curbside recycling bins. When people put things that aren’t recyclable in recycling bins, it can contaminate entire loads and send them to landfill. Also, just because something is labeled as recyclable doesn’t mean the city’s materials recovery facility will accept it. (A material recovery system is where recycling materials are sent to be prepared for sale to buyers. East Lansing uses the Emterra facility in Lansing.)
“We recognize that it’s very confusing,” he said. “Something says it’s recyclable, it’s marketed as recyclable, it has a recycling symbol on it. It doesn’t necessarily matter. This is what is accepted and what technology exists at your local material recovery facility to deal with it.
The City has a contractual obligation with its Materials Recovery Center to maintain a contamination threshold below 8%. But East Lansing’s contamination level is over 15%. This not only sends “recycled” materials to landfills, but it increases East Lansing’s costs, as the city has to pay for disposal.
Council member Brookover posed a series of questions, in response, about what the recycling program is costing the city and whether there are cheaper alternatives. City Manager George Lahanas said he would get that information.
Regarding contamination, Walls explained that Lansing asks workers to check what’s in recycling bins to communicate directly with residents if they put trash in their bins. However, it is time-consuming, weather-dependent, leaves incomplete data, and is expensive.
As an alternative, East Lansing has partnered with The Recycling Partnership, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), and Prairie Robotics to launch the first municipal campaign pilot in the United States that uses artificial intelligence to try to reduce contamination through recycling. .
For the program, which was announced this fall, cameras have been installed in recycling trucks that identify large items that contaminate recycling. The cameras also look for plastic bags, plastic wraps and other “tangles” that can damage recycling equipment.
Artificial intelligence identifies these contaminants so that a postcard with a photo 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. The Ohio State University is studying the effectiveness of this approach.
Brookover expressed concern about the prospect of having a camera to take pictures of people recycling.
But Lahanas noted that anything put in the trash becomes public and said if people are worried they should shred sensitive documents. Added walls, non-trash items are blurred, and photos are taken in low resolution.
Impermeable “hot spots” are identified using 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 on a scholarship for 10 weeks and 40 hours per week.
The fellow was a GIS expert who spent his time mapping impermeable surface hotspots in the city. Impermeable surfaces are surfaces that cannot absorb water. The project can be helpful in mitigating flooding and determining areas most in need of new infrastructure.
Walls said the project has garnered a lot of attention across the state because such information is usually very expensive to obtain. The fellow was able to train the algorithm to be “90%” efficient, giving a municipality a first look at areas that need attention.
The city is betting on more renewable energies.
Walls told the Council that the city was still in talks to develop a solar panel at the Department of Public Works on State Road. He said that with the amount of space available, the solar panel could cover 330% of the department’s energy costs.
“If we could do something like this, it would really help us achieve our goal of 100% renewable electric power by 2030,” he said.
Walls said there are still hurdles to making the solar panel, such as working with utility partners to lift restrictions.
Walls concluded his presentation by talking about two grant opportunities.
The first runs 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.
An additional $50 million is being made available by the Michigan Public Service Commission, funds to be used for the development and improvement of low-carbon energy infrastructure.
“We need to know more, but there is potentially a funding stream for something like the DPW solar panel or other projects like that,” Walls said.