Cleaning up the pandemic: Midland Recyclers helps with hard-to-recycle items

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on what we throw away and what we recycle. With more people working from home, there’s been an increase in the amount of trash going out for curbside pickup in the City of Midland. There’s also been an increase in those hard-to-recycle items being dropped off at the Midland Recyclers facility at 4305 E. Ashman St.

“It has not caused us to increase our services or staff, but [staff] has noticed heavy volumes of trash and bigger items are going to the curb,” says Karen Murphy, director of public works for the City of Midland.

Volumes of refuse have been heavier at the curb since the pandemic started last spring.Murphy says there’s a correlation between more people working from home, and “cleaning out garages, homes and also working on projects and home remodeling.”

“We’ve been able to handle the increase in volumes, but people continue to be busy with home projects,” says Murphy. “Spring always tends to be a busier time for projects — inside the home and outside.” 

Republic Services contracts with the City of Midland to provide curbside pickup for recycling. The company has not contacted  Murphy about a need to increase staff or services because of the increase in volume.

“We’ve been able to handle what’s been at the curb; there’s been no discussion with Republic and no concerns from our contact with them,” she says.

Along with curbside refuse increasing in the past year, staff have reported that community members making conversation with their city service workers have also gone up.Along with curbside refuse increasing in the past year, staff has reported that community members are also making more conversation with their city service workers. Murphy says, “It’s kind of funny … They’re curious about our services and want to have interactions. We’ve never experienced that before.”

Midland Recyclers Executive Director, Esther Williams, has also seen an increase in the volume of hard-to-recycle items. She also chalks it up to more people staying home and cleaning out.  

Earth Day at Midland Recyclers

The skies are blue on a crisp Earth Day as Williams walks inside through their facility’s narrow pathways between heaps of flattened plastic jugs, empty kitty litter containers, and stacks of paper of all shapes, colors and sizes.

Volunteers at the facility work diligently.Volunteers at the facility work diligently, shredding paper in an industrial-sized machine that chomps and spits out the thin-sized slices. They break down cardboard boxes and carry an old television from one spot to the next. A person comes into the office asking where to put used batteries. “Alkaline and lithium go in separate containers,” says Williams as she leads the way, quipping that if the battery is leaking, volunteers aren't supposed to handle it.

The facility is a bustling place. A quarter-mile away — up on a hill — peers the City of Midland Landfill.

Williams is masked and wearing a heavy coat and work boots. She points left and then right to the areas where recyclable items go, focused on answering volunteers’ questions. She brings a sense of calm and order to what could come across as chaotic. The facility has continued to remain open during the pandemic.

The facility is a bustling place.“We were considered essential, so we never closed. There was less foot traffic for a couple of months, but it’s been like gangbusters ever since.” Williams says the volume increase is in part due to more people ordering items that are shipped in cardboard packages and boxes. She also says, “They’ve been cleaning out filing cabinets of a lot of paper and getting rid of electronics.” 

Williams has seen many changes in the labor-intensive work of recycling over the last three decades and works closely with Murphy and City of Midland officials. Williams says the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan also allowed the nonprofit to maintain its staff of about four employees. 

Williams’s favorite part of being director is to educate the community and businesses in the Great Lakes Bay Region (GLBR) on how to reuse and recycle. When possible, she can also give someone in need a job.

Esther Williams is the executive director of Midland Recyclers.“The people who come on tour and the work experience we give to all ages and abilities — that’s what I enjoy the most,” says Williams.

Williams educates people on how hard-to-recycle items can also be used.Educating people on how hard-to-recycle items can be used is also in her job description. For example, shredded paper can be used for packing material, kitty litter, loosely stuffing it into toilet paper rolls or cut up paper towel rolls to make kindling or fire starters; plastics of all colors can be turned into carpet or office supplies; newspapers, magazines and cardboard often becomes more paper or cardboard. 

Midland Recyclers have come a long way since its inception in 1987 as a grassroots organization with a few volunteers collecting items near the Tridge in downtown Midland. Williams remembers “mostly collecting milk jugs and newspapers'' back then.

The nonprofit also works with state businesses like Clean Tech Inc. based in Dundee and Dart Container Corp. headquartered in Mason. Both companies pay Midland Recyclers a fee for the products such as paper, foam and rigid polystyrene and polypropylene, and pick up those items periodically from the facility. They’re used to make more recyclable products. 

The facility is stuffed with books, bubble wrap, foam sheets, pillows, packing peanuts, empty glass bottles, thousands of milk jugs, and more.For 34 years, Midland Recyclers has provided the community with a recycling drop-off center open to residents and businesses in the region. The niche of the organization is accepting the hard-to-recycle items that can’t be placed at the curb like polystyrene (or the trademarked brand, Styrofoam), plastic bags and electronics. Williams says she’s especially proud to help businesses meet their sustainability and zero-landfill goals, and help residents “live a greener lifestyle.” 

Williams says local agencies and schools also depend on Midland Recyclers because they’re able to offer work experience opportunities for all ages and abilities, as well as hands-on educational programs and tours. Included in their mission is to educate the community on resource conservation through waste reduction, reuse, and recycling; and to accept those hard-to-recycle items where they are then organized and processed elsewhere. 

“We’re different from curbside [waste management]. We help residents and businesses get rid of those hard-to-recycle items so they don't end up in the landfill,” she says. Recycling services are provided to more than 100 area businesses for a small fee. The industrial-sized shredder is also open to the public for a small fee.

Shredded paper can be used for packing material, kitty litter, loosely stuffing it into toilet paper rolls or cut up paper towel rolls to make kindling or fire starters.Throughout the year, the organization offers different fundraising events for the facility including Kids Day at The Midland Mall, Halloween Bash Trunk or Treat, and a Star Wars-themed 5K run/walk and one mile Jedi Training course, held Saturday, May 15 from 4:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m. at the Midland City Forest. 

Williams says the pandemic made it more challenging for nonprofits to raise funds as events were canceled or postponed. “We rely heavily on donations. People haven’t forgotten us,” she says. “We do need their support.”

There are about 10-15 volunteers who come in weekly, and about 1,000 students who typically tour the facility annually.

Williams continues to help volunteers sort items and repeats her mantra: “We’re not curbside pick-up; we’re different. We’re a niche. We want those harder-to-recycle items.”

Read more articles by Erika M. Hirschman.

A veteran freelance writer and former reporter with The Midland Daily News, Erika Hirschman has covered a wide array of topics in Midland County including education, human interest, local government and crime. Erika holds a journalism degree from Marygrove College/University of Detroit-Mercy.


Erika is an award-winning reporter, and has written for various newspapers and magazines in the state. When she’s not writing, Erika loves to read and travel, dance in her kitchen with her family and two dogs, and advocates for cancer treatment and research. She’s lived in Saginaw County for 25 years.