Living Sustainably: Holland’s Long Recycling History Evolves Again

By Aaron Thelenwood, City of Holland

The City of Holland has a history of established best practices in recycling as evidenced by a long-standing city ordinance requiring recycling service for all residential users as well a designated single hauler to service the city’s residents – two factors which promote active recycling participation and success.

City residents are also committed to recycling, with a recycling participation rate of 53 percent, a rate that is rare across the state of Michigan, generally, and puts Holland as a leading community when compared to statistics across the U.S. Despite all of this support, from time-to-time it becomes important for the city to review its practices and ensure we’re staying on the leading edge.

Over the years, the city’s method for collecting recycling has taken several forms. Prior to 1992, the city had an open system, where residents were able to contract directly with individual haulers and opt-in or out of recycling services as they saw fit.

In May, 1992, Holland adopted a single hauler model, requiring the collection of recyclables in an 18-gallon bin, the common method at that time. In 2010, the city chose to pursue an innovative approach to recycling which aimed to streamline and simplify the city’s approach. By adopting the yellow bag system, recyclables and trash could be collected with the same truck, which, in turn, simplified collection for residents.

In 2016, however, the rumblings of major changes across recycling markets began to arise, and the city started laying the groundwork for assessing its current recycling efforts and gathering the necessary data to make informed decisions.

In 2018, through a partnership of the city, Republic Services, and the Sustainable Research Group, Holland completed its first-ever Waste Characterization Audit and shortly after formed its Materials Management Taskforce. This Taskforce built upon the data from this audit and began completing further assessments both of the program and other community approaches to recycling.

As a backdrop to all of this work, China, the world’s former largest importer of recycling materials, closed off its markets. Communities internationally as well in Michigan felt the impact immediately. The fallout from this change was plain: Materials needed to be cleaner, accepted materials in programs needed to be more targeted, and communities needed to be ready to innovate.

With the effort Holland put forth preparing for this change, the city was in a position to respond quickly. Despite the high participation rate of city residents, materials were being lost due to the deficiency in the performance of the yellow bags (75 percent ruptured or empty). This, compounded by the low levels of allowable contamination accepted by material processors (from 10 percent to less than 0.5 percent) led the Taskforce to determine the city needed to explore a new approach.

Since then, the city has decided to transition to dedicated carts for recycled materials, although an implementation date has not yet been set.
As the city is reviewing its current recycling efforts, we are also seeing major investments from the state of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy as well as from nonprofit groups focused on expanding access to recycling and decreasing contamination.

As Holland continues to evolve its long-standing commitment to community-wide recycling, we face a market with unique challenges but also an environment in Michigan where we have access to an unprecedented level of resources and support.

This Week’s Sustainability Framework Theme
Community & Neighborhood: The places we live and the individuals we interact with support the development of our personalities and perspectives on life. Encouraging vital and effective communities is essential.

Living Sustainably is a collection of community voices sharing updates about local sustainability initiatives. It is presented by the Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute, a joint project of Hope College, the City of Holland and Holland Board of Public Works. Go to for more information.

To improve the quality of its recycled materials, Holland will shift to a dedicated cart for recyclables. A date for the transition has not yet been set.
Changes in world recyclables markets requires cleaner and better sorted materials, leading Holland to review and upgrade its long-standing and high-level community efforts.