Invasive Species and Toxic Chemicals

  • The round goby is an invader in the Great Lakes... and now scientists are discovering that toxins called PCBs are accumulating in round gobies... and then those toxins are getting into fish that we eat. (Photo by David Jude)

Invasive species and toxic chemicals…

This is The Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

There are these chemicals called PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls. They were found to be toxic decades ago. The Environmental Protection Agency considers them to be probable human carcinogens. They were banned in the 1970s, but they’re still all around us. They’re buried in the sediment at the bottom of some of our rivers and lakes. Now researchers are finding invasive species are passing these old, toxic chemicals up the food web.

David Jude is a research scientist and a fish biologist at the University of Michigan.

So you found that zebra mussels and round gobies are driving this problem. How so?


“Well, the zebra mussels and the quagga mussels, which is a cousin of the zebra mussels, are filtering the water of algae and sometimes other detrital material and PCBs will absorb to that material. Therefore, they accumulate high concentrations of toxic substances including PCBs. So any organism that eats those organisms are going to accumulate PCBs in their bodies.”

RW: So the zebra mussels and quagga mussels are accumulating the PCBs…the round gobies are eating them and they’re stockpiling the PCBs in their bodies (DJ: “Exactly.”) and then here come the walleye and they eat the round gobies (“Exactly.”):

DJ: “So any walleyes that spend a lot of time in the Saginaw River eating round gobies are going to pick up a lot of PCBs because those fish are contaminated.”

RW: You studied Saginaw Bay in particular. Is this same zebra mussel, round goby, walleye connection happening in other parts of the Great Lakes?

“Yes, sometimes there may be a different top predator involved but all the Great Lakes have places where this particular food web is in operation, except for Lake Superior. And, the other point I think I should make is that, again, this study was done in a highly contaminated area. In other areas of the Great Lakes, for example in Lake Michigan, you would not see this sort of uptake of PCBs. It’s only in these contaminated areas of concern across the Great Lakes that we’re seeing this sort of a pattern.”

RW: So what does this mean for people who like to catch and eat walleye?

“The bigger the fish, which we found in this study, the more contaminants that they’re going to have. So you should be eating smaller fish and you should do everything you can to get rid of the fat.”

RW: And that’s because PCBs collect in fat, right?

DJ: “Yes, exactly right.”

RW: So this applies, what you’re finding applies to other kinds of fish as well?

“Well, I would think so. You could, by analogy, suggest that other fatty fish are probably picking up a lot higher levels than what we’re seeing in the walleyes.”

RW: So if I’m at the fish market, what kinds of Great Lakes fish would I be best off buying?

“Well, small fish. I’d get small fish first and then I would get yellow perch if I could do that. They would probably be the lowest contamination level of the ones that are there. Lake whitefish probably would be another good one for you to eat. They’re fairly low on the food chain and unfortunately they are starting to eat a lot of quagga and zebra mussels, but again, they’re eating them in areas where they’re not as highly contaminated as they would be in an area of concern. So, you possibly could get some that were eating these zebra mussels and quagga mussels in an area of concern so they could be contaminated but in general, I would say lake whitefish might be a good species to eat.”

RW: David Jude is a research scientist and a fish biologist at the University of Michigan. Thank you so much for coming in.

“My pleasure.”

That’s The Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Selling Asian Carp to China

  • Commercial fisherman Gary Shaw shows off his silver and big head Asian carp, just before handing them off to Big River Fish, an Illinois company that has landed a major contract to send carp to a Chinese food company. (Photo courtesy of Ross Harano)

This little Asian carp went to market….

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

You probably know Illinois wants to stop Asian carp from getting into Lake Michigan. Biologists say one solution would be to fish the carp out of the Illinois River at a big, commercial scale. That way they won’t expand their feeding range to Chicago, the Great Lakes and beyond – at least, they hope. Entrepreneurs in Illinois want to get rich off Asian carp.

A draft plan to control Asian carp
An Environment Report story about another Asian carp entrepreneur

More info about the new carp deal


Shawn Allee tells us about the company that’s closest to grabbing the brass ring.

Last December, biologists got scared Asian carp were getting close to Lake Michigan, so they poisoned rivers near Chicago.

That’s when Ross Harano got a call. Harano is an international trade agent in Chicago.

“A friend of mine was in China, working for the largest beef processing company. He read about these fish being killed, poisoned, and wondered what the heck is going on because they’re a delicacy there.”

Harano’s friend works for the Beijing Zhuochen Animal Husbandry Company – it’s like the Kraft Foods of China.

“The company in china had decided to do a marketing study and they felt there was demand for a high-end, wild asian carp. Shawn: ‘Why would that be?’
All these fish they are getting now are raised in these rivers that are polluted and the farm-raised taste muddy, evidently. Shawn: ‘At least in China.’
At least in China. And so, they liked the idea of a fish that jumps out of the water and has all this energy.”

Harano’s friend asked if he could send Illinois’ perky Asian carp to China.

Harano just happened to know Big River Fish, a processor in Southwestern Illinois.

Harano said, have your company come see our fish.

“They sent a representative over who’s a food expert for their company and we cooked some Asian carp for him, according to his recipes.
Shawn: Down in southwestern Illinois.
Down in Pearl, Illinois. Mr. Yang is his name. He said this is the best Asian carp he’s had since he was a child. So, based upon that, Mr. Yang signed a memorandum saying, yes, we want to look into this further. They’re very interested in 30 million pounds of the fish. I said we don’t have that capacity, we could probably do ten.”

This meant trouble.

Harano says the Chinese company was firm: deliver thirty million pounds of carp – or no deal.

But Harano’s client, Big River Fish, would need a new factory.

And right here, Harano’s client hit a problem other Asian carp entrepreneurs hit: they’ve got ideas to sell Asian carp, but they don’t have money to expand or even start their business.

Big River Fish only had half the money … so it asked Illinois’ state government for two million dollars.

The state gave it.

“There was a gap and that’s where we step in to help meet the gap.”

This is Warren Ribley – the head of Illinois’ Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

“Anything we can do to help reduce those populations is just a good thing not only from an environmental point of view, but helps create jobs.”

Well, Ribley’s dead-on with the jobs part, but he’s kinda right on the environmental argument.

Biologists say commercial fishing can help control Asian carp, but Illinois needs huge operations, and lots of them.

The Big River company’s deal with China starts this fall. It’s a big deal, but it’s the only deal.

In fact – it’s the only company on the Illinois River that’s gotten this much state help … even though other companies hope to turn carp into pet food, fertilizer, even carp patties to feed state prisoners.

“Those are not yet as proven… this was a case with a contract they had to be ready to enter into and to deliver as many fish as you can.

Ribley says his agency is conservative with grant money because it doesn’t want to subsidize carp businesses that will fail.

But there’s no other help for Asian carp start-ups.

So for now, any Asian carp gold rush in Illinois is just gonna have to wait.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

A lot of environmentalists wonder whether it makes sense to build a business on a fish a lot of people hope disappears.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Oil Spill Creates Manufacturing Boom

  • A truck loaded up with boom for the Gulf spill cleanup. (Photo by Nikki Motson)

The Gulf oil spill and a manufacturing boom…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

When the BP oil spill started polluting the Gulf three months ago, a lot of unemployed workers in Michigan might not have guessed it would affect their daily lives.

But BP reached out to some Michigan companies to build oil boom for containment and cleanup efforts down in the Gulf.

Nikki Motson has more:

A related Environment Report story on the Kalamazoo River oil spill
An Environment Report story about seafood and the Gulf spill


Marysville, Michigan in St. Clair County was once part of the thriving manufacturing belt. Now the region is scattered with empty factories that once supplied the auto industry.

The operations that are still running have found ways to innovate and be flexible to changing trends. Fagerdala USA is among them.

Fagerdala received good news last year when Wham-O toys moved their manufacturing of kids’ products from China back to the US.

The Marysville plant was chosen to take over production of items like the pool noodles kids play with in summer. But they still struggled.

In Grand Rapids, Prestige Products had a modest staff of five employees making vinyl awnings for businesses and homes. But in the depressed economy business was down.

Then oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP oil spill. As the bad news was hitting residents along the Gulf states, good news came to Michigan.

BP was looking for people who could make enormous amounts of boom, and that meant Prestige and Fagerdala would hire as many people as their factories could hold.

The word spread quickly, and many unemployed workers in Michigan responded.

Each company hired about ten times more workers than their usual staff – within days. They moved quickly to transform themselves into major oil boom producers.

Charlie Cronenworth is plant manager at Fagerdala, USA.

“You know as unfortunate as it is, there’s also a bunch of people that are now working to help clean the thing up. We all feel for them, no differently than I’m sure they felt for us when the automotive industry went upside down.”

Josh Gierman was among the new hires. He has 2 kids, with another on the way. He had been looking for work since last winter.

“I was collecting unemployment. I really don’t have any free time anymore. Usually by the time I get home I’m pretty wore out. I don’t do much other than hang out with the kids.”

But Gierman says he didn’t mind working 56 hours a week, and doing work that might help the situation in the Gulf states.

Brian Rickel was the guy who first received the call from BP. He works in emergency response and leak repair. Rickel says he brought the multimillion dollar contract to Michigan because the manufacturing workforce is so strong.

“It’s hard to believe but you can go other places in the country and you can’t find the labor force. The labor force here has been phenomenal. And they all want to work. They really wanna work.”

As news of the BP oil spill worsened, production ramped up at both companies and boom was being pumped out 24/7.

Then the wellhead of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig was finally capped.

Brian Rickel had been watching the massive cleanup efforts in the Gulf and he was sure the demand for boom would continue. But the contract with BP was up in the air.

Last week, a second oil spill happened even closer to home. An oil pipeline from Enbridge Energy burst and released an estimated 1 million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Some people thought the new spill might be an opportunity to keep these Michigan companies hard at work. But Enbridge and the EPA reached out to a list of predetermined contractors for the boom needed to contain the spill.

Then the Michigan companies got more bad news. BP did not renew its contract.

Today, most of the new hires are once again among Michigan’s abundant unemployed.

But Fagerdala and Prestige now have all the equipment they need and a list of hard working people they can contact, if they have the opportunity to build boom again.

For The Environment Report, I’m Nikki Motson.

Rehab for Oil-Covered Animals

  • A team feeds a bird that's recovering from exposure to the Kalamazoo River oil spill in Michigan. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Canada geese and mallard ducks and turtles and muskrats… covered in oil.

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

A lot of birds and animals can get caught up in one million gallons of crude oil. No one knows yet exactly how many birds, mammals, turtles, frogs and fish have been affected by the Kalamazoo oil spill. But more than 90 animals have been brought into a wildlife rehab center in Marshall.

How to volunteer for the cleanup
How to report oil-covered wildlife
More about the oil spill from


More than half of them are Canada geese. There are more than 30 turtles, and there are several muskrats, swans, and mallard ducks.

(construction sounds)

In a matter of days, workers turned this old casino into an animal hospital. When I visited last week, the decontamination room was still under construction. This is where the birds and animals are being washed this week – in Dawn dish soap.

(sound fades under)

When the birds and animals are brought in, they’re first taken to the intake room – that’s what you’d think of as the emergency room. There, the animal caretakers draw blood, and take vital signs. This area is library-quiet. The workers don’t want to bother the animals… and the animals aren’t making much noise either.

Linda Elliott is with Focus Wildlife. It’s a company that specializes in emergency wildlife rehab after oil spills. They’re the group heading up the animal rescue here. She says people sometimes assume you can just bring animals in and clean the oil off. But she says they’re stressed out… and sometimes in big trouble.

“Sometimes we see anemia problems, dehydration, usually because they’ve been oiled they haven’t been feeding in a while so they’re nutritionally deprived. So we need to get that all taken care of before we put them through the process.”

There are veterinarians here and other volunteers… and everyone’s wearing white zip-up Tyvek suits to protect themselves from the oil. The middle room is full of plywood cages covered in white sheets. Across the room, three people are tube-feeding a swan.

Linda Elliott says they’ll feed the birds the same stuff little kids get when they’re dehydrated: Pedialyte and Ensure, both plain and vanilla flavors.

“And then depending on the species a kingfisher loves live fish, and geese, we hope to get them on grains and dry food and greens.”

After the animals are stable, they’ll go through the washing process… and then on to the drying room. Then they’ll go to the outdoor recovery area to get their strength back. Then, when biologists say the animals are ready, they’ll be released.

Linda Elliott says they hope for a 100% survival rate. But it depends on a lot of things… the weather, how quickly the animals were brought in, the type of oil.

“We’ve had responses with 100% success rate and responses where it’s been in the teens but I think this one is looking very good and we’re looking at hopefully having a high success rate here as well but we won’t know until it’s over.”

Two turtles were released to Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek yesterday. Biologists are still figuring out where the rest of the animals will be released.

Michael Sertle is a biologist with Ducks Unlimited for Western Michigan. He says it can be tricky to relocate birds, especially Canada Geese.

“There’s numerous studies that show if you move Canada Geese, you can move them states away literally and as soon as they can fly they’ll return right back to the wetland you took them off of, and ducks exhibit those same characteristics not quite as strong as Canada Geese.”

Sertle says hopefully, the oil will be cleaned up by the time the birds try to return home. He’s also concerned about the fall migration. He says all kinds of migratory birds might try to land and look for food on the oil spill site… and even if the spill is largely cleaned up… the birds’ normal food sources might not be there.

Experts say if you see an oiled animal, the best thing you can do is to leave it alone… but call the oil spill hotline and report where you saw it. You can find that number on our website, environment report dot org.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Oil Spilled While No One Reacted

  • Booms across the river to try to contain the spill. Governor Granholm has called the cleanup efforts inadequate. (Photo by Steve Carmody)

One of the biggest oil spills ever in the Midwest.
An underground pipeline that carries crude oil from Indiana to Ontario sprung a leak earlier this week. The EPA estimates more than 1 million gallons of oil have spilled into a creek near Marshall, Michigan. Now oil has flowed into the Kalamazoo River.

Government warns Enbridge of potential problems
A Pattern: another Enbridge pipeline spills oil
Background on the company


Officials are hoping to stop the oil before it gets into Morrow Lake, which is about 60 miles from Lake Michigan.

(UPDATE 6:15pm – 7/29/10: The EPA and Enbridge say the oil has not reached Morrow Lake. Several dozen homes in the area are being evacuated)

Here’s Police Captain Tom Sands. He did a flyover Wednesday afternoon to assess the damage.

SANDS: Some of the oil has gone over the dam and it’s a very light sheen at that point, once the water mixes over the dam you see a little bit of sheen on the river.

GRANHOLM: The situation is very serious.

That’s Governor Granholm. She says Enbridge Energy Partners, the Canadian company responsible for the leak, and the EPA had promised to send more resources to try to contain the spill.

GRANHOLM: And the new resources that have been provided so far are wholly inadequate.

Health officials say the area where the spill occurred is highly toxic. They want people to stay away from the river. That means no boating, no fishing, no swimming.
When I drove to Marshall yesterday, I could smell the oil from the highway. Basically everywhere you go in Marshall you can smell the oil.
Kayla Nelson lives in Marshal and she says it’s bad.

NELSON: I’m kinda scared to drink the water but I’m not sure. I haven’t heard anything but I’m just kind scared myself to drink it.

EPA officials are testing the water to see if it’s safe to drink. A county official I talked to said if people are worried about it, they should not boil the water. Instead, he recommends drinking bottled water.

Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra has also been following the story. So Jen, Enbridge has promised to not only pay for the cleanup but to cleanup everything. Is that really possible?

GUERRA: Well, I talked to Peter Adriaens, he’s a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, and he says no.

ADRIAENS: We cannot restore the site to exactly to what it was before any spill occurred. All we can remedy it as much as possible, minimize the exposure of wildlife and we can minimize health effects and we can try to contain it.

GUERRA: The official cause of the leak is unknown. Enbridge did shut down the pipeline, but there are questions as to when Enbridge knew about the leak and when they reported it to the authorities.

WILLIAMS: Right, residents like Debbie Trescott say they could smell oil on Sunday. She lives southwest of Marshall.

TRESCOTT: Sunday morning I came in to get groceries and it was about 9:30 in the morning, maybe 10 o’clock and I smelled this oil. This was just horrible, and as I almost got to A drive it was just a horrible smell and I knew then that something must be wrong.

WILLIAMS: So, Trescott smelled oil Sunday morning, but the energy company says they didn’t detect the spill until around 10:30 Monday morning.

GUERRA: Right, so now that the oil is there, we wondered what the long term effects are. I asked Peter Adriaens, he’s the professor at U of M, and he said one of the many chemicals in oil is benzene. It’s a neurotoxin, which is bad, so if you have a big oil spill like the one in the Kalmazoo River in the summer, that benzene can evaporate and gets into the air quickly.

ADRIAENS: Inhalation of high concentrations in the air is very toxic from neurological and a number of other perspectives.

GUERRA: Again, that’s a possible long term effect.

WILLIAMS: Thanks Jen

GUERRA: Thanks.

WILLIAMS: The smell is so bad in Marshall, that a lot of people near the spill site are relocating to hotels, but now all the hotels in the area are booked, so the Red Cross has set up a shelter for people who want to leave their homes. The energy company officials say they’ll have frequent updates, but last night they canceled a press conference two minutes before it was scheduled to begin.
That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Greenovation: New Storm Windows

  • Matt Grocoff’s 110-year-old house was recently painted with eco-friendly paint and new storm windows cover refurbished wood windows. Grocoff is attempting to make his house the oldest net-zero energy home in America. (Photo by Lester Graham)

We’ve been following Matt Grocoff with Greenovation.TV as he tries to make his home the oldest net-zero energy house in America. Last time we talked to him, instead of replacing his windows, he was refurbishing the 110-year-old wood framed windows. Lester Graham checked to see just how well that worked.
More from Greenovation.TV
The Clean Energy Coalition
Repairing old windows


The old windows in Matt’s house were drafty, but he didn’t like the idea of all the resources, energy and cost that replacing the windows meant. He got some help and took them apart, got them working right, painted them, and sealed the window panes the gaps. Today is the big test.

(blower sound)

Nick Helmoholdt with with the Clean Energy Coalition. He’s conducting a blower door test to see whether the Grocoff house is any tighter.

LG: “What kind of improvement did just refurbishing the old windows do for the house?”

NH: “Roughly two-thirds the air infiltration was reduced.”

LG: “Is this typical when you see a house just replace the windows?”

NH: “I have never seen this before. I am very impressed with the amount of leakage that was reduced from this repair. This is really, really impressive.”

So a 66-percent reduction in air infiltration by just fixing up the old windows.
Matt Grocoff is pretty happy.

MG: “I think it’s a lot better than new windows because we’ve proven you can make these old windows way more energy efficient and for a lot less money.”
LG: “But that’s not today’s project. Today’s project is putting these storm windows on which, I have to say, really look nice.”

MG: “It looks great! The house looks amazing right now, and especially in a historic district, putting a good storm window on is accepted by a lot of historic associations. The big bang for the buck that we’re going to get out of these storm windows is the Low-E glass that we have and a little bit of thermal insulation by creating a secondary glazing. What that means is that we have almost the equivelent of a dual-pane window.”

LG: “You mentioned Low-E glass. What’s that and what does it do?”

MG: “Low-E stands for low emissivity and what that means is that Low-E glass is just an invisible coating that keeps the heat from coming into your house and heating it up like a greenhouse. I can show you right here. If you put your hand here, we’ve got just a single pane up right now.”

LG: “Yeah, I can feel the sunshine coming through.”

MG: “And you can feel the sill, and you switch this up, pull the sill down with the Low-E glass, you can feel almost instantly how much cooler it is. You don’t get that greenhouse heat coming through.”

LG: “Cool.”

MG: “The other cool benefit is that it filters out all the UV light so it prevents your furniture from getting bleached and everything. We’ve got that red sofa over there facing a south wall. So, we could use all the help we can to help our furniture from fading.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think about storm windows, I think of those old bare aluminum windows that just weren’t all that attractive. Those days are past. Bill Trapp with the George W. Trapp Company supplied these new windows… and he says they come in a lot of colors to match paint schemes.

BT: “And we have people from all over the country calling us right now, getting storm windows in grey and red and green and all these different colors. And also, there are different levels of storm windows as well and I like to think we make the tightest one out there.”
LG: “Well, I can’t verify that, but they did pass the ole Matt Grocoff test, so Matt that’s the windows. Thanks, and I’ll talk to you on your next project on the house.”

MG: “Thank you, Lester, and here’s to staying cool.”

That’s Matt Grocoff with Greenovation.TV. I’m Lester Graham with The Environment Report.

Cats Clogging Computers

  • Dander from pets and household dust are the enemy of keeping computers cool. (Photo by Mattes - creative commons license)

You probably know to let your computer go to sleep when you’re not using it to save energy. Your monitor at work might be set to shut off automatically, but as Ann Dornfeld reports, your computer’s energy efficiency may have an unexpected enemy – your pets.

How to clean your computer

Tips on computer vacuuming from the Guru Guys

Department of Energy’s advice on when to turn off your computer


Alex Mamishev is an electrical engineering professor at the University of Washington. He says modern computers have a lot of energy-saving features built in. Like screens that dim when you aren’t using them, and hibernation mode as the default setting, but he says despite these high-tech strides toward energy efficiency, some decidedly low-tech things can mess it all up. Like pillows, and pet hair. That’s because they can block the vents to the computers internal fans.

“When the computer gets clogged, the fans have to work harder. If you put a computer on a – a laptop on a pillow, for example, and leave it on a pillow for a while it’ll overheat and eventually stop.”

Dust can block the vents, too. When your computer’s vents get blocked, the fans can run constantly. Mamishev says that’s a big energy suck.

“It could, depending where you are, how expensive energy is, could add several hundred dollars per year to an energy bill.”

“Several hundred dollars per year?”


Mamishev says the bigger the processor, the more easily a computer overheats. So he doesn’t worry about his tiny netbook like he does his heavy-duty office computer.

“My five-year-old has even more powerful computer for his gaming. Typical, the child has the most powerful computer in the house.”

Mamishev says office computers don’t tend to get as dusty as home computers because offices are often vacuumed frequently.

“I have very clean office here. There are books, it’s only me here usually. Household is different. I know that at my home, this backside of computer looks horrible.”

One reason? Cats.

“Pets are typically drawn to the warmth of the computer, and the hair definitely clogs up the filter.”

“So if when you come home from work your cat is sleeping on your laptop you might want to vacuum it.”

“Vacuum the cat?”

“It’s a start.”

Mamishev says vacuuming is actually the best way to clean dust and pet hair out of your computer’s vents. You can even buy a tiny vacuum that plugs into your computer’s USB port, but Mamishev says a regular vacuum should work fine.

My friend Andrea and I gave it a shot.

“Okay, so we have one laptop with a loud fan and some dust in the vent holes… our upright vacuum, our wand and the little brush that came with it, and we’re just going to hold it up to the vents…”

(sound of vacuuming)

“What do you think? Is that good enough?

“Does that look cleaner? I dunno! Oh yeah, it is cleaner! It looks cleaner.”

“So we can go take ourselves out to dinner and celebrate, right?”

“With the extra money we’re gonna save now. (laughs) Right. (laughs) Drinks on me!”

Along with vacuuming your computer’s vents, Alex Mamishev says you should keep the computer in a well-ventilated area. That means placing your tower computer away from heaters, and letting air circulate around it. For laptops, avoid setting them on soft surfaces like the bed or sofa for long periods. Mamishev says there’s another way to make your computer more energy efficient. Just turn it off.

I’m Ann Dornfeld.

I ran this idea by our systems administrator, Rusty Brach, and he says it is safe to vacuum the outside case of your computer and the keyboard.  But he says you want to use extreme caution before you vacuum the inside of your computer.  If you do that, you’ll want to use a small, battery powered vacuum, ground yourself and be very careful. The static electricity could nuke your hard drive, so be careful!  If this makes you a little bit nervous, you can also use canned air on the inside and the outside of your computer.  You can get more advice on vacuuming your computer at environment report dot org.  I’m Rebecca Williams.

Recycling Made Easier

  • The Environment Report

No more sorting…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Let’s be honest. Recycling can be a pain. Sorting out the glass from the plastic from the paper… takes a lot of time. But some communities in Michigan have switched to recycling you can do with your eyes closed. It’s called single stream recycling.
An animated video explaining single stream
Single stream in Grand Rapids
Midland goes single stream


You can just toss everything into one cart… and your city’s new recycling facility sorts it for you.

At least 25 communities in Michigan already have this system. It’s rolling out this summer in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Midland. And it’s coming soon to Lansing.

Curt Curavo manages the Materials Recovery Facility in Ann Arbor. He says the new system uses machines and people to sift through the materials.

“If you’re a kid and you go to the beach and you’re playing with the sifters, making sandcastles and as you go through you want the smaller sand to go in one direction, larger granules in another, rocks in a third, and that’s essentially what we do.”

The system uses optical scanners – devices that scan the belt to sort materials. Then the machine shoots a blast of air to blow plastic bottles up onto a different belt and separate it from the paper.

(Sound under…)

Experts say this kind of system increases how much a city recycles… and saves on landfill fees.

Jim Frey is a recycling consultant with Resource Recycling Systems and he’s been involved with implementing these new systems throughout the Midwest.

I asked him what this’ll mean for homeowners:

“Communities across the country that have done this double, triple the amount of recycling they do at the home. Amongst the things here locally, that you’ll be able in the Ann Arbor area to recycle, is you’ll be able to add large plastic containers – this will be kitty litter buckets, five-gallon pails, plastic furniture that’s been broken, along with what we call all plastic bottles along with plastic containers, except for Styrofoam and number three – what happens is when you add all those things up, as much as three quarters, 75 percent, of what your home generates, probably can go in your recycling bin.”

So in Ann Arbor, with this new system, you’re actually going to be rewarding people for recycling. How is this going to work?

“So the citizen, the household, will have their cart and their cart actually has a small identification chip on it that recognizes when that cart is actually being moved by the truck and each recycling event then becomes recorded and it then allows the householder to earn points. Then you can reimburse those points for gift cards that you essentially have the range of thousands of different options. The value for a home on an annual basis can be anywhere on average anywhere from about 240 dollars to as high as over 500 dollars a year. Most families would like that.”

If my community doesn’t have single stream recycling, how do I get it?

“Fortunately, as more of these recycling facilities are developed across the country and across Michigan, many communities will be able to say ‘where’s the nearest one?’ And once they find out where that facility is they can actually contract directly with that facility to take their recyclables there and we actually encourage that because one of the things that does is it allows that facility for years and years and years and years and years and years to be the place where all of your recyclables go. So most places in the southern part of Michigan have a place where they could make arrangements to take their curbside recyclables to and that’s really what Michigan needs to do across the state.”

Jim Frey is a recycling consultant with Resource Recycling Systems. Thank you so much for your time.

“It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.”

You can see a behind-the-scenes video of single stream recycling at environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Thanks to Suzy Vuljevic for her help with this story.

Fixing a Broken Ecosystem

  • Steve Dahl is a commercial fisher on the North Shore of Lake Superior. When he's fishing for herring, Dahl pulls his gill net up and passes it across his boat, plucking herring from the mesh. (Photo by Stephanie Hemphill)

For decades, exotic species have been invading the Great Lakes and mixing up the ecosystem. A few years ago the constant changes led to the collapse of the food web in Lake Huron. That event has gotten people interested in restoring native fish with the hope that they’ll be more stable, but as Peter Payette reports, not everyone wants the food web in the Great Lakes to look exactly like it did a century ago.
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Once upon a time, every Great lake was stuffed with lake herring. Trout would feast on them and so would people all over the Midwest, sometimes smoking or pickling the white flaky meat. Herring can grow more than two feet long. Every year commercial fishing nets would haul tens of millions of pounds of herring out of the lakes.

Fisheries biologist Mark Ebener says herring, or cisco, would lay so many eggs in the fall it was a food source for other fish. Ebener says it still is in Superior.

“You go into parts of Lake Superior in December and the whitefish are just gorged on cisco eggs.”

But herring largely disappeared from the lakes in the middle of the last century for a variety of reasons including overfishing. Biologists like Mark Ebener thinks restoring the fish should be a top priority. He’s with Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority.  It’s a tribal fishing agency based in Sault Ste. Marie. Some Michigan tribes have commercial fishing rights on the Great Lakes that date back to treaties signed in the 19th century. They’d like the states to be more aggressive about restoring native species. Ebener says if we want a stable ecosystem in the lakes, herring are crucial. 

“It was the prey species. So if you want to restore the connectivity of the lakes and the historic predator-prey dynamics, why would you ignore herring”

 While nobody would admit to ignoring the fish, figuring out exactly what happened to lake herring has not been a priority, but that’s changing.

Grand Traverse Bay is the only place herring are still known to breed in Lake Michigan. State fisheries biologists have been coming to this breeding ground near Elk Rapids for three years. The Department of Natural Resources and Environment wants to know why this remnant population doesn’t expand. Randy Claramont is the team leader. He says the primary suspect is an invasive fish that eats new born herring. They just picked one up in the net.

“There’s our predator. There’s a rainbow smelt. Right in where the cisco are, we also got an adult rainbow smelt.”

It’s not likely that a large scale effort to restore herring as the main prey fish in Lake Michigan would have universal support. That’s because the state is also responsible for managing the lake’s popular salmon fishery. Salmon are not native to the Great Lakes but are generally considered to be the most exciting sport fish to catch. Lots of anglers come up north to do this, so politically speaking, the salmon has clout.

 Jim Dexter, the Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Michigan DNRE, doesn’t think salmon like to eat herring.

 “One thing that’s important to remember is that if you have a huge herring population,  I don’t think you’ll be able to maintain the type of salmon sport fishery that we currently have.”

But it’s a different story in Lake Huron where the salmon disappeared in 2004. That was after the food web, dominated by exotic species, crashed. The upheaval has sparked interest in rebuilding a more stable ecosystem, and that’s why the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association actively supports efforts to reestablish the herring in Huron. The state planted 40,000 herring there last year. Managers of the project think they’ll need to plant a million fish a year for a number of years to reestablish the species in the lake. That would cost millions of dollars.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

Replumbing Chicago to Keep Carp Out

  • These fish get big. They eat a lot, and if they get into the Great Lakes, people worry they'll swallow up the food web. (Photo by the USFWS)

You might recall that Michigan got a kind of asian carp scare a few weeks back. Biologists found one asian carp near Chicago, past an electric barrier that was supposed to keep them away from Lake Michigan. They worry if carp make it to the Great Lakes and rivers in Michigan, they could crowd out native fish. Congress worries the barrier might not be enough and it wants a more permanent solution. Shawn Allee reports that won’t happen anytime soon.

“Eco-Sep” – The Corps of Engineers’ Study

Brush up on your Asian Carp Knowledge

More on the Electric Barriers


Joel Brammeier’s with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an advocacy group. When I meet him, I expect him to be completely freakin’ out, since just a few weeks ago biologists found one live Asian carp on the Great Lakes side of the electric carp barrier. That’s the, um, wrong side of the barrier, since we want Asian carp to stay on the other side, the side closer to the Mississippi. Anyway, Brammeier’s is either a good actor, or maybe he actually feels OK, since now other people, the right people, are freakin’ out, too. Those would be people in Congress.

“We’ve seen over the past few months, more energy devoted to predicting and preventing a crisis to the Great Lakes than I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Brammeier says Congress doubts that electric barriers, poisons, or other gadgets will keep the carp out of Lake Michigan for good, so there’s talk about the mack daddy of Asian carp prevention: hydrological separation. This just means cutting off canals that connect Lake Michigan to rivers that head west. That’d make it impossible for carp to swim to the Lake.

“I think what folks are realizing now is that the only way to achieve that is physical separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. That’s easy to say, but it’s incredably difficult to conceptualize how that happens.”

Brammeier says the good news is that back in 2007, Congress already asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to figure all this out. The bad news is that the study’s moving too slow for Congress. The Army Corps was planning to finish its proposal in, say, five years. Tomorrow, a U.S. Senate committee will debate asking the Corps to speed things up. They want the study finished in less than two years.

“Twelve to eighteen months with the right people, the right funding and leadership strikes me as a generous amount of time to get the answers we need.  It’s simply a matter of prioritization.”

“To do that in 18 months in my and my team’s opinion is not a reasonable assumption.”

This is Dave Wethington. He’s in charge of the study for the Army Corps of Engineers. Wethington says the real issue isn’t whether the Corps can propose some way of separating Lake Michigan from rivers that head west. He says it can do that. It’s that that there’s a lot to consider.

“What kind of impacts could there be to commercial shipping, passenger boats, recreational boats. What kind of flood risk could there be, to the Chicago area specifically.”

None of this is enough for some Michigan congressmen. Representative Dave Camp is from the 4th district.

“The problem is that it’s taking far too long. This will speed that up. What we’re trying to bring is this sense of urgency to the problem that, frankly, the bureacrats don’t get.”

Camp admits even if he gets his study eighteen months from now, he’d still have a problem. Re-jiggering the water canals around Chicago won’t be cheap, and there’d probably be a fight over that, too. Still, he says he’d rather have that fight sooner rather than later. After all, we might still have time to stop the carp’s invasion, but we’re pressing our luck if we wait too long.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

By the way, we still don’t know where that carp that was caught beyond the electric barrier came from.  Scientists are using DNA tests to figure out whether it just swam through the barrier or whether someone released it into the wild. Biologists say that happens from time to time.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.