Jesse Zylstra: Prince of Recycling

Jesse Zylstra: Prince of Recycling

Questions & Answers with community faces

Jesse Zylstra (32) grew up near Copemish and graduated from Benzie Central High School in 2006. Afterward, he studied political science at Northern Michigan University and then at Grand Valley State University, though he found that he was beginning to lean more toward environmental science. During his college summers of 2006 and 2007, Zylstra moved home and worked for Maple Disposal, based out of Maple City, by running a curbside recycling route, before the company was sold to American Waste; during that same period, he also worked for the Benzie County Recycling Coordinator, who just so happened to be his mother, Marlene Wood. 

It still would be several years, however, until Zylstra would make the switch into the “green” job sector.

In 2012, Zylstra moved back to Benzie County full time, and he began working at Crystal Mountain in the conference set-up department; he became a supervisor the following spring of 2013. He then transitioned to the resort’s waste and recycling coordinator in March 2015, when he took over the primary role of collecting, managing, and diverting the waste and recycling streams. 

But the job was about to get a whole lot bigger.

Following in the footsteps of his mother, who had been the head of Benzie’s recycling program from 2004 to 2016, Zylstra took up the mantle of Recycling Coordinator for Benzie County in March 2018. This means that he manages 11 locations—including seven 24/7 single-stream recycle sites and four Packaging Corporation of America (PCA) cardboard-only trailers—in addition to running three various clean-up events throughout the year to collect household hazardous waste, electronics, and scrap tires from county residents. Though these events have dozens of volunteers, Zylstra is a county department with just one paid employee: himself. 

Zylstra is engaged to fellow Benzie Central graduate Brianne Lindsay, who also works at the Benzie County Government Center as a field appraiser for the equalization department; the couple met in high school and have been together since 2005. 

Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with the Zylstra just before Earth Day (April 22).

The Betsie Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you?

Jesse Zylstra: Every day is a bit different, which keeps the job interesting. This position is unique, as it is a one-person department, meaning I do a little bit of everything. Depending on the season, a workday could mean doing field work—illegal dumpsite clean-up, a county-wide collection event, site maintenance, etc.—or it could be spent in the office coordinating and scheduling collection events, writing grants, administrative duties, etc.

Current: How is your program funded? To whom do you report? What are the nuts and bolts?

Zylstra: My department reports directly to the County Administrator and the Board of Commissioners. Recycling is a great thing for lots of reasons, but one is directly tied to a resident’s pocketbook: they save money by utilizing the recycling program that we have here in Benzie County by cutting the cost of their trash disposal. The recycling program is funded by Public Act 69 of 2005; essentially, all households are paying a $25 annual surcharge on their annual tax bill, so residents can then take advantage of recycling at no additional charge at any of the seven single-stream locations—the red bins—all year long and participate in the annual collection events. Businesses are invited to subscribe to the program by paying a yearly fee and obtaining a permit; we currently have about 45 businesses that participate in the “Green Business Initiative,” and I highly encourage any other, new businesses to contact me if they want to be included in 2021. The County contracts with American Waste to haul and process that recycling. PCA trailers are also available for residential and business use at no charge. These cardboard-only trailers are cared for by the schools during the academic year and Scout Troops over the summer months. This past year has been a struggle of sorts, with the switch to and from virtual learning due to COVID, but the Scouts have stepped up to care for the trailers when school was not in-person. These groups benefit directly from the cardboard that is recycled at $50 per ton. Please be sure to flatten all your boxes, and remember that no other items are allowed in those trailers; styrofoam, plastic, or any other packaging is not allowed. Last year $6,172 was earned by student groups and/or Scouts/nonprofits. 

Current: We know that Michigan has set an ambitious goal of doubling our residential household recycling rate from 15 percent in 2018 to 30 percent by 2025. How much waste does Benzie County generate every year? Is that trend going up or down? Does it matter what season it is?

Zylstra: We have 100 percent possible participation in the recycling program—this means that all residents in Benzie County are allowed to participate in the drop-off locations and any county-wide collection events. Throughout the years, Benzie County continues to trend upwards, both in the amount of waste produced and the percentage of that waste diverted from landfills. Recycling volumes are lowest in the late winter months and are approximately double during our busiest month, July. For example: in February 2019, 67.65 tons were recycled, compared to 71.55 tons in February 2020 and 77.28 tons in February 2021. That’s a 15 percent increase for that one “slow” winter month over just the past two years. Compare that to the busiest summer month of July in 2019, when 131.72 tons were recycled; that jumped to 138.75 in July 2020, which is a 5 percent increase in one year, and I’ll be interested to see what we get in July 2021. To give your readers an idea of what that means, 138.75 tons is equal to 5,045 cubic yards of material. Each of the red recycle bins holds 10 cubic yards, so Benzie County is essentially going through more than 500 bins during the month of July alone.

Current: Great stats. Wow. So, that equates to about nine pounds of recycling per full-time resident in February. How has that changed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northern Michigan last March?

Zylstra: Benzie County’s recycling services were uninterrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, we had a record amount of recycling last year—over 1,205.88 tons of material were diverted from landfills through our single-stream recycling locations alone. That is up from 1,111.18 tons in 2019 and 1,093.06 tons the year before; again, a 10 percent increase over just the past three years.
Current: So, it sounds like our local recycling efforts continues to trend up, which seems like good news. Why do you think that is? How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next? Have you had any collaborations? 

Zylstra: The attitude surrounding recycling—and materials management, in general—has evolved considerably in recent years. Even 10 years ago, we didn’t think about recycling and waste reduction the way that we do now. The mindset has become much more mainstream and part of our daily routine. Occasionally, there will be an event that the County collaborates with, to provide materials or support to properly dispose of recycling. These have included local 4th of July celebrations, Crystal Mountain’s Beer and Brat Fest, Grow Benzie’s Bayou in the Barn at St. Ambrose Cellars, local river or roadside clean-up dates. We take old medications at our household hazardous waste events twice a year, but there’s also Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital and the Benzie County Sheriff’s Office who accept unwanted medications all year long. Likewise, battery recycling is available through the events, but you can also recycle them all year at all of our Township offices and various businesses all around Benzie. Each spring season, the Lake Township Hall and the City of Frankfort, at the high school PCA trailer location, provide dumpsters for garlic mustard disposal; garlic mustard is an invasive species and has to be carefully managed. It must be bagged in black garbage bags, so it isn’t able to continue growing. It should not be composted, as it will spread very rapidly. “Treecycling” has been provided for Christmas trees via Smitty’s Tree Service in previous years. In the past, before COVID, I attended the Benzie Expo for educational purposes. I’ve also spoken, upon request, to residents at Michigan Shores, for example, but most of my outreach comes from in-person/on-site interactions with recyclers or questions received in the office. The summer collection events also offer an opportunity to reach over 300 residents at each event, for any questions they might have. I also meet quarterly with the Northern Michigan Materials Management Advisory Committee (MMAC); this includes 10 counties in Northern Michigan. There are Michigan Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) recycling specialists that also attend these meetings.

Current: Speaking of our neighboring counties, some have curbside recycling instead of or in addition to the 24/7 single-stream locations. And we know that you yourself ran a curbside recycling route in Grand Traverse County back when you were still a teenager. Is there a plan to bring curbside recycling to Benzie? What are the pros and cons?

Zylstra: With Benzie being such a rural county, curbside recycling is a challenge. In the future, I would like to see curbside as an option offered within the Villages and the City of Frankfort and hopefully expand to all residents who would like to participate. This would make it easier and more convenient for residents to recycle and would also relieve some volume at the drop-off locations. Currently, drop-off locations are the only option to recycle, though. 

Current: And what about the upcoming events this year? What should people know about those?

Zylstra: There are currently two county-wide collection events scheduled for the 2021 season. The first Household Hazardous Waste/Electronics/Scrap Tire event will be held Saturday, June 19, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Frankfort High School. The second and final event will be held Saturday, August 14, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Benzie County Road Commission in Honor. Appointments are required for each event, in order to monitor traffic flow, and can be made by emailing or by calling 231-882-0554. “Household hazardous waste” includes oil-based paints, stains, thinners; auto fluids; pesticides; chemicals; medications; batteries; various light bulbs, fluorescent light tubes, etc. Those items which do not belong in the landfill or down the drain, essentially. Scrap tires are accepted at $1 per tire and can be on- or off-rim; only passenger tires will be accepted. This portion of the events are sponsored by a scrap tire clean-up grant from EGLE.

Current: What are three big things that our readers should know?

Zylstra: It’s important to remember there is an order of operation to the “three R’s.” First: Reduce your consumption. Buy in bulk when possible, be mindful of an item’s packaging, consider how much of something you actually need. Second: Reuse whenever possible. Many items have a chance at a second life; sometimes you just have to get creative. Third: Recycle! Look for the recycle triangle and a number 1-7 on packaging. We’re fortunate in Benzie that all numbers of plastics are recyclable in the red bins. It didn’t used to be like that, and some people still think only numbers 1 and 2 are recyclable, for instance; that’s not the case! Or they think that they can’t recycle plastic bags; they can! Be wary, though, of “wish-cycling.” In other words, sometimes, in an effort to avoid landfilling certain items, they end up in a recycle bin when they really shouldn’t. People “wish” that these items were recyclable, so they try sneaking it in. Please, always check if an item is recyclable before placing it in the bin. “When in doubt, throw it out,” because otherwise it ends up costing more time and money for it to be fished out of the recycling stream later. Also, always be sure that your recycling is clean and loose. This helps the sorting process move efficiently and safely. The exception to this rule is shredded paper and plastic bags: these items should be bagged, so that they don’t blow around at the single-stream recycling locations and cause a mess. Also, leaving any items outside the bins or putting trash inside the bins is considered illegal dumping, and violators will be fined up to $500 and could receive up to 90 days in jail. Illegal dumping jeopardizes the recycling program. Additionally, for those who are wondering what to do with their empty bottles and cans: donate! Many local programs are accepting them for good causes. But please, do not leave any of these items outside of the recycling bins.

Current: As someone who left for a time and came back, we call you a “Benzie Boomerang.” What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job? What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area? What else does Northern Michigan/Benzie County need?

Zylstra: Rural internet access and affordable housing options continue to be a challenge to many in our community. The most rewarding part of the job is knowing we all are making a difference! Benzie County continues to grow in participation at each and every location and event. Last year our residential diversion rate from the landfill was just over 27 percent; meanwhile, the state average currently sits at approximately 18 percent.
Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes? What does your perfect spring day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?

Zylstra: Spending time outdoors is a must. Kayaking, disc golf, hiking. We recently have found that Geocaching is a great way to find new and interesting destinations—highly recommended for anyone looking for a new way to explore! 

Visit “Benzie County Recycling” on Facebook, or to learn more. Call 231-882-0554 or email  for more information.

Featured Photo Caption: Jesse Zylstra has been the Benzie County Recycling Coordinator since March 2018; his mother, Marlene Wood, who had this same role from 2004 to 2016, was affectionately called by some “Marlene, Marlene, the Recycling Queen.” That makes Zylstra a prince. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker. 

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