The 3 R's in the D

Sorry big old incinerator, but more and more Detroit residents would rather reduce-reuse-recycle than watch their trash go up in smoke.

Go to one of Recycle Here's locations on a drop-off day and there is steady stream of people coming through. It's a case of supply starting to meet demand. Organizers have watched the demand for recycling, along with the amount of material recycled, leap in the last few years. In turn, residents' recycling options have proliferated at a steady clip.

"This has exploded pretty quickly," says Jason Tobin, director of recycling for Recy-clean, a leading organization behind Detroit's fledgling recycling effort. "At this point we're just trying to keep up with all of the growth. Every month, it has been growing bigger and bigger. We have been getting more and more material."

The numbers are pretty impressive so far. Recycle Here now has four mobile recycling centers throughout the city and one permanent location. The drop-off centers visit the Corktown, Rosedale Park, northeast Detroit and the Near East Side neighborhoods once a month every Saturday. The permanent location at 1331 Holden Ave. is now open on Wednesday and Saturdays. It hired seven people recently and employs a total of 10, three of which are full-time.

The amount of material recycled has increased 400 percent since Recycle Here, a joint venture between the city and grassroots groups like recycleDetroit began coordinating local grassroots recycling efforts. That's coming from an average of 245 cars dropping off recycling at the Woodbridge location a day, up from 45 on the first day. The amount of recyclable material has expanded from basic paper, plastic, metal and glass products to harder to recycle items, like Styrofoam and 4-7 plastic.

The program has grown every month. In September, 976 households recycled at the Holden location while another 335 used the mobile locations. Those 1,311 households brought in 86,303 pounds of recyclable material in one month and local organizers are expecting bigger takes for the foreseeable future.

"We've been successful in a short period of time," says Sarah Kubik, executive director of recycleDetroit. "Recycling in Detroit has done a complete 180 in the last few years. The people in the city are really starting to recognize this isn't a fad. It's something we have to do."

Humble beginnings

Of course those numbers can be viewed in two ways. Yeah, it's good that the number of cars coming in to recycle has grown to 245 a week, but what does that say about a city with a population of about 900,000? The same city that is the only one of the nation's 30 largest to not have a curbside recycling program, and it's where our garbage is "recycled" into energy at an incinerator that many decry for polluting the air.

There are Detroiters who see this lack of progressiveness as an opportunity to change things in the city. They often start local grass roots recycling efforts, such as those in Rosedale Park and Corktown, and are behind the latest push for recycling in the city.

A chance meeting between Kubik and Recy-clean's director of operations Matt Naimi in the summer of 2005 started the first drop-off recycling in Midtown after that year's Dally in the Alley. They started with a 15-yard Dumpster from Recy-clean picking up the basic paper, plastic, metal and glass material. That effort quickly snowballed into three 15-yard Dumpsters, and then a box truck for glass and then a 53-foot semi. This progression led Kubik and Naimi to a quick realization. "We realized we needed a bigger Dumpster," Naimi says.

That groundswell of support led to the city awarding about $250,000 in grants to create Recycle Here to coordinate local recycling efforts and establish Recy-clean's space on Holden as the permanent recycling center. It also allows the leaders of each group to concentrate on their own improving their own area of expertise, so people hauling it away can focus on logistics and the community leaders can work on education.

The main point of the grant is to help educate the community on recycling. Right now that means getting people in the habit of dropping off their recycling at the specified areas during the specified times. Because the drop-off system works so well at sorting material, Recycle Here can recycle more of the harder-to-recycle items. This wouldn't be possible with just an unmonitored drop off area. "We find that if people aren't being watched or guided they will put plastic in paper or throw their garbage in there," Tobin says. "If we're there to guide them, we can contain that contamination issue."

There's also a moneymaking component, too. The grant covers Recy-clean's overhead costs. But the money that is generated by the recycled material is given back to the community groups to help fund them and spread the word about recycling.

And this entire effort is being done basically via word of mouth. There's no advertising budget and few public announcements — just neighbors and businesses speaking to and encouraging each other to take part in it. It's still groups like Rosedale Recycles, going strong since 1990, that are getting people to recycle their own, and sometimes their neighbors', castoffs.

"You still need education," says Margaret Weber, coordinator for Rosedale Recycles. "You still need leadership. But my assessment is many more people would recycle if it were more convenient. Nothing is more convenient in recycling than curbside pickup."

Take it to the curb

This is where it gets complicated. To the layman, it seems like establishing curbside recycling service in the city is as simple as flipping a switch. Not true in Detroit.

"It's a more complicated issue than we shouldn't burn it and we should just take it to a landfill," Naimi says. "It's a very complex issue."

Among the competing interests are the incinerator, available space in the local landfills, lack of density in some areas of the city and conventional wisdom that the city has more pressing issues to tackle before spending resources on recycling.

For now, the city has a contract with the incinerator to burn the refuse produced by the local populace. That doesn't make recycling illegal, but it creates a few more bureaucratic hurdles. The fact that much of the material recycled is the easiest to burn doesn't help either. Not to mention that burying the trash of 900,000 people instead of burning it would put much more pressure on local landfills already filled with Canadian refuse.

"The city is going to have to figure out where it wants to invest its money," Kubik says. "The public needs to get out and tell them that they need to invest in this."

The city will decide within the next year or two whether to continue this process. That process will include determining the future of the city's incinerator, what type of recycling program to go with and what other environmentally friendly avenues to pursue to bring Detroit up to speed with the rest of the country.

"Green is the way to go," says James Canning, spokesman for the Office of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "In the Next Detroit we are going to try to make our waste-management process as green as possible."

In the mean time, the people working for Recycle Here are pushing to divert more resources to recycling and increase demand for the service.

The organizers plan to expand the mobile drop off centers to several other neighborhoods, such as downtown, Southwest, East English Village, Warren Connor, Green Acres and Palmer Woods, among others. They also hope to expand the list of recyclable materials.

As for curbside service, that will probably come in matter of years rather than a matter of months. Local leaders need to create enough awareness and participation to make it viable. Then it will only probably be available in the densest neighborhoods, with drop-offs for less populated areas.

"This is 2007. We know recycling is effective and viable," Naimi says. "When we introduce curbside five or seven years from now we will have an educated community. I see it in the future and it might be sooner than I think."


Roseldale Park Collection Center

Rosedale Park Collection Center

The Holden Avenue Center

Gary Duranoe and Darryl Treadway assisting at the Holden Center

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.
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