Detroit's reuse economy is turning the city's trash into treasure
After working in the healthcare industry for 20 years, Audra Carson didn't choose to start a business collecting and recycling illegally dumped tires in Detroit. Carson describes De-tread
, the company she conceived in 2009, as choosing her instead.
Carson was originally inspired to do something about cleaning up dumped tires when she started to notice large concentrations of them in the neighborhood she grew up in near Schoolcraft and Wyoming. Tire dumping creates manifold problems: they're a fire hazard, they leech chemicals into the soil, and mosquitos breed in the water that accumulates in the cavities. On top of that, there's a basic social impact associated with living among piles of refuse.
"For the families that live in these conditions, what does it do to these children who feel like this is their lot in life?" Carson says. "It has a negative impact and desensitizes them … They feel like they're supposed to live like this."
De-tread has collected and recycled 9,000 dumped tires since 2012. Carson is currently working on establishing a processing facility to turn them into products ranging from Croc-style shoes to rubberized asphalt. But De-tread is just one of multiple businesses and nonprofits that are part of Detroit's "reuse economy," whose mission is turning the city's trash into treasure.
A passion for reuse
Some of those initiatives started with more of a specific social impact in mind than others. Kyle Dubay is the cofounder of Woodward Throwbacks
, a woodwork shop that salvages and reuses illegally dumped Detroit wood. But his operation didn't really start as a business.
"It was more like me and my girlfriend were biking a lot in the city," Dubay says. "We were always seeing stuff dumped all over the place and one thing led to another."
Kyle Dubay, cofounder of Woodward Throwbacks
Woodward Throwbacks and De-tread do share a certain sense of inevitability in their origins, a feeling that repurposing the city's refuse for something new just made sense. The same could be said for Reclaim Detroit
, a nonprofit dedicated to deconstructing blighted Detroit homes and recycling usable wood and other materials found in the process.
"People are really committed to turning the corner and creating a positive future for Detroiters in an innovative way," says
Jeremy Haines, sales and marketing manager for Reclaim Detroit. "In Detroit something you have no shortage of is talent and experience in design and manufacturing. I think there are a lot of homegrown folks that have roots in the city that have stayed
here and are really committed to building something."
Some items made from reused wood
And on the other side of the equation, products made from reclaimed Detroit materials are all the rage. Woodward
Throwbacks products are now available in Target, Carson's, and Younkers stores, and Reclaim Detroit has had success with products ranging from tables to bar tops to serving trays. (Reclaim makes some products in-house but mostly supplies raw materials to other makers.)
"[Detroit] hit bottom a few years ago and I think we're rising up as a community," Haines says. "People want to be part of that story of rebirth and recreation, and that's something that physically happens with reused materials."
And the demand for reclaimed and recycled products just keeps growing.
"We have clients that we want to take on and jobs that we want to take on, but right now we ... just don't have the space for them," Dubay says.
Woodward Throwbacks was recently awarded a $40,000 Motor City Match
grant to renovate a Hamtramck workshop that will open as their second location next year. With the move, Woodward Throwbacks will double the amount of wood it processes and increase its staff from four to 10.
Les Lance, business manager of J&G Pallets
The reuse mentality among Detroit businesses isn't limited just to recycling Detroit materials. J&G Pallets
has been reclaiming and redesigning wooden pallets for shipping since the business started in one of its co-owners' backyards in 1994. Pallets aren't usually as damaged as some of the materials that may be recovered from blighted Detroit neighborhoods, but J&G business manager Les Lance says their uses are often so specialized that they're frequently discarded after little use.
"Just because you're creating this widget, you're using maybe 30 or 40 different materials coming from who knows where across the country or across the world in all different sizes," he says. "Just because you could reuse that specific pallet, the pallets that are coming into your facility may not be the ones that you can use to put your materials on."
Lance estimates that J&G's 22 staffers now handle about three truckloads of 300 to 500 pallets daily. The company has slowly developed clients across the metro area and in other Midwestern states including Illinois and Indiana.
"It makes them look good from an eco-standpoint, and it allows us to then gain those materials," Lance says. "Some of those relationships have grown to where we're not only capturing those materials from them, but also repairing those pallets and selling them back to some companies so they can use them to ship out their own materials."
The slow-burning success of J&G's reuse-focused business has allowed the company to branch out into new arenas as well. The company will expand into trucking services next year, and also augment its recycled pallet business by manufacturing brand-new pallets. A $100,000 Motor City Match grant last year allowed J&G to purchase a pallet machine that can produce 900 to 1,000 new pallets per shift.
Mark Nash, pallet builder
Carson says there's still "a great deal of room to grow" for Detroit businesses and nonprofits in the reuse economy. As more initiatives have arisen utilizing that model, there's a growing sense of momentum around the concept of reuse.
"I think all the people who are in this particular ecosystem are beginning to connect with one another," says Carson, who has formed valuable relationships with the Skillman Foundation
, the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance
, and the Brightmoor Alliance
. "In the next couple of years, I see some powerful things and some powerful solutions coming out of Detroit and metro Detroit."
Haines believes that Detroit's efforts in this arena has already started to have a national impact. When he joined the Reclaim Detroit team in 2012, he moved from Baltimore and a job at a salvage nonprofit called Second Chance
. That organization, however, was more focused on repurposing high-end cabinetry and other products from homes in decent condition, rather than cleaning up urban blight. The blight model is more challenging due to the safety concerns and uncertain material yields.
But since Reclaim Detroit was founded in 2011, Haines says its model has increasingly caught on in other communities. He notes that organizations including Chicago's Rebuilding Exchange
, Cleveland's Rustbelt Reclamation
and A Piece of Cleveland
, and Baltimore's Humanim
all got started around the same time as Reclaim Detroit and have followed similar models.
"With our organization and others around the region that are doing good work and have some best practices to share, I think in the next few years you're going to see more exciting developments around the reuse economy growing and benefiting local people," Haines says.
While they are growing, these reuse businesses all still fairly modest in scale. Carson musters groups of volunteers to clean up tire piles as she works on procuring funding to start turning refuse rubber into products. And Dubay says his salvage efforts are still conducted mostly by bike, just the way he started out.
"We're a social enterprise," Dubay says. "We're trying to lead by example. But as far as making a quantifiable impact, I think there's a long ways to go. Detroit's a big city."
Support for this feature is provided in part by Motor City Match, a program that connects new and expanding businesses with Detroit’s quality real estate opportunities, providing them with funding and tools to fuel the city’s entrepreneurial revolution. Learn more at www.mortorcitymatch.com.
All photos by Nick Hagen.