Every Saturday, you can find him on Holden Street, rough and bearded, smiling widely, walking briskly, cracking jokes, helping sort and move recyclables. He never dreamed of being a garbage man, but here he is, diverting trash from Detroit’s waste stream.
Thanks to Matthew Naimi, founder of Recycle Here
, Saturday recycling is now a Detroit thing to do. Every week, 800 or so people pile up their cars with cardboard, bottles, plastic and paper bags, newspapers and books and drive them to his facility in New Center. Here, Detroiters are met with brightly colored street art, great music, and even a community board where they can share their hopes and dreams for Detroit.
Holden Street is Naimi’s answer to the question: “How do you get people excited about recycling?” Turns out, it’s not about the planet so much as it’s about people. At Recycle Here, Detroiters come to meet their neighbors and connect with their community.
For Naimi, community is everything -- and you can see that in everything he does, from education to art to giving back. He started Green Living Science
, a non-profit spin-off, to educate Detroit youth about recycling. He also created the Lincoln Street Art Park, a sculpture garden with murals and installations right around the corner. He reinvests a portion of revenues into the neighborhoods where he has mobile sites, and he has instituted a community grant program where residents can vote on which local non-profits will benefit. All of these projects contribute to his larger “BEE Green” message, illustrated with the now-iconic happy bumble bee by local artist, Carl Oxley III.
So, how did this all begin? How did Naimi become an urban innovator?
Born in Detroit to a family of Chaldean and English heritage, Naimi’s parents made the migration out of the city soon after he was born. He might have grown up in comfort, but he was not comfortable. Bored and restless in private Catholic schools, he later fled suburbia for college in Tennessee. After studying Philosophy & Political Science, he graduated knowing two things: He wanted to live in “man’s greatest creation” -- a thriving city-- and work for himself. He returned to Detroit.
The key to innovation is recognizing opportunity, and Naimi found his first one in a large industrial building at 1331 Holden. Two decades prior it had been the hub of his father’s grocery distribution business, but had since gone unused. He purchased the building with no plan other than to keep a piece of family history and own a sizeable piece of property in the heart of a major city. This move paid off when he was granted a solid waste transfer permit, allowing his building to be an intermediary site between trash and the landfill. He started by leasing the building to a construction debris disposal company, and later assumed the operation himself.
It was a fortuitous time in the city. There was a flurry of small construction activity, and new restaurants like Slows Bar BQ
and The Park Bar
were opening. Matthew provided dumpster services, and recycled the waste. It was a start.
Then one night, Naimi was approached by a young Wayne State student named Sarah Kubik. She had heard he was Detroit’s go-to garbage man and tracked him down at his home. At the time, Detroit was the largest city in the United States without a comprehensive recycling program. Their meeting resulted in a small first step: a dumpster outside The Bronx Bar, a local watering hole in Midtown Detroit. It bore a simple sign: "Recycling every second Saturday."
Soon, people started coming from around the city. It seemed a long simmering desire to recycle was boiling. The program got so popular that the City of Detroit called Naimi to ask how he was getting people to recycle. His answer? Make it cool. In 2006, he signed a contract with the City and Recycle Here started its drop-off recycling program.
Six years later, Naimi’s operation has grown to a team of people coordinating citywide programs. Already, 2012 looks to be one of Recycle Here’s busiest years, with an annual growth rate of 65-75 percent. Still, there is much yet to do. Naimi looks forward to helping the city grow its curbside recycling while he continues to build his own education and art programs. He believes the best way to cultivate sustainability in a city without a strong recycling culture is to teach youth good habits that will help create generational and attitudinal shifts. More funding could help him reach more young students.
In the meantime, Naimi says he loves what he does. Recycling won’t make him rich, but there are other rewards. Most people dread working on Saturdays, but seeing Holden Street fill with people, even in frigid temperatures, makes him feel good.
What began as a single dumpster is now a community movement. For Naimi, creating a greener, more sustainable Detroit is what gets him up every day.
Want to read about other innovators? Dig into the UIX site