The Incinerator Question: If Detroit Turns Off the Burn, What's Next?

As of July 1, Detroit has options.

The 20-year contract of the facility that most Detroiters recognize as the trash incinerator is up. Turn off the burn. Fresh air. Right? Not so fast.

The new contract, signed as the old one expired, says the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority -- Detroit's quasi-public authority that controls where to put and what to do with the city's solid waste -- will allow the owners to operate the facility for one year, after which Detroit has the opportunity to buy the facility. The city could buy the plant and continue burning trash, or shift gears, possibly to an even greener, more recycling and composting based model.

"Detroit is at a really good breakpoint to change course," says Jim Frey, who's involved with a local coalition pushing for greener waste management, as well as CEO of Resource Recycling Systems of Ann Arbor and a bit of an expert in setting up municipal recycling systems. Frey says that with the long-term contracts over, Detroit is in a good position to take charge of the future of their solid waste, if it wants to.

It's not just a City of Detroit decision; it is Detroiters' decision, and one that could affect the image of the city for years to come.

So if the city decides to turn off the burn, where will 800,000 people's trash go?

The incinerator burns somewhere between 2,200 and 3,000 tons of trash per day. It creates electricity for about 30,000 homes and has the potential to supply about 75 percent of the steam needed to heat the 104 customers of Detroit Thermal, the owner and operator of the 39-mile downtown steam loop. Today, there is no steam contract in place between GDRRA and Detroit Thermal, so the incinerator supplies no steam. The loop is running on natural gas, and there is plenty of supply Detroit Thermal President Victor Koppang says.

Frey says that the Coalition for a New Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste, which consists of 10 community and environmental groups around the city, has created a plan to move Detroit away from trash incineration. The idea is to shift away from the "Shut It Down" mentality and instead present the issue as a business opportunity, says Anna Holden from the Sierra Club, one of the groups.

The 31-page business plan calls for halting incineration; expanding the curbside pilot recycling program and drop-off centers; creating a recycling incentive system (which rewards recyclers with coupons for groceries, gas, entertainment, etc.); promoting recycling based business development and job creation; and reaching out to and educating residents. The plan has already been adopted by City Council but it hasn't gone much beyond that.

Many of those involved in the coalition say that Detroit Mayor Dave Bing won't meet with them. Bing's attention appears fixed on Detroit's financial crisis and his re-election campaign; yet, many coalition leaders believe that Detroit's citywide recycling starts with the mayor's office and moves down from there.

"The mayor says he's a businessman, so let's show him that recycling can be a business," Holden says. "We need a new way of thinking, a new business model. We need to take a new look at what we are doing to Detroit. Everybody else in the world seems to be catching on (to robust recycling efforts), except the City of Detroit. They say the risk is that Detroiters won't recycle, but they most certainly will."

Three Rs and no I

The number of Detroiters recycling is growing as the option becomes more accessible to them.

The city has finally started running its pilot curbside recycling program with 15,000 houses on the West Side and 15,000 houses on the East Side operated by the Department of Public Works, in conjunction with the nonprofit Recycle Here!

Additionally, Detroit has a half dozen-drop off sites for recyclables, also thanks to Recycle Here!, which, according to director Matt Naimi, has increased recycling 8,000 percent since inception.

Still, many believe that this isn't nearly enough.

"We can't meet goals unless you set them. Say: 'This is what we are going to do about recycling and the environment,'" Holden says. "The mayor has to do what he can to make this an important issue. But it's not a big issue for him right now. It's a big job and he's gotta do it."

Stopping incineration, however, isn't as easy as flipping a switch. A lot of waste goes through the incinerator, although less than half of the waste is Detroit's. It operates 24 hours, seven days a week.

Yet, Margaret Weber from Rosedale Recycles says there is a way to transition to intensive recycling. Weber and others involved with the coalition say that the temporary solution would be to split between expanding recycling and using landfills -- which tends to be cheaper than incineration, though still has environmental impacts, like releasing methane gases into the air. "It's going to be part this and part that until recycling takes a stronger hold in Detroit," she says.

Other communities around the country have taken more aggressive steps toward promoting composting and recycling.

Oakland, California -- with a similar demographic, though half the population, of Detroit -- has adopted a Zero Waste Plan that aims to reduce the amount of waste by 90 percent by 2020. They have set requirements to reduced land filling, promote recycling and recycling education, and to decrease the percentage of waste disposal. Over the last few years they have already surpassed California's mandated 50 percent diversion of trash away from landfills. Additionally, Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance based in Washington, D.C., says that Oakland has created 1,000 private sector jobs through their recycling efforts. Detroit, with its space and empty warehouses, could surpass that, Seldman says.

There is, however, the question of who would pay for an overhaul to the city's system. Is a robust recycling and composting program cost effective in this city?

The Coalition's business model does break down where the city can get the funds for the plan. But it's hard to find any money anywhere these days in the Detroit budget.

"If city recycling fails, it won't be performance based, it'll be a money issue," Naimi says. "With this crazy budget deficit" -- projected at about $300 million with a $60-80 million cash shortfall -- "anything could happen. The city is going to look at where it can save the most money. It'll be cost vs. impact. Think about it: DDOT vs. curbside recycling?"

But recycling advocates say that shouldn't stop a New Detroit from emerging from the ashes -- pun most definitely intended.

"We can't continue the model that it is OK to throw away whatever we want," Weber says. "We need a new vision for Detroit, we need leadership. The pilot program is key. It has to be successful for Detroit to be successful."

Terry Parris Jr. is In The News editor for Model D. Send feedback here.


A vancant lot of wild flowers behind the incinerator

Billowing smoke from the incinerator stacks

Detroit Thermal control center

DPW Drop site

Underground pipes bend and redirect steam heat at Detroit Thermal

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

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