The State Of Metro Recycling

Detroit has earned the dubious distinction of being cited as one of the nation's worst recyclers from publications, including trade magazine Waste News, and oddly, Men's Health.

It's an easy pick. Detroit's puny 10.5 percent recycling rate is well below the national average of about 32 percent. (Although not quite as far below as San Antonio, Texas, at 4 percent; or Oklahoma City's 3.05 percent … ahem.) But don't count the Motor City out just yet.

Metro mayors are using new national programs to jump start languishing curbside recycling programs, and grassroots educational programs are being pushed to increase recycling rates, even in the heart of Detroit.

"Obviously, everybody wants San Francisco's recycling model," says Matt Naimi, founder of Recycle Here, a grassroots recycling initiative started in 2005 and since turned into a city-wide, neighborhood-based recycling program. "But they're not dealing with some of the issues that we have."

San Francisco, the top ranked city in the nation, boasts a 72 percent recycling rate,  helped along by weekly curbside service from vehicles that run on alternative fuel. The city has about 20 recycling drop-off sites, and the business sector participates. The city passed a mandate that calls for all businesses to participate and households to separate compost, with the goal that no waste will be sent to the landfill by 2020.

"We haven't been talking about being green in this town, ever," he says. And Detroit has long been grappling with strained budgets, blight, and concentrated poverty.  "If a town is already broke, how do you add to that?" Naimi asks.

Naimi's program started with the notion of demonstrating demand for curbside recycling programs. These days, Recycle Here is contracted to run the Detroit's recycling drop off centers, and has been hired to consult on the city's aggressive five-year plan for citywide curbside recycling.

"A lot of people said Detroiters won't recycle; that was the mantra. But we provided the data that said they'll do it," Naimi says. "We started this service to create the need for curbside recycling. Once that's established, we'll educate and provide recycling in high rises and apartment buildings. We're looking to create that for the city of Detroit."

In July, Detroit launched its pilot curbside recycling program to 30,000 Detroit residents living in communities on the east and west sides of the city. The program will last at least a year, with citywide rollout in about four or five years.

Although, Naimi explains, in Detroit things are rarely easy.

The program has raised Detroit's recycling rate by 7,500 percent in a three-year period, keeping more than two million pounds of waste out of the city's embattled incinerator in the two years it's been supporting the city's recycling efforts alone, he says. But budget constraints are going to force choices.

The pilot curbside program costs the city about $3.8 million a year for those 30,000 homes; a 20-school recycling education program costs about another $350,000. As committed as the city is to improving its recycling efforts there are economic realities to contend with, not to mention the issue of resident compliance. It takes time for people to change their habits and that means working to educate people in Detroit.

"It's a weighing of the scales," he says. "Are we more effective here, versus there?"

Naimi is working to create more brand awareness by greening big business and cultural events in the city. Twenty-two of the company's recycling bins were planted around Detroit's downtown during the Detroit International Jazz Festival, some festooned with company logos and the nearly famous Recycle Here "bee" mascot.

"We're trying to create a brand name," he says.

A grassroots approach was what started Ann Arbor's now entrenched recycling programs in the late 1970s, when a nonprofit called Recycle Ann Arbor started that city's first curbside recycling program. These days, Ann Arbor diverts about half of its waste from the landfill and has a better than 90 percent participation rate, says Nancy Stone, communications liaison for the city.

The city, which already mandates residential recycling, is making business recycling mandatory by the spring of 2011, she says, and is rolling out new educational components geared towards getting its downtown and other businesses on board with the program.

Other local communities are learning from Ann Arbor's example. SOCCRA, which manages recycling operations for cities such as Ferndale, Royal Oak, Berkley, Birmingham, and Troy, is hiring resource recycling services from Ann Arbor to develop a new financial model as part of its long-term planning process.

While total tonnage of refuse has dropped by about five percent this year compared to last, tons recycled increased by about eight percent for SOCCRA's member communities, according to that organization's latest financial report.

SOCCRA did not return two phone calls for comment.

Other Metro Detroit cities are using reward points they can trade in for other popular brand names to kick-start recycling. A stop at a booth during a U.S. Mayor's Conference sparked massive change for both Rochester Hills and Westland.

Rochester Hills, a bedroom community about 30 miles north of Detroit, wavered between an 18 to 20 percent participation rate in its recycling program, which relied on multiple haulers with different collection schedules and limited lists of acceptable recyclables. That quickly changed in January when Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett met representatives from RecycleBank, a New York City-based program that provides "rewards" points to primarily local vendors as an incentive to recycle.

By the end of March, RecycleBank kicked off its Rochester Hills program, which included new bins with bar codes that recorded how often and how much residents recycled. Households get about 2.5 points per pound of material recycled, which can be traded in for everything from coupons for CVS Pharmacy to movie tickets to dinner at your favorite neighborhood spot.

Rochester Hills was the first city in Michigan to try the program, with overwhelming results. Since April 1, the participation rate for households has grown to 87 percent. The amount of recyclables collected has also increased by about 250 percent, he says.

The service was also cheaper – costing about $46 a quarter versus $75 or $85 with the old programs – for the majority of the city's residents. Another bonus? About half of the rewards points are spent in local businesses, feeding the city's economy.

"It's a tremendous win-win," Barnett says. 

Residents that don't trade in their points can donate them to the city for green space preservation. With a population of about 70,000, that has the potential to add up quickly, Barnett says.

It's something Westland Mayor William Wild is fast learning. Wild encountered RecycleBank at a Mayors conference last fall and on June 29th, debuted the program in the city situated halfway between Detroit and Ann Arbor. In two months, about 25,000 of Westland's 86,000 residents recycled more than 1,100 tons. Before the program, Westland averaged about 90 tons a month at drop-off recycling spots.

"To put that figure into perspective, your average family sedan weighs 3,000 pounds, which means residents have recycled the equivalent of 790 cars," Wild says in a news release.

Wild says that other volunteer and pay-as-you-go curbside recycling programs had been tried in the past, but nothing stuck. "I knew our community," he says. "I knew it had to be easy."

A single bin for all materials made recycling easier and the rewards pushed many residents into participating. Westland now claims a 99 percent participation rate.

"When you make it easy, it doesn't take long to change a mindset," Wild says. "They know they're helping the environment, but also their pocket books."

Michelle Martinez is a freelance writer and editor who has reported on Metro Detroit businesses and issues for five years. Her previous article was Ethical Entreprenuers.   Send feedback here.


Curb side recycling bin

Crushed and bundled aluminum cans

Matt Naimi, owner of Recycle Here

Recycle Ann Arbor

Recycle Ann Arbor

Recycling sheds for house hold items at Soccra

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