Growing green 

Can the Motor City become a Green Giant? Getting the answer right may hold the key to Detroit's — and Michigan's — future prosperity. Casinos won't become our overarching industry, and attempts to become a technology center have hardly defined us. Now a long-term vision of a green economy is emerging.

"It makes sense," says City Council President Ken Cockrel Jr., who chairs the relatively new City Council Green Task Force. "You tell some people that and they think you're crazy, but I think we have the potential to do that. Some people have to get their heads around certain things. You see that Chrysler announced it's going to cut 12,000 jobs — that's going to affect us. Stories like that are just another lesson that we cannot put all our eggs in one basket."

In and around Detroit, the logistics, practicalities and economics of the green question are being posed more and more. But just putting city problems in the context of global climate change and finding a way to work on them in tandem is a huge endeavor. Potentially mind-blowing.

Green economies are generally seen as the accumulation of businesses and services that incorporate social and environmental concerns. That includes numerous niches — building techniques and materials, minimizing waste, public transportation, locally grown organic foods, goods made from recycled materials, pollution reduction work and more. It can be as big as manufacturing wind turbines or as small as being a local distributor of nontoxic paints. It's about spending your money at local businesses so the money stays in the community rather than with national chain stores.

Matthew Naimi, director of operations for Recy-clean, faces that challenge in getting a recycling partnership with the city of Detroit off the ground. The project, called Recycle Here, operates four mobile drop-off recycling centers and one permanent location at 1331 Holden just southwest of the New Center area. Part of the financing comes via a grant from the city of $250,000: the same amount the city spent to run the old Chene-Ferry recycling center.

"The city is faced with the incinerator issue," says Naimi, who lives close enough to the incinerator to view its towering smokestack from his home. "Most people don't like the incinerator. At the end of the day it's a bigger issue than most citizens understand. For the last 20 years all the waste has been diverted from the landfills in the area to the incinerator. If you remove the incinerator from the equation, it puts a pretty big burden on landfills in this area. It would change the actual dynamics of everybody's waste in this region. It's not just a place where they burn garbage. ... I didn't see that until I really sat down and went through the process to apply for the recycling grant. If we started curbside recycling tomorrow it wouldn't create a successful program. If we take incremental baby steps it will give us a more effective program down the road."

Recycle Here's efforts range from testing recycling strategies to educating public school students about recycling. While Detroiters envy suburban curbside programs, Recycle Here actually handles a wider variety of materials because attendants at drop-off centers aid participants in sorting materials. For instance, most curbside recycling programs only handle certain types of plastics, and no magazines, phone books, Styrofoam, corrugated cardboard and household batteries. Recycle Here handles all of that and more.

Almost everything Recycle Here collects is sold and used in the manufacture of new goods. It's cheaper to use materials that have already been processed than to start from raw materials. For instance, petroleum is used in making plastics, but using recycled plastics to make something like carpet fibers cuts back on the use of raw materials.

In its first couple of months, Recycle Here has grown from 45 drop-off visits at the Holden location on its first day to about 250 visits. It's open only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Naimi says the number increases 25 to 50 visitors a week as people learn about it.

There's a learning curve for everybody.

Over at City Council, task force members are examining the practices of various city departments to see where money can be saved through green practices. It's also looking at what can be done externally to promote green building practices for developers. "One of the things that we're actually moving on right now is exploring the feasibility of amending our purchasing ordinance to see if we can give points to vendors that are a little more green than others," says Cockrel.

Guy Williams, president of the board of directors for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, participates on the Green Task Force. DWEJ has been working on the issue of toxic lead paint in homes for more than 20 years, but, like the city's efforts and Recycle Here, green development is a relatively new endeavor. Its Build Up Detroit initiative includes a focus on sustainable business models and training local people to be ready for those jobs as the industry develops.

"The global economy is really starting to boom on these technologies," says Williams. "Detroit still has the tag of being a Rust Belt city still lingering. We need to shake that off by embracing more 21st century innovations."

While Williams has his head in the clouds in discussing developing technologies such as solar, hydrogen cell and geothermal power generation, his feet are on the ground about basic challenges such as affordable housing, healthy building materials, keeping utility bills low and helping poor workers move into the economy. "The first jobs to be had are in lead abatement, asbestos removal, carpentry skills and the like, jobs in the remediation field," says Williams. "We'd like to rehabilitate one of the older buildings in the city to build a green technology center."

The City Council task force is starting off with such similarly unsexy issues as building codes, city ordinances, purchasing practices and brownfield redevelopment. Cockrel admits there's a lot of pollution to be cleaned up around town and much to do to curb further pollution.

"Should building codes be amended to mandate green building development?" Cockrel asks. "I don't think we're willing to go there yet. There are other strategies we can use to promote green development. I'd rather use the carrot than the stick. If you're not familiar with green buildings, your first reaction to some of this is, 'That's going to cost me a fortune.' That's not always true. It may cost a little more, but on the back end you end up saving a lot of money. Green buildings across the country are far more energy-efficient. The waterless urinal saves on water costs. In the long run, green buildings can actually save money."

When you're looking at developing an economy, money can seem to mean everything. But you can't lose sight of the reason the economy needs to be green. It's not just about prosperity. When you're looking at energy development, toxic cleanup or recycling waste, in the end it's about saving the planet, saving life itself. If you really ponder the issue, it's about saving your own ass.

Get your head around that.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to

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