Getting trashed

Feb 5, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Just to make sure the lead doesn't get buried 'neath my ramblings, I'll start with the bit of news that prompted this blog in the first place:

A public forum looking at ways to divert trash from Detroit's incinerator in favor of a new business model that creates jobs, protects the environment and saves the city money will be held this Saturday, Feb. 7, at the Central United Methodist Church, 25 E. Adams Ave. (corner of Adams and Woodward). The event, which begins at 5 p.m., features an interesting lineup of speakers, including Peter Stole of the Public Works Department in Oakland, Calif. (a city that has set “zero waste” as its goal), and Neil Seldman, who heads the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis. Also on the agenda is Steph Sherer of the International Teamsters Union, who will talk about the prospect for using recycling as a vehicle for creating good jobs.

OK, I admit to being kind of a geek when it comes to public policy issues. There's something fascinating about figuring out how and why government works the way it does. Or doesn't work. Fortunately for me, I get paid to dig into issues and sort through the facts and then try and make everyone else pay attention to things that, on the surface anyway, might seem mundane.

Take the issue of Detroit and its trash as an example. What's more uninteresting than garbage? But, for nearly a year now, I've been intrigued by the issue of the city's waste and its relationship to the municipal incinerator that burns it, producing steam and electricity in the process.

After 20 years and an investment of about $1 billion, Detroit is about to finish paying for a facility it no longer owns. No one, I think, can really argue the investment has been a good one. It currently costs the city about $170 a ton to dispose of its trash — and that factors in the money made from selling the steam and electricity produced at the massive east-side facility. That compares to about $25 a ton some suburban municipalities are paying to haul their garbage to landfills.

True, the costs will certainly change once taxpayers finally pay the place off this summer. But no one inside city government has yet said what the new tab will be. And even those in the know lack the crystal ball needed to predict when the specter of climate change will mandate installation of new equipment that will address the problem of the incinerator's carbon dioxide emissions. There seems little doubt that in the near future, emissions of this greenhouse gas — which currently spews freely from the facility's stacks — will have to be curtailed, and doing that will cost money. A lot of it. So any commitment on the city's part to keep using the big burner is something of a pig in a poke.

But it's anything but a black-and-white matter. Hauling garbage to dumps means thousands of trips in trucks spewing diesel fumes, and the methane gas produced by decaying trash at landfills is about 20 times more potent than CO2 in terms of its greenhouse effect.

The area's environmentalists, however, are both adamant and united in their contention that the landfill route is the best one. But it comes with a caveat: The city has to commit to recycling in a major way.

Now, incinerator defenders will also say that they believe in recycling. And that recycling and incineration can co-exist. But the incinerator needs garbage — lots of it — and, the environmentalists argue, recycling will not be wildly successful as long as the burner keeps operating, the hungry maw of its furnaces open and waiting for all the paper, plastic, cardboard and household waste the city can feed it.

You won't be hearing from incineration proponents at Saturday's event. The forces working to keep the city burning its garbage, it seems to me, prefer to work with city officials behind closed doors.

What's exciting about this point in history is that, as the threat of climate change becomes more and more obvious, the need to address it becomes more imperative. Which means that there's money to be made in being green. And Detroit has a chance to cash in on the opportunity that's in front of us.

Which makes the forum being held Saturday a thing of interest for more than policy geeks and die-hard environmentalists.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, there's some added incentive for me to attend this event. The Sierra Club is presenting Metro Times with an award recognizing the paper for its ongoing coverage of the incinerator issue. It always feel good to get award, but this one is particularly gratifying for us, because we put a lot of resources into bringing the issue and its layers of complexity to the public's attention, while most of the other media in town — with a few notable exceptions, including public radio station WDET — gave it short shrift. At the end of the day, what ultimately sustains us in our work is the sense that what we are doing is important, and, in one way or another, helps make life in the metro area better. But a little recognition once in awhile, even if it's only a framed piece of paper saying thanks, makes staying in the fight a little bit easier.