For most folks, issues involving garbage seem exquisitely simple: Wheel a load of refuse to the curb once a week, then let a truck roll up and haul it away.
Just like that, it's gone. Poof. Out of sight and out of mind. Little thought is given to where all that garbage goes, what it costs to get rid of, what the health consequences of disposal might be, or how our lives might be improved if there were better ways to deal with a problem that doesn't really go away even though it's no longer sitting on the curb out front.
Call it the illusion of absence.
Matthew Naimi, on the other hand, has no such illusions. He can't afford to. A former philosophy and political science major, he's now involved in a different kind of paper chase: Turning trash into cash is how he makes a living, running a pair of Detroit for-profit recycling operations. And business right now is good. Thank the Chinese, among others, for that. With a booming economy and relatively few virgin forests, they are paying $225 a ton for sorted office paper, $140 a ton for used cardboard and $95 a ton for the newspapers Americans throw away every day.
Prices like that are the result of a "paradigm shift" that is currently under way, says Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes recycling as an economic development tool.
"Twenty years ago you had a billion Chinese and a billion Indians that were consuming at low levels of per capita consumption," Seldman explains. "Now, those countries have growing middle classes, with growing middle-class consumption patterns."
It is Economics 101. Commodities from paper and plastic to aluminum and glass are becoming more valuable as demand for them grows. And cities that fail to establish efficient recycling programs are going to come up short, Seldman says.
That's not to say he's predicting recycling programs are going to be turning a profit anytime in the foreseeable future. What will happen, though, is that increasing commodity prices will be able to offset the costs of recycling programs, making them more economically competitive with other forms of disposal.
And that's just in terms of direct costs. There's another shift taking place concurrent with the rapid economic expansion occurring in China and India, Seldman says.
Thirty-five years ago, when he first became involved in the recycling movement, virtually no one was sounding the alarm about global warming. Today, there is little argument that the Earth is heating up. Consequently, there's widespread expectation that the creation of greenhouse gases is going to be accompanied by higher costs in the form of carbon taxes and other financial penalties. Which means that the two types of disposal competing with recycling — incineration and landfilling — are going to grow increasingly more expensive. Incinerators burning garbage to generate steam and electricity produce carbon dioxide, and organic material decomposing in landfills emits methane.
As a result, the expected convergence of those two forces that will make recycling ever more viable: rising prices for the commodities being recycled, and increased costs associated with incineration and landfilling.
Recycling is already big business. It has been for a while. The most recent numbers come from a 2001 study done by National Recycling Coalition. According to that study, the recycling industry seven years ago was employing 1.1 million people nationwide, generating an annual payroll of $37 billion and grossing $236 billion in annual sales.
That's comparable to the auto and truck manufacturing industry and is significantly larger than either the mining or waste management-disposal industries, says Kate Krebs, the coalition's executive director.
Krebs adds that the study found, "for every job in recycling collection nationally (curbside collection workers, for instance) there are 27 jobs that add value through manufacturing the recovered material into a new product.
"This demonstrates that public and private investment in local recyclables collection and processing infrastructure pays great dividends in supporting significant downstream private recycling economic activity."
What makes all this particularly pertinent to Detroiters right now is that the issue of recycling is wrapped up in the broader debate about what to do with the massive incinerator in Detroit that burns the city's trash, as well as garbage trucked in from the suburbs, creating steam and electricity in the process.
The city is at a crucial juncture. After nearly 20 years of paying what will end up being a $1.2 billion bill for a facility it no longer owns, Detroit has a chance to extricate itself from the deal. Negotiations are under way, with several critical deadlines approaching in the coming weeks.
The debate, at least on the surface, isn't about the need to improve the city's dismal recycling rate — which, according to a report done by an outside consultant last year, is 8 percent when yard waste, which by state law must be composted, is figured in.
(Brad van Guilder, who works for the nonprofit Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, says even that low figure is artificially inflated because it counts metals extracted from suburban waste toward Detroit's overall numbers.)
All involved, whether proponents of the incinerator or advocates of landfilling, say they agree that Detroit needs to seriously ramp up recycling.
But opponents of the incinerator argue that any recycling effort is going to be hamstrung if the city continues to use the incinerator. They contend that the facility needs all the garbage it can get in order to continue generating the steam and electricity it is contractually obligated to provide to local utilities.
That contention is disputed by representatives of Covanta, the parent corporation of Michigan Waste to Energy, which has operated the facility since 1993, as well as by John Prymack, director of the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority (GDRRA), the quasi-governmental body responsible for managing disposal of Detroit's municipal waste.
They say they are not worried about increased recycling cutting into the facility's waste stream.
As it is, because of population declines over the past 20 years, Detroit's share of the nearly 1 billion pounds waste handled by the authority annually has steadily declined. Last year, less than half the trash processed at the facility came from Detroit households. Commercial and suburban residential trash has filled the void. However, because Detroit was committed to paying off the bonds issued to construct and upgrade the facility, the city's taxpayers have, in effect, been subsidizing everyone else.
While Detroit is paying about $170 per ton this year to dispose of its trash, private haulers are paying GDRRA an average of $12 per ton, according to Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson, an opponent of the facility. (Authority representatives say the number for private haulers is closer to $15 per ton.)
Essentially, the message from GDRRA and Covanta at this point is: Don't worry. They say they are confident the facility can compete with landfills.
"I'd be skeptical of what they say," says Paul Connet, a former chemistry professor from New York state's St. Lawrence University and a leading incinerator opponent.
He and others don't see how the incinerator can possibly match the low rates currently being offered by area landfills. Their fear is that Detroit taxpayers will once again get stuck footing a disproportionate share of the facility's costs.
Connet also urges skepticism when evaluating industry claims that recycling rates in communities with waste-to-energy facilities are slightly better than the nation as a whole — which is currently about 30 percent.
He says one of the reasons those rates are higher is that, between 1985 and 1995 — the last year a new waste-to-energy incinerator received an operating permit in this country — activists helped defeat efforts to construct about 300 such facilities. And where they did not win those battles, the incinerator opponents often educated communities on the importance of recycling, increasing demand for green programs.
If so, Detroit was a failure all the way around; of America's 30 largest cities, it is the only one without a curbside recycling program. That is the result of a city ordinance intended to guarantee Detroit trash ends up being burned.
But after facing fierce opposition during the late 1980s and early '90s and then fading as an issue after it became clear attempts to shut it down had failed, Detroit's incinerator is back on the front burner.
Next year, when the bonds are paid off and a key agreement with the facility's owners expires, Detroit has a window of opportunity to try to extract itself from a commitment to the incinerator. (Although, contrary to what was previously reported in this series, if the owners — Energy Investment Funds of Boston and GE Capital — can meet or beat the best offer made by landfill operators, then the city is obligated to continue using the facility, according to Detroit Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams, chair of the GDDRA board.)
The City Council, along with taking a hard line (so far, anyway) and using its control of budgetary purse strings to shift Detroit from the incinerator to landfilling, has also issued a mandate to starting gearing up recycling efforts.
If this were a test being graded on a bell curve, Detroit would be trailing along at the far left end. While some cities have achieved recycling rates of 50 percent or 60 percent and higher, and are striving to achieve a goal of zero waste, Motown continues to languish in the single digits.
One of the people trying to help boost that dismal rate is Cass Corridor resident Naimi. He returned to southeast Michigan after earning a BA from the University of Tennessee. He'd planned to attend law school, wanting to become an environmental attorney, but needed a break from academia and was looking to make some money. So he went to work for his dad's grocery business.
Before long, he says, his brain started "turning to Jell-O" from the boredom, and he began looking for a new challenge. He gave in to an entrepreneurial streak he says runs in his family. For starters he began collecting cardboard, which he sold to recyclers. From there he began exploring ways to use the sprawling former Lincoln plant his dad owns on Holden Street near Wayne State University. He converted part of the place into studios for musicians and other artistic types. Then, with a partner, he began a business recycling materials from construction sites.
That eventually led to obtaining seed money from GDRRA to operate a neighborhood recycling center at the Lincoln plant. On a recent Wednesday, the place was abuzz with activity, with what appeared to be a mixture of university students and neighborhood folk hauling in newspapers, wine bottles, plastic bags and other trash they no longer had use for.
Recycling, he says, is a passion for him now. The Holden Street facility known as RecycleHere (recyclehere.net) takes drop-offs twice a week. It, and a mobile program that accepts materials at different set locations throughout the city every Saturday, is subsidized with a $200,000 grant from GDRRA. There are also educational programs with Detroit schools.
Naimi, so far anyway, says he's sitting on the sidelines in the debate of the incinerator vs. landfilling.
"I need to wait and see what the numbers are," says Naimi, now 34. But he's concerned that, with several deadlines approaching in the next several weeks, and with those numbers — bids for hauling and landfill prices, and a solid number for the potential sale of the plant — still unknown, it seems an incredibly important decision is being left until the last minute instead of being worked out in a deliberate and fully public way.
He also has concerns about the viability of a citywide curbside recycling program that would eventually cover the whole city. Some neighborhoods are ripe for such an effort, he says. But there's a challenge in the many parts of the city where population densities are low and vacant lots and abandoned homes are plentiful. He wonders whether a "hybrid" system that combines curbside recycling in some neighborhoods and mobile programs such as the ones he currently operates might not be a better approach.
As it is now, Watson and the coalition of activists allied with her have succeeded in convincing the council to commit $3.5 million in the next fiscal year's budget to fund a pilot curbside program.
"If that means what we've started ends up dying as a result, then I can accept that," says Naimi. "I just want to see recycling work here, because this city needs it."
Maybe these are only words a diehard wonk could get really get excited about, but they seem true nonetheless: In the world of recycling, these are exciting times.
Innovations are occurring on several fronts across the country. A number of cities in California, which passed a state law in the '90s mandating that municipalities achieve recycling rates of at least 50 percent, are exceeding that lofty goal, setting a pace for the rest of the country.
On the East Coast, two 30-year-olds from Philadelphia devised a program called RecycleBank (recyclebank.com), which provides coupons worth as much as $400 a year to households in an attempt to gain participation in curbside recycling programs. Collection trucks weigh and keep track of bins as material is gathered, and then the coupons, which can be redeemed at local businesses, are issued monthly. In some neighborhoods, according to a New York Times article, the number of households participating in curbside recycling jumped more than tenfold in a matter of months.
Advances of technology that facilitate the mechanical separation of different types of materials have led to creation of what's known as single-stream recycling, meaning that the hassle of sorting different types of plastics, glass and other types of materials before it is put out to be picked up has been eliminated.
Both RecycleBank and single-stream systems are slated to be included in Detroit's test run.
Other innovations are sprouting up as well. One place with some interesting action under way is Columbus, Ohio. It was one of the first cities to catch a new wave of waste-to-energy incinerators developed in the 1970s. But it proved to be problem-plagued and, when increased environmental protections were ordered by the federal government in the 1990s, its incinerator proved too much of a disaster to continue operating. Even though it was not yet paid off (and, in fact, still isn't) it was shuttered in the mid-1990s and then demolished a few years ago. Several innovative programs are under way there, including efforts to start up a facility that will grind up Styrofoam — a material that otherwise has no value as a recyclable — and then mix it with cement to form lightweight panels with high insulation properties that can be used in construction.
For anti-incinerator activist Paul Connet, that kind of enterprise offers just one small example of what could be Detroit's future. The way he sees it, with the amount of low-cost land available here, and the high quality of the area's universities, it is easy to envision creation of a "recycling research institute" where professors and their students from a broad array of disciplines — from mechanical engineering to biology to architecture and more — could find new ways to reuse old materials and develop alternatives to other products that can't be recycled.
In a way, being so far behind the recycling curve is an advantage. With others having blazed a trail, the city can avoid pitfalls already discovered, and make a giant leap forward.
"Detroit has the potential," he says. "It just takes people with the vision to make it happen."
But right now, with a standoff between the Kilpatrick administration and the City Council looming, looking down the road even a little way into the future is difficult.
For the moment, the biggest waste-to-energy incinerator in America and the question of its fate are blocking the view.Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]