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Will curbside recycling work in Detroit?

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Published 11/25/2009

When it comes to curbside recycling in Detroit, city officials and activists looking to boost participation in a pilot program are hoping children can help lead the way to a greener future.

It's help that is definitely needed.

In place since July 1, Detroit's pilot program offers curbside recycling to about 30,000 households in select neighborhoods on the city's east and west sides. The $3.8 million yearlong effort will be used to help determine curbside recycling's future.

In an e-mailed list of questions, Metro Times asked if Mayor Dave Bing's administration is "100 percent committed" to having curbside recycling in Detroit once the pilot project is completed?

Press secretary Edward L. Cardenas responded, "Mayor Bing is committed to a recycling program, but we must consider the cost and return on investment to determine how quickly we can expand. The pilot program we currently have will guide the best and most cost-effective way to full implementation."

And how, exactly, will success be measured? The short answer is that, nearly five months into the program, no such measure has been established.

"We will evaluate a number of proposals at the end of the pilot program to review a number of variables including participation, return on investment, and the market for recycled items with the rate of material diverted from waste to recycled material," explains Cardenas. "A final list of criteria has not been established."

Margaret Weber, a longtime recycling activist in Detroit, sees that as a problem.

"We don't know what the benchmarks will be, what the barometers will be," says Weber.

Moreover, she says, the city has failed to establish what it wants to achieve overall in terms of recycling. The way she sees it, you set goals and then develop programs and policies that will help you meet them.

"We need a solid waste policy with a clear vision and established goals and a timeline for getting there," says Weber, coordinator for the Rosedale Recycles drop-off program and a member of the coalition Zero Waste Detroit! (formerly the Coalition for a New Business Model for Solid Waste in Detroit). "Getting there will take years, but first you need the vision and the policy to drive it, and it is still not clear what that vision is."

Nationally, the recycling rate — meaning the amount of the waste stream that gets recycled — is higher than 33 percent, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The trade publication Waste and Recycling News reports that cities such as News York and Chicago are posting rates above 50 percent, and that San Francisco has hit 70 percent.

In Detroit, about 10.5 percent of the waste stream gets recycled.

In the neighborhoods where the pilot is under way, the immediate goal is to see if people presented with the opportunity to utilize curbside recycling will actually use it. So far, according to the city, the participation rate is about 23 percent.

Improving those numbers, and ensuring the continuance of curbside recycling in Detroit, is crucial if the city is serious about projecting a green-friendly image, says Weber, a member of a recycling task force composed of city officials and activists from groups such as the Sierra Club and Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision.

"It is imperative that this program be a success and be expanded and move forward," says Weber.

Activists such as Weber and others report that city officials they've been meeting with, including Department of Public Works Director Al Jordan, appear to be committed to trying to make the curbside program a success.

That's where the city's schoolkids come in.

Following a suggestion made at a recent task force meeting, Detroit public schools located in pilot program neighborhoods are being asked to participate in a program that will help teach students the specifics about curbside recycling in the hope that they will impart those lessons to their parents, says Matt Naimi, director of Recycle Here!

Recycle Here!, which operates drop-off sites in Detroit, has been contracted by the city to help promote the curbside program.

"We're trying to provide options in the classroom that will mimic what is available in the neighborhoods of the students," explains Naimi. "The habits that they learn in school can be taken home and, hopefully, with the help of the students, implemented there."

The city's openness to reaching out to the schools and encouraging participation in the pilot program sends a signal that, despite a lackluster start, the city really is committed to curbside recycling. And all involved find it encouraging that, when the city steering committee meets, representatives from Detroit Public Schools now sit at the conference table.

In addition to going through the schools, the city continues to pursue other methods of outreach as well. But the task is significant.

"There's no question that the program's performance has a lot of area to improve," says Jim Frey, an Ann Arbor-based recycling consultant who has been working with members of the Zero Waste Detroit! coalition.

One a scale of one to five (with five being best), Frey gives the Detroit program a one, or "poor performance" grade so far. Part of the problem, he says, is the pilot program is pursuing different approaches in different areas, and some of those approaches — such as having recycling pickup on days different than trash collection — have already been proven to be ineffective.

And one thing absent from the Detroit pilot is RecycleBank, a company that partners with cities to offer incentives to residents who recycle. Participants earn "points" worth as much as $450 a year that can be used to buy products from local merchants. The company is paid, in part, through the savings cities realize by reducing landfill or other disposal costs. Income is also generated through the sale of recycled materials.

According to consultant Frey, some of Detroit's curbside recycling numbers could be at least six times better if it implemented a RecycleBank program and made some other changes.

He notes that, earlier this year, Westland for the first time implemented a curbside recycling program for the city's 25,000 households. RecycleBank is one of the keystones of the Westland effort, which is getting a participation rate of at least 80 percent and collecting material at a rate more than six times higher than Detroit's west side program, reports Frey.

During the first two months of collecting recyclable materials from a pilot area, which has about 30,000 homes, Detroit collected 215 tons of material. By comparison, Westland, during its first two months, was able to divert more than 1,180 tons that would have otherwise gone to a landfill.

Until this point, says Frey, Detroit officials focused on the startup costs associated with RecycleBank, but didn't look at the savings that could be realized by cutting the expense of sending trash to the privately operated municipal incinerator that burns Detroit's and some suburban trash.

"Yes, we did consider including RecycleBank, and there is a significant cost associated with that program as well, which is why we opted not to make it a part of the pilot," says Cardenas. "In a down material market as we have today, the cost would have to be passed back to the customer and that is not the way to go in this economy."

But, he says, the administration is aware of what other cities are doing, and it is paying attention.

"We are watching to see the impact for an extended period, both environmentally and economically," he says.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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