Waste Incineration: Will Detroit ever move away from dirty waste disposal?

Several cities around the nation, like San Francisco, have developed new recycling technology and waste disposal policies that have made them sustainability leaders. This article names San Francisco “America’s greenest city.” It explains how on its way toward zero net waste produced, the city currently recycles or diverts 80 percent of its waste. Other cities, like Detroit, lag far behind this trend. Within Detroit city limits resides the largest waste incinerator in the world: the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Facility. The incinerator burns approximately 800,000 tons of municipal waste, from Detroit and surrounding neighborhoods, per year. The incinerator needs trash to continue operating. This reduces incentives to recycle.

The incinerator burns not only trash, but also the city’s money. The organization, Great Michigan, estimates that the incinerator has cost the city over $1.2 billion while emitting large quantities of air pollutants. Although the incinerator produces steam that provides energy to nearby homes and businesses, its operation has led to a host of health issues in neighborhoods near the incinerator and has caused individuals to speculate that the incinerator is the main contributor to the “asthma cloud” over the area.

 Since it was constructed in 1989, the incinerator has been a controversial operation. In recent years there has been talk of closing down the facility in favor of recycling programs and infrastructure. These more environmentally friendly projects, however, have not moved forward. This report, from Environment Michigan, provides audio from a public hearing on the incinerator. What do you think is stopping Detroit from closing the incinerator and adopting cleaner, cheaper, and job generating technologies that will recycle and reuse waste? How could the media be used to promote these greener technologies and policies? Can you think of any ways that news stories on the incinerator have helped to perpetuate its existence and discouraged greener technology? San Francisco is at the forefront of waste reducing policies and should be considered a model for other cities across the country. How can journalists and the media help other cities, like Detroit, move in that direction?

If you’re interested in learning more about the Detroit incinerator, check out these articles on the Ann Arbor Ecology Center’s website.



11 Responses to “Waste Incineration: Will Detroit ever move away from dirty waste disposal?”

  1. I think the key to changing the way Detroit gets rid of its waste is by promoting stories such as what is going on in San Francisco. Often times people do not believe in recycling because it is either too much of a hassle or because they do not think it will make a difference. In this case, the economy also plays a role. However, if alternatives are shown to be successful in all of these realms, I believe that it is the people of the city who will make a difference. Information on how San Francisco implemented their recycling program, challenges they might have faced, facts about the increased jobs, and other basic facts on the program should be communicated more with other cities, and Detroit especially. It is the lack of information on this topic that is holding people from making a difference.

  2. Realistically, people are going to do what’s most convenient for them at the time with waste. That goes for individuals, and corporations. Just like how many individuals choose to do the easy thing and throw everything away rather than recycling, companies are going to do what is most cost-effective for them at the time. The incinerator is there, for better or worse, and transitioning to a greener avenue of waste management would be a huge, expensive project, and there is little incentive (from what I understand) for many companies to make this change, other than fitting into the “green” movement. Being “green” doesn’t necessarily mean making more “green” (money, for those keeping score).

    I think it’s really important to make these efforts more community-oriented, and have incentive (monetary or otherwise) for companies and individuals to be more waste-concious. At Michigan Stadium, in Ann Arbor, on football game days, the recycling is all counted up and made into a competition with a rival school about who can recycle the most in one game. Ideas like this bring communities (the sports community, in this case) into facing an issue as a group.

  3. Unfortunately, Detroit’s waste problem is much more than just citizens throwing away their trash for the convenience — green technologies cost money to invest in, create and implement, and they also require an educated workforce willing to stick around a city full of problems. Detroit is no where near an ideal place to live, and has too many infrastructure problems to count. With half of the street lights out and school after school closing down, protecting the environment isn’t high on the city’s or the mayor’s list of priorities. It’d be great if Detroit could make strides in the green technologies department and become a national leader, but like so many other progressive causes, sustainability needs to take a backseat until Detroit can pull itself together.

  4. I think environmental issues aren’t always a top priority in cities such as Detroit. A large portion of the city is empty, and it doesn’t exactly have a lot of money to spare. Often clean energy is cheaper in the long run, but requires some money upfront. This may pose an issue for a city such as Detroit that has a lot of other issues to handle. I agree that promoting stories about San Francisco and other cities leading the environmental movement can help encourage those that are lacking to do the same. However, I think it’s going to take a lot more than that. The health issues associated with energy benefits that come from this incinerator do not balance each other out. People should be informed about the problems this incinerator is causing, and what can be done to solve them. In my experience, convenience is not the only main reason why people don’t recycle. Sometimes they are just plain unaware of what can be recycled. Living in a house with 4 other roommates, I’m often shocked that they are unaware that certain items can be recycled. To me, stuff like this is just common knowledge. I think encouraging people to recycle by making it more convenient and improving awareness could help make cities like Detroit more sustainable.

  5. I think the problem here is Detroit’s complacency. As we all know, the city is in horrible shape economically as well as in the public’s opinion in general. The incinerator probably stays because it is already built, operated, and maintained. Change is difficult, but complacency is easy. In a struggling economy, the start-up costs of a large scale recycling program could nearly bankrupt the city.

    So what can journalists do to alleviate the problems that Detroit faces? I think it comes in two parts. The first is to get the word out that this incinerator is not cost-effective, is a major pollutant, and frankly a thing of the past. Phrases like “speculated to be, estimated to be,” etc. should not be used to evidence the problem as they seemed to be in the sources that you cited. Concrete evidence is needed that this incinerator is too expensive and too dangerous to the public’s health.

    Once the public is informed, then new ideas should be proposed, granted the city is in a financial state to do something about it. Maybe journalists can get the word out there and the government can be lobbied to appropriate spending to start a recycling program.

    Unfortunately, I think Detroit is stuck with the incinerator until their economy improves. In the meantime, journalists should keep putting new information out there in hopes that someone who can fix the situation will see it. It’s a big dilemma, but I think that most people will agree that trash is not one of Detroit’s biggest problems right now. It’s unfortunate, but hopefully the city can rebuild its economy so that it can take care of its environment and the health of its citizens.

    • Adam, I like the way that you’re connecting this conversation with journalism and its role in this situation. The focus of this blog is how coverage of the environment and public health is good or bad and how it can be improved. That’s more useful to us than just sharing observations about what’s wrong with Detroit.

  6. Exposure to innovative examples like San Francisco might be just want Detroit and its citizens need to propel more a environmentally friendly alternative. If people become more aware of the current practices of the incinerator, change is more likely to happen. The lack of knowledge of the harmful waste policies greatly contribute to the lack of opposition. If more people really knew about the destination of their trash, which most take for granted and trust that it will get somewhere, more would be voicing their concerns. A model to look at in terms of cost, impact, and popularity can make plans more likely. The plans to throw out the incinerator with the trash have to be given credibility and its probability verified.

    As Adam said, Detroit’s economy is probably the number one roadblock to better, more popular, and more expensive alternatives. It can be widely agreed upon that the incinerator is not good for the environment or the health of people nearby but the resolution to the obstacles is not as widely accepted. With complex problems of unbalanced budgets, other things are prioritized. The explanation by the city and environmental figures of the importance of alternative policies would quickly motivate action but until then, spreading the word and sparking change within the current resources and realm of possibilities will have to do.

  7. Hi Kendall, very incisive post! I believe there are two main reasons why Detroit has not replaced its disastrous incinerator.
    1. Detroit is, by most standards, one of America’s poorest and most overlooked cities. To remove the incinerator and begin any sort of large-scale environmental initiatives requires enormous capital. Even though the city will benefit in the long run from green projects as there is no doubt in my mind that it would regenerate the city’s economy (a clean city will attract more people, more jobs etc), not many people would be willing to take that risk, especially after knowing Detroit’s unstable economic history.
    2. Detroit is extremely fragmented and lacks much cohesion. By this I mean that there is little incentive for the majority of the Detroit population to come together and rebuild the infrastructure and image of the city. Recycling programs require a community working together and unfortunately Detroit is not at that level right now. The incinerator is thus the most convenient method of eliminating trash.

    However, you cannot compare San Francisco to Detroit, as getting something to work in San Francisco would take probably one-twentieth of the time it would take to get something to work in Detroit. I lived in San Francisco over the summer (did an internship with an immigrant charity organization) and the place is absolutely tiny. I think it’s only 7×7 miles. Detroit, by comparison, is like an entire continent and in spite of the fact that San Francisco has a much greater amount of people, establishing environmental initiatives in such an expansive city, where crime and poverty are given space to breed, such as Detroit, would be an economically and socially exhaustive procedure.

    In saying all of this, I think that the media should definitely play a role in disseminating green ideas to areas of Detroit, and the media, as a watchdog on society, should be informing the Detroit population of the detriments the incinerator is having on society and the environment. I would definitely advocate for more visual and informational media campaigns that target the Detroit population that explicate how a clean environment would attract more people, more jobs and more economy to flow through the city.

  8. An interesting comparison you’ve drawn with these two stories. I think it is important to make the distinction that there is a huge difference between the status of Detroit and San Francisco’s economy and population dedication to environmental justice. While it is not quite apples and oranges, the cities are at quite a different place in their development. I like your point about using San Francisco as a model for future development because it has been successful. Journalists can use past stories to inform readers of new possible technology in their own areas.

    I think Detroit hasn’t chosen to eliminate the incinerator because at this moment there is not enough money and infrastructure to change. In addition, there are many other concerns facing Detroit currently and the incinerator is considered successful and there is the classic situation when something isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

  9. I’d have to agree with Kristen, Kendall, the comparison you’ve made with these two stories is very unique. However, there are so many different histories, governments, and unique facets of both of these cities. As many of our classmates have already noted, there are countless differences in population demographic, governmental resources, and local concerns.

    I think, though, you’ve made a comparison that many people, journalists, entrepreneurs, and activists have made prior: One place can do, why can’t you?

    San Francisco is at the forefront of green technology, but so are many other parts of their city culture. The questions you pose are great, and I believe so too our their responses.

  10. Thanks, Kendall, for kicking off this discussion with an interesting, new angle on garbage: the Detroit incinerator. Two quick points:
    1. Let’s be clear that the Ecology Center is a partisan player in this story and the article posted to the Ecology Center website are not independent journalism. They’re informative, but the reader needs to be aware that they’re coming from one side of the issue. It would not be surprising if they didn’t include balancing comments from the company that runs the incinerator, for example, or from city officials.
    2. This is really minor, but in the future when people are posting links, let’s try to click the little box that opens the link in a new tab. That way, we’re not taking people away from our blog.
    Thanks again and good work on this.

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