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It's not so easy to recycle if you live or work in downtown Detroit

Oct 3, 2016

A couple weeks ago, Jay from Detroit submitted this question to our MI Curious project:

Why doesn’t Detroit have a public recycling system?

There is a recycling program in the city, so I reached out to Jay in order to understand what, exactly, he was asking. (Jay has asked to be referred to only by his first name, for reasons that will become clear.)

Jay’s question, it turned out, was borne of a much more particular frustration: one that has to do with recycling when you live or work in a building in downtown Detroit.

It’s true--there is no “public” recycling in Detroit. The city is hardly an outlier--plenty of major cities have privatized waste management services.

Two years ago the city rolled out an opt-in curbside program: for a one-time fee of $25, residents get a blue bin, and you’re all set—a contractor (Rizzo Environmental Services if you live in the southwest or on the east side of Detroit; and Advanced Disposal if you live on the west side) will pick up every other week.

But the curbside program is only available for buildings with four addresses or less--most downtown buildings are ineligible. 

Recycle Here! in Detroit.
Credit Matthew Naimi / Recycle Here!

For those without blue bins, an outfit called Recycle Here! has been accepting recycling, without charge, since 2007. To date, the city-funded non-profit has taken in over 20 million pounds of recyclable waste, according to founder Matthew Naimi. The drop-off center, located in the wonderfully decked-out former Lincoln factory, is open Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.

Jay already knew all about Recycle Here! He’s a manager at a downtown coffee shop that we’re going to leave unnamed (again at Jay’s request). I’ve been there a few times. They serve fair-trade, single-source coffee.

Obviously they recycle. Well, they used to.

For a while the employees handled the shop's recycling: they temporarily stored bottles, paper, etc., then schlepped it once a week to Recycle Here!

But, according to Jay, the landlord—Bedrock Real Estate Services, the company owned by Dan Gilbert—complained.

He says the recycling was kept along the wall near an elevator used to access a rentable event space. The recycling wasn’t in the way, wasn’t an impediment. Jay says it seems it was an esthetic issue.

"Apparently the marketing team of Bedrock doesn't like the look of recycling."

“I guess it was unpleasant to look at,” Jay said. “Apparently the marketing team of Bedrock doesn't like the look of recycling, and that apparently had more weight than the obligation to recycle.”

The landlords complained frequently enough that the owner of the coffee shop gave in. “We got enough flack to where we threw up our hands and quit,” Jay said. “So we've been throwing plastic in the garbage.”

This is, unfortunately, the norm for bigger buildings in Detroit. Very few of them offer recycling.

I asked Matt Naimi, of Recycle Here!, why.

“Because the landlord isn’t paying for it,” he said.

How much would it cost?

“About $300 a month,” Naimi said. “For $300 you get a bin and the contractor comes and picks it up.”

Bedrock owns 98 buildings in downtown Detroit. The company’s policy regarding recycling has a major impact; in many respects the company defines how and if the neighborhood recycles. And right now there are depressingly few blue bins in downtown Detroit.

I reached out to Bedrock for comment. Natalie Gray, a company spokesperson, asked me to submit specific questions.

So I asked them:

  1. Does Bedrock management offer its residents/business leasees the opportunity/option for recycling?
  2. If not, are there plans in place to do so?
  3. For the buildings that do not offer recycling: is it an issue of cost? Is it an issue of infrastructure?
  4. Are decisions regarding recycling made building by building, or is there a company-wide policy?

A day later Gray responded that Bedrock “[does] not have a spokesperson who is able to speak on this topic at this time.”

Gray did, however, send me a one-page infographic detailing Bedrock’s sustainability achievements.

Credit Bedrock

Okay. I now know that Bedrock has installed 28 bike racks. I see that they employ “smart” technology. One of the graphics isn’t even about Bedrock; it’s about their tenant, dPOP. There’s a claim that seven Bedrock buildings have won something called a TOBY, an “award for sustainability practices.” (This is misleading: the TOBY is an award for overall excellence in building management, not sustainability. It’s also worth mentioning that the submission fee to be considered for a TOBY award is about the same as the per-month cost of a recycling bin.)

The poster claims that “Bedrock recycles a variety of items including cardboard, paper, plastics, batteries, lightbulbs, and glass.”

I don’t know what this means. Does this mean that they use recyclable plates and forks when someone in the office has a birthday party?

I asked Bedrock if they could clarify these claims. I’ll update when and if I hear back.

I asked Bedrock if they could clarify these claims. I'll update when and if I hear back.

Matthew Naimi of Recycle Here! told me he refuses to work with Bedrock. He said that every year, right around Earth Day, Bedrock would approach them, ask to meet, enthusiastically consider proposals. And then every year—nothing.

“It’s so frustrating,” Jay said to me. “I'm assuming these people who run this company, when they go home, they probably recycle themselves. It’s the wrong way for the moral compass to point.”

I happen to live in a Bedrock-owned building downtown--and there is no recycling in my building either.

Everyone puts all their trash--including newspapers, bottles, boxes, lightbulbs, plastics--in the large black bin in the alley behind the bar. I'm certain that most residents would, if the option were available, recycle. 

Naimi says the building managers aren’t taking action because residents aren’t asking for it.

“If everyone called the building manager and complained, they’d do something about about it. They could charge $10. Almost no one wouldn’t pay. They’d even make money.”

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