When most people throw something away, usually little attention is paid to what happens next. For most cities, the final resting spot of trash is a landfill, which is simply a large, coated hole in the ground for trash to sit for the rest of eternity. However, for Detroit residents, the final resting place of the most harmful elements of trash is in the lungs of the residents of Midtown and Poletown East.


The city is home to Detroit Renewable Power, America’s largest “Waste-to-Energy” facility. While that sounds like a nice name, in actuality, the facility is simply a large furnace that runs on burned trash and generates electricity and steam. Detroit’s facility is located off the eastern edge of Midtown at the intersection of Interstate 94 and Interstate 75. While many give it praise as an innovation in waste management, many residents refer to the tall grey smokestack as “The Incinerator,” alluding to a dirtier side of the waste management facility.


Originally opened in 1986, the incinerator was hailed as a step in the right direction for waste reduction and environmentalism in Detroit. The original plan for the incinerator was to burn up to 4,000 tons of trash per day and provide energy for more than 60,000 homes. However, the population of Detroit has fallen about 50 percent since 1986, and with that, the supply of trash has markedly decreased. Faced with the dilemma of being unable to keep up with the power and steam needs of downtown Detroit, the facility — originally designed to burn all of Detroit’s household trash — decided to start importing trash from other municipalities and commercial operations.


The problems associated with running a 30-year-old trash incinerator on waste it wasn’t meant to handle are staggering. When I visited the area around the incinerator, I was greeted with an odor so foul that I could barely walk down the street without gagging. Sadly, it wasn’t just the smell that was nauseating — cars whizzed by overhead on Interstate 94, and a constant stream of trash trucks rumbled by, spewing brown trash “juice” out of the back. Many studies have shown that despite state-mandated pollution controls, the levels of CO2, mercury, lead and other harmful materials exceed safe amounts.


I spoke with William Copeland, climate justice director for the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which is an environmental activist group that is working to close the incinerator. “The Detroit Incinerator is an outdated, ancient facility with some of the least pollution controls of all incinerators in the country,” he said.


“The owners of the facility show little to no concern for the negative health and environmental impacts of their facility on the community,” he told me as we walked by the incinerator’s looming smokestack. Many groups oppose the incinerator and have specific concerns about health impacts on the surrounding communities.


For any community, the disposal of trash is a struggle. However, there are steps that can be taken to reduce waste. The City of Detroit only instituted curbside recycling in 2014, a program that is still underperforming, while composting services are nearly nonexistent. Even the placement of the incinerator is problematic, located right off the edge of the bustling Midtown district. This isn’t some place far away that nobody lives in, it’s right in the middle of a population center — there is even a school just blocks away from the smokestack, meaning that children inhale the exhaust of the incinerator every day.


In order for Detroit to become the city of the future that it hopes to be, it must solve its waste management crisis. Incineration isn’t a viable option anymore, especially with the massive population losses that have stricken the area.

“Detroit and the metro-Detroit region must move toward zero waste — reducing, reusing, composting and recycling our waste,” Copeland said. “However, this can never happen as long as the region continues to be saddled (by) Detroit’s monster of an incinerator,” he continued. This is something that must be done, because the city of the future can’t rely on an outdated system of waste disposal anymore. Reduction of waste, recycling and finding alternatives to incineration are incredibly necessary for the progress of Detroit.

Kevin Sweitzer can be reached at ksweitz@umich.edu. 

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