Detroit tackles mass scrap tire piles
Detroit — One day, under the spring sky, the tires just arrived.
They weren’t there in the morning. By the time neighbors returned to work that May afternoon, though, dozens of tires had materialized at an abandoned home on Detroit’s east side. Whoever did it was in no hurry. Nor did they seem worried about being caught, neighbors said: About 300 were neatly stacked at the curb and inside the front room.
“People were staying in there and dumping in all those tires. It’s just terrible,” said Darlene Holmes, a neighbor who lived across the street on Greensboro near Berkshire.
So it goes in the dumping grounds of Detroit, where city crews expect to pick up 138,000 scrap tires by fall. Because they often cost more to recycle than they’re worth, tires are everywhere. Tossed in lots. Stacked in closed businesses. Thrown along the road. Hidden in abandoned homes and discovered by crews working on Mayor Mike Duggan’s goal of razing 100 buildings per week.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I realize it was this bad,” said Doug Collins, a Department of Public Works superintendent hired three years ago and charged with cleaning Detroit’s trash sites.
Illegal dumps have vexed Detroit for decades. Now, state and city officials are turning to technology in hopes of reversing the tide.
In January, the city launched a mobile phone application, Improve Detroit, that allows residents to report problems from broken hydrants to potholes. The city gets about 400 complaints per week through the app, freeing crews from time searching for trash piles, Collins said.
The city also is considering installing heavy-duty security cameras near notorious dumping grounds, such as on the far west side near River Rouge and Eliza Howell parks.
The city recently tested the system by placing the $6,000 cameras near Seven Mile and John R. They captured images of nine dumpers in three days, Collins said, but no charges were pursued because the images were too fuzzy to build a case.
“Illegal dumping is pretty low on the priority list in places like Detroit, and if there’s no fear of punishment you aren’t going to stop anyone,” said Mike Marshall, the Lansing-based grants coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Quality’s scrap tire program.
Bureaucracy doesn’t help. The DEQ has assigned one official, Ann Vogen, to police 300-plus used tire shops in Detroit and haulers. To prosecute dumpers, she must witness the crime and persuade a Department of Natural Resources officer to write a ticket. Then, Wayne County prosecutors or city attorneys must agree to take up the case.
The crime is a misdemeanor and the state doesn’t keep records on prosecutions. The last high-profile case was in 2013. Prompted by a TV news investigation, the owner of a rubber recycling company, Henry Ross, pleaded guilty to dumping 70,000 tires in northwest Detroit. He was sentenced to six months in jail.
Vogen, who has patrolled tire dumping grounds since 1991, is optimistic the piles are shrinking. She is not naive.
“I used to think I wasn’t going to retire until the city was clean. Now I’m beginning to wonder if that will ever happen,” Vogen said.
That’s partly because there are so many scrap tires — and so little to do with them.
The state generates 11.3 million used tires per year and markets for them are vanishing, Marshall said. The DEQ this year doled out nearly $600,000 in grants to fund the removal of illegally dumped tires, including $168,000 for Detroit.
Tires picked up by Detroit crews end up at Silver Lining Tire Recycling in Wyandotte. Since 2004, the company has shredded about 2.5 million tires per year and converted them into chips (known as tire derived fuel) that are mixed with coals by power plants to produce electricity.
It was a good arrangement until October. That’s when the recycling company’s primary client, the city of Wyandotte power plant, switched to natural gas from coal, said Mike Wellington, production manager for Silver Lining.
So Silver Lining limited how many tires it could accept — and doubled its fees. The company now charges the city of Detroit and other haulers $2 per tire for recycling because it is landfilling shredded scrap, rather than reselling it.
That further eroded an already miniscule profit margin.
The economics go like this: State law requires that tire wholesalers charge customers disposal fees when they buy new tires, but they don’t set the price. So big shops charge $3 to $8 per tire. They pay haulers 50 cents to $2.50 per tire to take them away.
Salvageable tires are sold to used shops. Those that can’t be resold are supposed to go to Silver Lining or the state’s 20 other recycling centers. That costs haulers money, though, so many simply toss the tires, Marshall said.
“There’s a big incentive to dump what you can’t sell,” he said.
Al Baydoun, service manager of Excel Auto Care on Plymouth near Southfield, said unlicensed crews regularly visit his shop in rented vans, offering to take tires for 25 cents or 50 cents apiece. Baydoun said he refuses the offers because, at those prices, he has no doubt they’re illegally dumping tires.
“It’s really a mess,” Baydoun said. “It’s getting worse and worse. They’re putting harm to a community I live in.”
The state is helping fund research to find new uses. Regulations could change next year to allow companies to use scrap tires as an enhancer for asphalt, Marshall said, while other companies are testing using recycled tires in floor tiles.
“The issue with scrap tires is going to be around as long as I am, but we are making progress in finding other end-use markets for them,” Marshall said.
“Detroit’s problem is a legacy issue. Some of these used tires they are finding now (through Duggan’s demolition blitz) may have been sitting in fields or abandoned homes for 20 years.”
Wellington is dubious. He said new recycling efforts would only eliminate a tiny fraction of the mountains of tires produced each year in Michigan. If the state doesn’t intervene, more tires are destined to end up in vacant lots, Wellington said.
Back on Greensboro Street, Holmes isn’t concerned about the debate. Taking out her trash this month, she was glad to see a garbage truck pull up and remove the tires.
“I’m just glad they’re gone,” Holmes said.
Detroit has its share of big issues, from crime and schools to jobs and poverty. But daily nuisances such as graffiti and clogged drains often go just as far to defining quality of life in neighborhoods. Here’s a look at the number of complaints registered this year through mid-June on Improve Detroit, an app that allows residents to report problems on smart phones.
Running water from abandoned home: 2,221 complaints
Fallen trees or branches: 2,065
Clogged drains: 1,342
Illegal dumping: 1,199
Traffic signs and signals: 588
Missing manhole, broken fire hydrant: 572
Water main break: 338
Abandoned cars: 213
Broken street light pole: 104
Source: City of Detroit
App lets residents register complaints
Since January, Detroit residents have been able to register complaints about quality-of-life issues such as clogged drains and illegal dumping through a mobile phone app, Improve Detroit.
The app is supposed to improve response times and allows users to photograph and detail the problems. Resolved complaints are available online through the city’s online Open Data Portal. Here’s a sample of problems residents reported:
“My neibor ...has been trowing toilet paper, empty toilet paper rolls, and sanitary napkins from there second story window. I have been cleaning up these used items for months and I need help the smell is sickining.”
“Someone has dumped pit bulls in this area.”
“55 gallon drum filled with an unknown liquid. Label says something about alcohol.”
“HUMAN WASTE DUMPED IN THE RIVER. NOT CONNECTED TO SEWER SYSTEM.”
“I believe the people who are staying in the house must be squatters because no one would want to live in a house with all this debris in the back yard. Furniture, mattresses, dressers trash and what not. They do not cut the back yard and I have seen rats coming from that side of the fence and I am terrified of them.”
“Neighbor ... threw all of his trash over fence. When asked to remove it, he threw bricks and called names. City had removed over 60 trucks of trash already.”
“What is it going to take now we have hookers working at this home too bad the mayor or some city council don’t live next door that way this issue would be gone by now. so here is a question Can I shot the rats? since no one else cares.”
“There is debris in the alley behind this address in bags and some of the bags have human waste in them.”
“Customers of a lemonade stand at this location are littering.”
Source: City of Detroit