Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visiting Michigan in April

Detroit plans outreach to boost recycling participation

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is embarking on a new community outreach effort in hopes of boosting the dismal participation rate in Detroit’s recycling program.

Citywide curbside recycling was offered for the first time in Detroit nearly two years ago as part of the largest privatization agreement in the city’s history.

But the results thus far haven’t been too impressive. The city estimates just 11 percent of residents are recycling.

Detroit City Council this month approved $66,000 in contracts with two city nonprofits designed to expand community outreach and education. The groups will work with Detroit to craft public service announcements and flyers and step up school programming, door-to-door canvassing and community engagement, says Councilman Scott Benson.

“We are going to really start now to push recycling and educating residents on how to do it and what to do,” he said. “We’re looking to get this to everybody.”

Officials expect the outreach strategy, to be employed through mid-2017, will be developed in the coming weeks.

Benson, who chairs the council’s Green Task Force, calls participation “abysmal” and says it is due in part to a $25 fee to obtain a recycling bin. Another factor is the city’s growing population of non-English speakers.

Part of the informational campaign, he says, will include materials in various languages to reach different socioeconomic groups. Residents are now able to obtain vouchers for recycling containers, which he says had presented a “barrier to entry.”

Before outsourcing its garbage collection to Rizzo Environmental Services and Advanced Disposal in 2014, Detroit piloted curbside recycling for about 30,000 homes on the city’s east and west sides, says Ron Brundidge, director of the Department of Public Works.

At the time, Detroit provided collection bins at no cost to a cross section of neighborhoods. Participation levels were mixed, so officials instituted a one-time $25 fee for the containers when opt-in recycling began under the city’s privatization agreement. Under the deal, the city pays Rizzo and Advanced Disposal each about $100,000 a month.

Brundidge said the newly-approved outreach and education contracts are tied to a $95,000 grant the city received in 2015 from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The allocation was from a pot of about $600,000 in grants for recycling initiatives statewide.

The recycling advocates — Green Living Science and Zero Waste Detroit — will promote the city’s program as part of an overall recycling campaign totaling $126,000, which also will fund the cost of brochures and 1,600 recycling containers to be provided free to residents who take part in educational meetings or workshops.

Since the grant was awarded last September, about 1,000 have attended workshops and been given vouchers for bins, Brundidge said.

The city hopes to double its participation rate to 20 percent by the end of the grant term in August 2017, Brundidge said.

“In order for us to be more successful, we’re going to have to provide a more sustained effort toward getting that message out, to get people to understand how important it is,” he said. “When you are talking 89 percent not participating, the need is really citywide at this point.”

Tiffani Dunbar got a bin for free as part of the city’s pilot program but admits she doesn’t use it much.

“I’m so busy and I guess I just haven’t gotten used to the whole recycling idea,” she said. “I didn’t have it before and I didn’t grow up recycling.”

On a recent morning in the city’s Marygrove area, the 32-year-old was among the majority on Indiana Avenue without a cart at the curb for the bi-weekly pickup.

“I’m trying to get better at it,” she said. “To me, it takes time.”

Detroit isn’t alone in its participation challenges. Recycling rates have lagged statewide, prompting Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014 to appoint a recycling council and roll out an action plan to encourage participation. The effort set out to bump the state’s residential recycling rate from 15 percent to 30 percent within two years.

An outgrowth of the city’s drop-off recycling center, Green Living Science has hosted school assemblies, field trips and community meetings on recycling in Detroit for years. The new contract will allow the group to expand those efforts, says Rachel Klegon, the organization’s executive director.

“A lot of people don’t know that it’s even available,” Klegon said. “Once they do, they might not be able to understand why they would need to pay $25 for something they never had to pay for before.”

West-side resident Robert Tuggle, 72, believes he and others on his Kentucky Avenue block rarely recycle because “it’s hard to change.”

“For years, people have been used to dumping it in the garbage,” he said. “Then they get this blue (recycling) can and wonder what it’s for.”