Zero waste and sustainable materials management (SMM) are two ways of reframing the process of waste management, by envisioning waste as potentially useful material. Detroit has taken a step towards SMM, implementing a city-wide curbside recycling program in 2014. While only 6.6% of the city’s waste is currently recycled or composted, the other 93.4% is combusted in Detroit’s waste-to-energy facility (WTEF) or sent to landfills. Like other post-industrial cities with long-standing WTEFs, Detroit’s WTEF is located in a predominately non-white and low-income community, and the facility has faced alleged odor and emissions violations. For Detroit to move forward with sustainable and just waste reduction and diversion strategies, it is necessary to understand its successes and challenges within waste management.
This report for the East Michigan Environmental Action Council and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives characterized Detroit’s waste management system using stakeholder interviews, policy review, Sankey diagrams, and environmental justice spatial analysis to analyze opportunities for enhancing SMM in the city. We selected two case study cities that also have a WTEF, Baltimore and Minneapolis, to benchmark their progress with advancing SMM and provide best practices for Detroit. Interview participants mentioned several political, social, economic, procedural/technical, and environmental factors that can support or impede efforts to advance SMM. Based on these findings, in addition to the results of our Sankey diagrams and spatial analysis, we proposed a set of eight recommendations for Detroit to consider when adopting an SMM framework in the future. Ultimately, our project recommends the following actions for Detroit: (1) Collect more data on the city’s waste stream; (2) continue community engagement efforts; (3) market waste as a material resource; (4) encourage the State of Michigan to enact more SMM legislation; (5) create a method of addressing continued air emissions violations in waste management facilities; (6) centralize sustainability efforts in Detroit’s new Office of Sustainability; (7) conduct a feasibility study regarding a differentiated waste management pricing structure; and (8) sustain long-term planning for SMM in Detroit. Despite our focus on Detroit, our findings also have policy implications and practical recommendations for other cities like Detroit that are struggling to advance a more sustainable and just waste management system.