Now That the Detroit Trash Incinerator Is Closed, What's Next?

As organizers and advocates of the Breathe Free Detroit campaign along with earlier campaigns, Ecology Center staff have been fighting for the closure of the Detroit trash incinerator for many years.  You may be wondering why it's closed now, after so many years of calling for its closure. And, what's next, now that it's closed. 

Why Now?

For years people living near the incinerator have called the MDEQ to log odor complaints when the smell of rotting trash hung in the air. Zero Waste Detroit, a coalition in which the Ecology Center is a member, diligently educated the community about the MDEQ odor hotline. Calls resulted in small, but continued fines for the facility and a feeling of being heard for area residents. Community and clean air advocates turned out to MDEQ hearings, giving testimony in person or by letter stating why the incinerator was a bad neighbor, negatively affecting the health of children, the elderly, and other community members. As a result, the MDEQ gave the incinerator owners a slap on the wrist fine for over 750 Clean Air violations and said there’s not much they could do.  

Then the incinerator was sold a little over a year ago to a new owner who promised the community they would be better neighbors and manage the odors, but didn’t make promises about emissions.

The Breathe Free Detroit campaign turned to municipal government, gathering and delivering almost 15,000 signatures petitioning Mayor Duggan to shut down the incinerator. He said he had no jurisdiction and told us to talk to the State. But, the media and the broader public started to pay attention.

All the while, residents continued to call about odors and educate their neighbors about air quality. With the support and guidance of Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and on behalf of area residents, the Ecology Center and Environment Michigan filed an Intent to Sue letter in January against the facility for the continued air emissions violations. The company had 60 days to respond. Residents were being exposed to excess emissions of nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide coming from the incinerator’s stacks. Area residents also suffer from high rates of asthma.

The facility owners realized that they purchased a public relations nightmare. They had to decide between operating the facility within the limits of the law or turning a profit.  Instead, they chose to shut down three days before the filing of the lawsuit.

Time was up for the facility. People and organizations have protested the incinerator since 1986 before it was even built, starting with the Evergreen Alliance.  Zero Waste Detroit, Breathe Free Detroit, and others took up the mantle and carried the torch. We have one less polluter in Detroit and much to celebrate, but in some ways the work is just beginning.

What’s Next?

The Breathe Free Detroit campaign along with Empower Michigan will hold a town hall event to highlight how the City of Detroit moves beyond incineration. Please join us and U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib, who will host the event on Friday, June 14th at 6 pm. Beyond Incineration: Waste, Energy and Just Transition, A Town Hall with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib 

Trash is still being generated. Now it’s going to landfills instead. We need to work towards zero waste, waste reduction, municipal composting, expansion of recycling to businesses and multi-family housing. There’s still much to be done to address our solid waste. We will also continue to work for clean air in the city and reducing and eliminating sources of asthma-inducing pollution.

What Can You Do?

As individuals, as community members, as city residents, and as an organization, we can all take steps right now to reduce our waste. Let’s start with plastic because wherever you are in your consumption of plastic (which is actually both figurative and literal), you can do better. We must all do better.

Here's how to reduce your plastic waste