No, throwing trash out the window does not create jobs. A look at Detroit’s litter problem.

Every year as the weather warms, in comes the spring cleanup events – some hosted by the city, others hosted by organizations, local groups, and neighborhood block clubs. 

At the same time, trash thrown from car windows, overfilled refuse containers, and bulk solid waste piles seem to fill up the landscape. Trash blows in the wind on any given day, clinging to fences and crevices near expressways.

Some of us complain about the litter; others do what we can to help with whatever tools and capacity we have. 

Then there are some of us who add to the problem.

“We hear all the time that residents think that throwing trash out the window creates jobs,” said Natalie Jakub, executive director of Green Living Science, a nonprofit that works to educate the public about recycling and waste management. Jakub also co-chairs the Recycling Waste Reduction Committee of the Detroit Green Task Force.  

“You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s going to take cultural and behavior change [to address it],” she said.

Litter in the woods at Palmer Park. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Green Living Science oversees the outreach for a curbside recycling program known as Detroit Recycles, while also offering educational programming to schools, organizations, and corporations on how to recycle. Since its launch in 2015, the number of participating households for Detroit Recycles has increased to over 60,000 households, Jakub said.

Jakub sees children as a pathway to correcting behaviors by introducing new recycling and waste management habits to their families. Through family waste audits and mock passports allowing children and their families to complete recycling-related tasks, Jakub testifies to the impact of these “little ambassadors” on their family’s recycling efforts.

“We’re seeing that there’s definitely going to be a growing interest and need [for recycling] – and I blame it entirely on the kids,” Jakub said.

According to Doug Collins, superintendent of solid waste for the City of Detroit in 2021, the City of Detroit collected 456,412 tons of waste from residential trash, recycling, bulk, yard waste, and illegal dumping. But many more pounds of litter go uncollected. Walking or driving in the city on any given day causes my 3-year-old son to call out the trash floating in the air or on the ground.

Longtime community leader Toni McIlwain suggests more residents need to take the first step to make a change. 

“If you say ‘jump on my bandwagon and let’s get the city cleaned up, you get people jumping on the bandwagon. But most people are waiting to be led,” McIlwain said.

McIlwain spearheaded her own trash collection efforts in the city for years through her organization, Ravendale Community Inc., to clean the corridors along Harper and Chalmers. Located outside of the city’s targeted “strategic neighborhoods,”  Ravendale is largely left to its own devices, McIlwain said.

“There’s no collaboration with the city. Their collaboration is ‘let’s give them a couple of trash bags, you know: Motor City Makeover, and some gloves,’” she said. Motor City Makeover is a city-led initiative in partnership with community block clubs and groups, allowing for weekly cleanups throughout May and June annually. 

McIlwain would like to see support for neighborhood-led trash collection efforts throughout the year rather than as a single annual volunteer event. 

Toni McIlwain in her east side neighborhood. Photo by Nick Hagen.

McIlwain suggests ideas like the “adopt-a-spot” concept. She got the idea from a program her sister initiated in California. The idea is to focus cleanup efforts on specific areas and offer incentives to neighbors to keep them clean. McIlwain points to heavily trashed highway ramps, like the one at Harper and Cadieux near I-94, as potential “adopt-a-spot” candidates.  She’d like to copy an idea she learned from her sister in California, where neighbors are offered incentives to keep certain areas clean.

“[My sister] gave out incentives to keep those spots clean, and what happened was neighbors started to help them,” she said. 

Enforcement and education

“I pick up trash almost every day around my property. But there’s always tons of litter on side streets or main ones,” Detroit resident Jeneen Conley-Berry told Planet Detroit via the Nextdoor platform. Other residents complained of illegal dumping and bulk trash left at the curb for months and “red solo cups, used K95 masks, potato chip bags” cluttering their lawns daily.

Some residents take matters into their own hands. “Because I love my community, I have purchased a trash picker, and I clean the island and sidewalks in the area of St. Aubin and Chene as needed,” wrote resident Lillian Key. “I also try to work with the city during the summer months to empty trash cans around the nearby park on a timely basis.”

Collins said that the city is rolling out a media blitz this spring to educate residents about all aspects of solid waste management. He said it’s the “the biggest push” he’s seen in his 10 years of service with the city and will include billboards, social media, commercials, mailers, and presentations at block club and community meetings. 

Allison Joseph, 49, and Nayomi Cawthorne, 27, pick up trash during the Palmer Park Earth Day clean-up.

And the city plans to hire more environmental enforcement officers, whose job is to issue ticketing when bulk trash remains outside of pickup dates. Collins said that approximately 70 enforcement officers are currently employed by the city, with plans to fill 40 more positions soon. 

But tickets may not be the best solution, according to Jakub, who advocates for a “gentle approach.”

“We’re in a city that has high amounts of poverty,” Jakub said. “We can’t use enforcement as the tool to change behaviors all the time because that goes against what we’re trying to do to uplift our community and get them to want to do these things.”

Jakub points to increased awareness about public health as one way to motivate change. Scientists recently detected microplastic pollution in human blood for the first time. Tiny particles of PET plastics used in making drink bottles and polystyrene used in food packaging were detectable in almost 80% of the people tested.

Litter along I-94. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“The average person throws away four pounds of trash a day, but now if you know that and you know it’s in your blood, you might be like, ‘how do I not use plastic in my day to day life?’” Jakub said.

Resident Amy Rose on Nextdoor would love to see more neighbors band together to fight litter.

“It’s good to hear that others are as concerned as I am about the litter. It is a real problem. If everyone did a little, the situation could really improve.”

How to get involved:

  • Volunteer with Motor City Makeover in May
  • If you’re looking for a more long-term initiative and there’s no block club in your area, consider starting one and launching your own neighborhood cleanup effort. Neighborhood groups can coordinate with their District Manager to request DPW to attend their community meetings to provide education and resources. 
  • Report illegal dumping through the Improve Detroit app or by calling the Department of Public Works at 313-224-3901


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