The Detroit Incinerator

Case Study: Trash Disposal and the right to breath fresh air

Communities exposed to pollutants for too long


In 1986 the city of Detroit built the world’s largest municipal incinerator.  Prior to that trash was transported to suburban landfills which charged very high rates for their services creating an economic burden for the city of Detroit.  The incinerator’s supporters envisioned it as an environmental solution to landfills, population growth, and the energy crisis, as well as a revenue-generator for Detroit that would also free  the city from exorbitant fees from suburban landfills.  They also envisioned that those same suburban communities would clamor for the right to send their garbage to Detroit’s cheaper-than-landfilling burner, they thought, which would then provide inexpensive energy to heat and power downtown’s office buildings, with almost no pollution. After approval from Mayor Coleman A. Young, II and the City Council, the city issued $478 Million in bonds to construct the facility. 

There were, however, environmental groups and citizens who were opposed to the potential negative impact. The economic benefits of the incinerator were never realized and it was sold in 1991 to pay off city debt.   Although the city no longer owned the incinerator, having sold it for a mere $54 Million, citizens continued to pay bonds owed on it, and the city continues to own the land (as of 2020). Detroit residents paid over $1.2 billion in debt because of the incinerator.

Incineration is a waste treatment process that involves the combustion of organic substances contained in waste materials. Incineration and other high-temperature waste treatment systems are described as “thermal treatment”. Incineration of waste materials converts the waste into ash, flue gas and heat.  Incinerators are furnaces that burn trash and were considered the safest, most cost-effective waste disposal method.

The plant closed down March, 2019, though the threat of hazardous toxins still lingers within the residential area of the incinerator; the site serves as a transfer point for garbage shipments and will send waste to a nearby city. 


The incinerator was one of the worst polluters in Wayne County, emitting nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead into the atmosphere.  These pollutants impacted the earth’s ozone layer, as well as caused respiratory issues, contributing to Detroit’s high asthma hospitalizations and death. 

“Most of the waste [came] from whiter, more affluent communities, placing the burden of disposal on a mostly African American, lower-income community — classic environmental racism,”

Kim Hunter, environmental justice activist with Breathe Free Detroit

Community Goals

Government Involved

Intervention to Create Change

Zero Waste Detroit’s (ZWD) is a coalition of organizations advocating for the City of Detroit to move toward a waste recovery system (a system that finds new uses for trash) and away from incineration, and to hold the incinerator’s owners, Detroit Renewable Power, accountable for their actions.  ZWD’s waste model, which included  implementing the city’s first curbside recycling program, was supported by a resolution from the City Council.  ZWD partnered with the City of Detroit to educate residents on recycling and boost participation in the curside program.  ZWD also got language included in the reformed 2012 City Charter that mandates recycling as the first option for solid waste management.  They also held the incinerator accountable for its impact on the community by engaging governmental oversight.   

ZWD worked with the community to report odors from the incinerator to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).  As a result, the incinerator received numerous notices of odor violations and was tasked with making repairs to the facility to eliminate the extreme odors.  But that was not enough.  Odors and emissions continued. Fines consistently were levied each time the incinerator violated clean air, when residents complained of foul smells.

The Incinerator Received Gift after Gift

Even as the economy turned south and Detroit faced bankruptcy, the giveaways kept coming. In 2008, the state had redefined waste-to-energy power as “renewable,” making the facility eligible for valuable green energy credits. In 2011, the facility’s new owners came to Detroit City Council seeking $4.1 million in brownfield credits. The request was granted. ZWD worked to ensure the credits were contingent upon the company fixing existing odor problems.

In order to promote the redevelopment of certain property, the state of Michigan provides Michigan Business Tax (MBT) credits, on a case-by-case basis, for projects that redevelop a brownfield site, which is  contaminated, blighted or functionally obsolete property. 

As the world changed around it — with the rise of recycling, new affordability of landfills, growing awareness of environmental justice, a culture that increasingly frowns on pollution, and anxiety over climate change — the facility at the intersection of I-75 and I-94 continued to sputter, smell, and smoke, all while draining money from the city it helped bankrupt. 

2008 – Flyer

City Challenges to Making Change

Measurable Successes for Community Advocates


  1. Which issues did the local government need to be accountable for and why?
  2. Who held whom accountable and how?