By Tunde Wey
Vanita Mistry, in her charming English accent, describes the magic of the internal combustion engine:
“A little fire in a cylinder that moves a piston and creates wheels in motion…”
That tiny spark amplified to cause forward motion is an apt metaphor for Detroit, the birthplace of the automobile. For a while now, this fire has flickered. The auto industry stalled, Detroit’s economy slumped, and the population halved. As a result, basic services that residents had come to expect a city to provide were thrown into question.
With Detroit struggling to police its streets and provide basic education for its children, some services were deprioritized – including curbside recycling.
Mistry, 27, is adamant about reversing this state of affairs. She wants to see curbside recycling throughout the city. So she started her own program.
Founded in October 2010, Detroit Greencycle provides recycling and compost pick-up services – via bicycle. Mistry, who rides with a trailer hitched to her bike, delivers the recycling she picks up from residents and businesses to Recycle Here’s drop-off location on Holden Street, and the compost to local gardens.
With rates as low as $15 per month for bi-weekly residential pickup (and $20 for weekly), Detroit Greencycle is modestly priced and convenient. Mistry’s service supplies clients an 18-gallon bin for recycling and a 5-gallon bin for compost, accepting most traditional recyclable items (paper, glass, metals, plastic), uncooked food waste and yard clippings. Easier still, customers are not required to sort out their recyclables.
How did this idea take root?
During a spring trip to San Francisco in 2010, Mistry was impressed with the city’s efficient recycling program. That year, San Fran boasted a 77% recycling rate, with only 23% of its waste dumped in a landfill. She noted residents were provided full-size bins for both recycling and composting, and she felt strongly that Detroit deserved an equally efficient and dependable curbside recycling service.
Upon her return, Mistry began researching cost-effective ways to provide this service and create a viable business model. She began by identifying the service gap, and discovered that while some larger businesses and residential apartment buildings had agreements for recycling pick-up, a similar service did not exist for single family homes or smaller apartment units.Seizing the opportunity, Mistry settled on a bicycle-pulled trailer after learning about a similar service in New York. She started off with five of her friends as customers.
Today, she has a current client roster of 37 households, spread throughout the greater downtown area. Impressively, Mistry says she is currently netting $800 per month in revenue for approximately 10 hours of work per week.
The reality of curbside recycling in Detroit is an expensive proposition. In 2009, The City of Detroit piloted a one-year curbside recycling program, offering the service to about 30,000 homes (around 12% of the city’s households). The program – which cost the city $3.8 million – was feted at its launch, and expected to expand to cover the entire city in two years.
Today, there is no program to service the entire city, and it’s anybody’s guess what the cost of a full fleet would be. This is where the cost savings of human-powered transport comes in – not to mention the benefits of urban density.
Mistry, a mechanical engineer by training, does not hate cars – she is fascinated by them. While she praises the “genius” of automobiles, she readily adds that the amount of resources expended in building and fueling automobiles is unsustainable. “The way of the future,” as she sees it, is a smarter and more intentional city – a place where transportation costs and pollution are cut as people populate the core, living “closer together instead of so far apart.”
For Mistry, Detroit Greencycle is a proverbial spoke in the wheel of solutions bringing this reality just a little bit closer.
Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography
Vanita is a member of the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX). Tunde Wey writes for UIX.