On a recent Saturday morning, Pamela McGhee and several neighbors were busy at work in a community garden on Detroit’s East Side, weighing food scraps and assessing compost piles for compliance. Items in the compost are assessed according to a “yuck” and “yay” system. “Yuck” items, like animal bones and meat, which do not compost well, were discarded; “yay” items, including fruit peels and coffee grounds, were added to the pile. 

McGhee and her neighbors are participating in a pilot program to build zero-waste systems for Detroit. It’s something they say the city sorely needs. For decades, Detroit was home to one of the country’s largest waste incinerators. 

Detroit Renewable Power burned thousands of tons of trash each day, releasing toxic fumes — nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead particles — into the air. Nearby residents kept their windows closed to avoid the stench. They said the incinerator, located in a low-income, majority-Black neighborhood, contributed to the city’s high asthma rates, which are 46% higher than Michigan’s state average. 

Pamela McGhee. Credit: Jena Brooker

Three out of four of McGhee’s children have asthma; her sister does too. “It was terrible,” she said. “You could smell it just about every day in the summer, and in the wintertime too.” 

The existence of the incinerator also discouraged investment in alternative waste management systems, like recycling or composting, according to the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). In 2014, Detroit became the last major U.S. city to implement citywide curbside recycling; today, its waste diversion rate is only 4%, compared to the state average of more than 19%.

East Side residents formed Breathe Free Detroit, one of several groups behind a successful campaign to shut down the incinerator; the plant closed in 2019. Now, that same group is working with the city to develop a composting system.

“Our communities still face a lot of respiratory and health problems because of the pollution that was caused from the incinerator,” said KT Andresky, Breathe Free Detroit’s campaign organizer. Andresky said that many of her neighbors see a direct line between composting and recycling and improving their community health. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is the most common material found in landfills and sent to incinerators in the U.S, comprising 24% of landfill materials and 22% of combusted municipal solid waste.

A citywide composting program would create local jobs, decrease truck traffic and emissions from waste pickup and provide organic fertilizer for community gardens like the one in which McGhee was volunteering, Andresky said. It would also help the U.S. reach its climate goals: food that decomposes in landfills is a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Composting and recycling could help reach net-negative waste-sector emissions by 2030, according to a new report by GAIA. 

But Detroit organizers didn’t have much experience with community-wide composting, so when they began developing their program they turned to an unlikely mentor more than 8,000 miles away: the Mother Earth Foundation in The Philippines. Over the past 20 years, the organization has earned a reputation for training low-income communities, government agencies, civic organizations and businesses in zero-waste practices. 

“Culturally, [composting] has been part of our ancestral practices,” said Rap Villavicencio, a program manager at the Mother Earth Foundation. “As an agricultural country, the Philippines has been using and producing a lot of organic wastes since the early days,” he said. 

Despite that ancestral knowledge, few citywide systems were helping communities keep organic matter out of landfills, Villavicencio said. “We cannot rely on the large-scale anymore,” he said. “We need to empower every household, every sector to do their own composting.” 

For more than a decade, the organization has set up compost training programs in communities across the country; it helped one neighborhood in Manila divert 92% of its solid waste from landfills, according to a report from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

It was that success at the local level that convinced organizers with C40 Cities, a global network of metropolises that collaborate on climate solutions, to connect the Mother Earth Foundation with Breathe Free Detroit. 

Starting in November 2020, the two groups organized monthly calls, in which Mother Earth Foundation organizers offered advice based on their experiences setting up community composting systems.

Miles Hone holds the lid to a compost bin provided as part of the pilot program. Credit: Jena Brooker

“It’s just really important for us to learn from and be guided by some of the most impacted communities across the world because these communities are experts in understanding the solutions for the problems that they face on a daily basis,” said Andresky. 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a funder of C40, provided the volunteers, including McGhee, stipends for participating in training sessions and collecting data on her community’s composting practices. The foundation’s grant also included money for materials, staffing of the pilot, and data analysis. Next spring, Breathe Free Detroit and its partners plan to share that data with city officials. Members of Mother Earth Foundation and community organizers in Detroit plan to visit each other’s cities early next year, Andresky said.

The Manila-Detroit partnership is part of a larger effort helmed by C40 Cities to connect U.S. communities with non-U.S. groups to advance climate justice and public health. 

“Climate change is so overwhelming often, and it requires so many innovative ideas, and really, transformation at the root,” said Nia Mitchell, manager of U.S. health and equity climate for C40 Cities. International collaboration has a lot to offer, Mitchell said. “Being able to be inspired by and demonstrate that new strategies can work is one really big benefit,” she said. 

The Detroit-Manila partnership isn’t the only one of its kind led by C40 Cities. Officials in Jackson, Mississippi, have partnered with their counterparts in Barcelona to study how replacing asphalt with vegetation can combat urban heat islands. Community organizations in Lawrence, Massachusetts, have studied Fortaleza, Brazil on how to make the city’s streets more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. 

Cities learning from one another is easy — it’s scaling those solutions that proves challenging, said Josh Sorin of the Centre for Public Impact, another organization working to bring together cities across the world to address climate change. 

“There are some exciting examples at the moment of cities learning from one another’s experiments and solutions to address the climate crisis in their cities,” he said. “However, the greater challenge we see is the need for cities to embed and influence insights from individual experiments into broader city policies, and even regional and national policies,” Sorin said. 

“At the end of the day, it’s really about relationships,” Mitchell, of C40, said. “To have trust amongst these cities, to really confront these problems together, to lean on each other’s expertise together only makes us stronger and makes our ability to confront climate change, globally, that much more possible.”

This article was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change. Follow us @NexusMediaNews.