Environment Picture

Steadfast and sincere, Margaret Weber is the engine that keeps Zero Waste coalition moving toward curbside recycling in Detroit

Living in America’s largest city without curbside recycling, Margaret Weber just wanted to do her little part. That, she has. 

The modest weekly drop-off site she founded in Detroit’s Rosedale Park neighborhood—Rosedale Recycles—has not missed a Saturday collection in 20 years. That’s 1,040 Saturdays of volunteers taking cardboard, newspapers and glass bottles from friends and neighbors in the well-kept neighborhood on Detroit’s northwest side. 

But Rosedale Recycles opened Weber’s eyes to broader challenges. Gradually, and perhaps inevitably, Weber became a pivotal figure in the struggle to create citywide curbside recycling service as one means to help shutter the city’s expensive, polluting trash incinerator. 

Today, she is the coordinator of Zero Waste Detroit, a coalition of 12 organizations working to replace incineration with resource recovery options like recycling. 

It is that work that has earned her the Michigan Environmental Council’s 2010 Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership

Under Weber’s guidance, Zero Waste Detroit has been successful in: 

  • Obtaining Detroit City Council support in 2008 for an end to incineration and creation of aggressive recycling programs.
  • Creation of a pilot curbside recycling program in 2009–10 for 30,000 households. 
  • Convincing city leaders to pursue limited agreements to continue burning trash, giving the city flexibility to move away from the incinerator. 
Progress on citywide recycling has been slow. Complicated. Frustrating. And halting. Bureaucracy will do that. Big city bureaucracy in Detroit is especially adept at it. And with four mayoral administrations in only eight years…well…you get it. 

Weber was undaunted. She has been a rock—a steadying influence on a sprawling, diverse coalition of anti-incinerator forces that has held together despite travails of city politics and muscle of corporate pro-incinerator lobbying. 

The steadfastness paid off in 2009 when the city established pilot curbside recycling programs serving almost 30,000 homes in two areas of Detroit. It was a watershed moment for activists whose decades-long fight for modern waste disposal options was finally being realized. 

“It was a victory,” she said. “Just to get something started.” 

The curbside program is tenuous still…subject to the whims of politicians, the scarcity of funds and the powerful pressure of incinerator interests. Weber understands this and, as usual, is in it for the long haul. “We’re lobbying for twice the money we have for the program now. We need more resources for education. We know that. If we don’t get it, we’ll keep trying. We know how to hold on to a vision, and that others will eventually join the quest,” she said. 

Evolution of leadership 
Weber isn’t one of the dogged, loyal activists who fought tooth-and-nail against the trash burner’s opening in the late 1980s and have been at it ever since. Truth be told, she was hardly aware of the controversy at the time the big burner fired up in 1989. 

But as Rosedale Recycles grew, she began to realize what a raw deal Detroiters were getting from a system that—because Detroit was required to send all its garbage to the incinerator—discouraged recycling or less expensive disposal options. Additionally, it added to air pollution woes afflicting a city where disease rates are unacceptably high and childhood asthma cases are three times the national average. 

“The incinerator was a 20-year block on recycling. And at times we were paying as high as $170 a ton to get rid of trash when others were paying $20 or $25,” she said. Weber was mindful of the negative messages that incinerator opponents historically embraced. Instead of only pointing out the expense and pollution, Zero Waste Detroit and Weber helped change the dialogue to jobs and progress, to possibilities for the city. 

The message resonated with Detroit’s City Council, which voted in 2008 to support the transition from trash burning to recycling and better disposal options. 

Fighting the system 
Anna Holden, a longtime Sierra Club activist from Detroit, was one of the original incinerator opponents. She credits Weber with being the glue that has held the coalition together for several years. 

Holden also says Weber’s even temperament has been effective in bringing people together. 

“Sometimes we have a hard time being friendly (to opponents),” said Holden. “Margaret understands that we are fighting a system, and not individuals, and has helped us keep that in mind. She is the kind of personality that attracts and accepts people the way they are. And she has taken on the role of keeping people involved, and she’s really stuck with it.”

Weber: This work is ‘tough’ but needed for future generations 

A native of Tiffin, OH, Margaret Weber has lived in Detroit’s Rosedale Park neighborhood for 36 years with her husband, Leonard 

Weber, an ethics expert and author who is professor emeritus at the University of Detroit Mercy. They have two adult children and three grandchildren. Weber credits her environmental ethic to her father, who grew and processed organic peas, apples, berries and many other crops in his spare time. Weber’s meticulously maintained yard is abloom with flowers, bushes, greenery and small plots of fruits and vegetables, thanks to Leonard. 

She has worked for various faith-based nonprofit organizations that educate people about world hunger, advocate for social justice, and train shareholders to lobby for environmental and ethical standards within corporations. 

Weber is humble, almost shy about her notoriety. It is a notoriety borne of persistence and hard work. 

Her organizing is “pretty tough, barren, kind of boring stuff, but someone has to do it,” she said. “We all depend on the earth and the environment. My experience is that the concern for our ‘home’ crosses all lines: rich, poor, black, white, male, female, whatever. This isn’t about advantage for anyone—it is about improvement for us all, for the generations following.”
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