Ask Planet Detroit: Why is there so much trash in ...

Ask Planet Detroit: Why is there so much trash in Detroit’s parks (and what can we do about it?)

overflowing trash can outdoor

Dear Planet Detroit, 

Why are our parks so trashed with garbage all the time? Is there anything that can turn this around and keep our parks clean?


In search of clean and green

Dear Clean and Green, 

Detroit has so many wonderful parks (309 to be exact!).  We asked the city what they’re doing to keep the parks clean, and we found out that two of the main challenges to keeping them clean are the heavy use of the parks (yay!) and littering (boo!). 

Rosemary Edwards, superintendent of the General Services Department for the city of Detroit says there’s a myriad of problems with the trash in the parks, including illegal dumping, stolen trash cans, littering, and increased use of the parks this season due to COVID-19 compared to previous years.

“I could turn all of my park mowing crews into cleaning crews and still not have enough crews to clean the parks and keep up with the volume of trash we have this season,” she says, adding that although the city has increased the number and frequency trash pickups this year, the trash is still “constant.” 

Edwards says that not all of the trash in the parks is from park use—sometimes people bring trash there. 

“People know it will get picked up,” she says. All manner of household items like furniture, toilets, drywall, floorboards, household trash bags, leaf debris in paper bags, are dumped in Detroit parks.

Alfred Brush Ford Park. Photo courtesy Ted Tansley

Another issue is trash bin tampering. Sometimes people vandalize the bins, steal them, or turn them over to look for a bottle and can returnables. 

Jeremy Thomas, the communications and marketing manager for the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department, told Planet Detroit that around 200 staff maintain the parks regularly.

Nonetheless, park usage and those who leave trash and debris make it challenging to keep parks clean. “We rely on park-goers to help us keep parks clean,” Thomas says.

Two park-goers are doing just that. 

Ted Tansley, who lives in Jefferson-Chalmers, and Ambreia Stephens, who lives in Palmer Park, were both motivated recently during the COVID-19 pandemic to initiate major community cleanups for their local parks. 

“It’s personally really difficult and challenging for me to enjoy these parks in all their beauty when it’s being ruined by all the trash,” Tansley says. 

Tansley hosts a weekly meetup group on the app Nextdoor called the Jefferson Chalmers Park Advocates & Cleanup Crew. The group has more than 50 members that meet every Sunday to clean one of the five parks in their rotation: Mariner Park, A.B. Ford Park, Maheras Gentry Park, Hansen Playground, and Lakewood East Park. In addition to cleanups, they also email and call their District 4 representatives to advocate for more trash cans, increased city-led cleaning, and hours restricting park-goers to daytime use. 

One problem with the trash left in the parks, Tansley says, is that it gets mowed over when the grass is mowed, leaving tiny pieces of plastic. “I’ve personally seen trash just get shredded,” he says. “People aren’t picking up the trash beforehand.” 

This can present more problems beyond just making it harder to clean up. John Scott, a researcher at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center says, “If you’re mowing up the stuff, you’re definitely contributing to or speeding up the process of going from a macroplastic to a microplastic.” 

Microplastics present a host of problems for local ecosystems and humans by entering into groundwater and surface water. From there, it’s possible for people and wildlife to ingest them, along with any other contaminants they absorb from the environment. “The smaller they are, the more they have a potential to transfer across biological membranes, getting into your cells, getting into your organs, your bloodstream,” Scott says. 

John Myers has lived in Detroit for almost three decades, and coming to its parks even longer—his dad would take him fishing as a kid in the 1960s. As an adult, he’s been cleaning up the parks for decades individually, with groups, and through work at community development corporations. “It’s always been a challenge,” he says. “I can’t remember when it wasn’t.” 

One of those challenges is budgetary. In 2018-2019, the city’s budget for parks was 8 percent of the total, up from 6 percent in 2017-2018, before going back down to 6 percent for 2019-2020. This past May, Mayor Duggan, and the City Council approved the 2021 budget with major cuts to the public spaces department, which parks fall under. 

Alfred Brush Ford Park. Photo courtesy Ted Tansley

“In this city, the first budget cuts come to parks and recreation, and the last one to get back in the budget is parks and recreation,” Myers says.

According to the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore Index—which ranks cities based on access, investment, acreage, amenities of its public parks and spaces—Detroit ranks 82 out of 97 cities. Just 7 percent of Detroit’s land is used for parks. In comparison, Minneapolis, the city that ranked highest on the score, uses two times as much (15 percent) of its land for parks. 

In the Palmer Park area, Ambreia Stephens, a community organizer, and an avid park-goer, is planning a combined field day and park cleanup event on August 2nd for Palmer Park. Stephens has always seen trash at the parks but this year says it was especially bad and felt motivated to do something about it. 

The event will be complete with DJs, food, a video game truck, potato sack racing, food, and even tattoo-voucher prize giveaways for the teams that collect the most trash. She’s hosting this event to hopefully have a ripple effect and, Stephens says, “to get people outside and to be excited about taking care of their spaces. They’re our spaces to take care of, and there’s a responsibility in that. We need to do better.”

Riverfront-Lakewood East Park. Photo courtesy Ted Tansley.

Stephens has amassed several collaborators and partnerships for the event including Green Living Science, the Belle Isle Conservancy, and the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce. 

With COVID-19 still spreading and the outdoors being one of the only places for people to be right now, Stephens says it’s especially important that people start taking care of the parks. “It’s our job as people of the community to maintain our community,” she says. 

In addition to organizing cleanups like Tansley and Stephens, Detroit residents can get involved in other ways. The city has an Adopt-a-Park program for which adopters are expected to keep the park free of debris, routinely mow, and trim or remove weeds. For the problem of illegal dumping, Edwards recommends taking pictures of the debris and submitting them on the Improve Detroit app so the trash can be picked up.