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Cleaning up Detroit with De-tread

Founder and CEO of De-tread Audra Carson on the business that cleans up and disposes of tires throughout the city

Content brought to you by Ford Motor Company Fund

A little over seven years ago, Audra Carson noticed something startling about the northwest Detroit neighborhood she grew up in. The lifelong Detroiter saw hazardous, discarded tires piling up.

"Just watching this neighborhood that had so many fond memories for me become a dumping ground," Carson says, compelled her to want to do something about it.

It didn't come to her until one day, while watching HGTV.

"This guy, he was selling mulch that was made from tires," she says. "And I said, 'Hmm. I can do that. You know, I'm from Detroit. We're auto-centric. I can do that.'"

It led Carson to create De-tread, LLC, a business that cleans up and disposes of tires strewn throughout Detroit neighborhoods—and hopefully, in the future, will use them to make a "globally appealing" product, she says.

Tire waste is a huge hazard to the environment as well as the city's residents. But how do they end up in neighborhoods?

"Because tires are a solid waste that is hazardous, it has to be paid for to be disposed of," Carson says. "So what happens is, you got a lot of open space, you got a lot of waste that otherwise would be very costly to get rid of, so some people feel like they can be disrespectful to the residents of the city and they bring their solid, hazardous waste in our neighborhoods."

And while those who drive the freeways and only visit the downtown area might not see it, she says, it's something the residents of Detroit's neighborhoods see every day.

"It does something to the psyche of the residents. You know, the children who have to walk past this every day. The health and safety issue—not even talking about what leaches from these when they heat and they freeze and they heat and they freeze," she says. "The community is breathing this stuff, they're living with this stuff—and they deserve so much more."

Over the last few years, Carson's six-year journey has taken her to TechTown for its SmartStart program to the Green Garage in Midtown, which is her current base. When she first started, she had the idea of having a tire processing facility, something that would cost approximately $6 million dollars.

Right now, her company is working at the neighborhood level doing cleanups. Following the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's guidelines for disposal, De-tread uses a licensed hauler to take the tires out of the neighborhoods and they have them processed properly.

Carson was connected with the Osborn neighborhood through the Skillman Foundation and in July 2013, with the help of volunteers from the neighborhood, De-tread cleaned up around 1,800 tires.

Currently, the company isn't able to take calls from residents and clean up neighborhoods in that way, but it's "ultimately the goal," she says. In 2014, Carson is looking to add more neighborhoods to their cleanup list and solidify a product they can make from melted down tires to sell, so they can sustain the cleanup costs.

"Of course tire waste will continue to accumulate, but my goal is that it will not accumulate on our city streets. And so the goal would be to see the tires go to the waste stream properly, with De-tread being the guide for that," Carson says.

Carson calls De-tread her "legacy" and says "it's an honor" to serve the city.

"I know that this is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing—as odd as it is," she says. "It's nothing but a blessing. Because people go through their entire lives looking for that thing and for it to be tires, I know it has to be my calling. … It is dirty, nasty, stinky work. But I'd do it every day."

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