Note: Please read the updated postscripts after the tour account.
Greetings from the "Return to Sender" Tour!
Two days of the King, a lot of open-mouthed stares, tweaking our sound bytes, frustration, and invigorating activism! That's what you missed if you didn't witness the whirlwind tour by "Elvis" and his cohorts on the "Return to Sender" Tour. For the uninitiated, the tour was about stopping Michigan from being the trash dumping ground for surrounding states and provinces.The tour visited Ann Arbor, the State Capitol in Lansing, Detroit, City Hall in Windsor, Ontario, and the campaign offices of both mayoral candidates in Toronto, Ontario on October 23 and 24, 1997. Our message was simple--It's time that folks in Michigan and Ontario call the shots in how our waste is managed, not the waste management companies and their well-placed stoolies in Michigan and Ontario governments! The following is a brief summary (okay-not so brief) of the days' events--true and without embellishment: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 23, 1997 8:00 AM--Ann Arbor--It's a very cool morning outside the County Administration Building when a huge Recycle Ann Arbor recycling truck pulls up and parks on Main Street. Along the entire length of one side is a 20-foot long banner reading "Return to Sender" and "Stop Trash Imports". It is an impressive sight, but only the warm-up for Elvis to make his initial appearance. The King (Elvis impersonator #1) arrives fashionably late to the cheers of his adoring fans (okay, I'm embellishing a little). Unfortunately, this Elvis can't sing, so he does "Return to Sender" (with updated lyrics) lip-syncing to the original. The chorus: "Return to sender, address unknown, don't want your trash here, so keep it at home." Ann Arbor City Councilperson Jean Carlberg shows up with a champagne bottle for a first class send-off to Lansing. We consider a champagne bottle christening of the recycling truck, but decide it's not the environmentally-correct thing to do. The recycling truck barrels away, hoping to make it to Lansing for a 9:45 appearance at the Capitol. Unfortunately, it's not exactly a highway cruiser... 9:45 AM--Lansing--Anxiously awaiting the recycling truck and Elvis (Impersonator #2-a professional Elvis impersonator--we shelled out the big bucks for this one). The truck makes it at about 10:00 and Elvis thereafter. The truck parks on the sidewalk right in front of the Capitol. We set up our decorated garbage can full of approximately 4000 letters to Canadian officials expressing outrage at the upcoming Toronto garbage deal with BFI. With both Lansing television stations' cameras rolling, Elvis performs "Return to Sender" with the Capitol as a backdrop and the NO WASTE/Ecology Center singers (Mike Garfield, Mary Beth Doyle, Tracey Easthope, Jeff Gearhart, and yours truly) providing background vocals. Many legislators walk by having no idea what's going on, but we come prepared with flyers and words of wisdom. Then, thanks to Dave Dempsey (sorry Dave, I hope you don't mind being associated with this dog-and-pony show), we pack it up and take Elvis in the Capitol to do a little lobbying in the gallery outside the House Chambers prior to a joint session addressed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court! It was indeed very memorable to see Rep. Mary Schroer come up and give Elvis a big hug in this setting. We were able to pass out much informational material on SB 4 and waste imports to many legislators. Another memorable moment was my personal confrontation with a surly Tom Alley in the gallery. While trying to present him with a little garbage can full of mementoes of our visit and why we are there, he replies "You've just put the lid on Senate Bill 4." Mr. Alley...we've only just begun! After wrapping up our unique lobbying session, we reconvene in the Capitol rotunda for another round of "Return to Sender". Now this is something we didn't expect to happen...performing our song in the Capitol, under the beautiful dome, with the sounds of Elvis and his backup singers wafting through the halls and galleries. It was truly a moment for the ages... ...But no time to enjoy. We're off to Detroit... 1:00--Detroit--We arrive at Cobo Hall having no idea what awaits us or where we can do our bidding. Unfortunately, our lack of planning results in a rather frustrating event here. Detroit's lethargic and clueless press corps is an absolute no show. We attempt to set up outside Cobo Center, but Detroit's finest will have no part of it. They don't want the truck; we can't set up our garbage can full of letters; no banner. The Detroit Police have somehow come to the conclusion that we are some kind of threat to society! We try to recoup our losses by invading the AFL-CIO organizing seminar that is taking place in Cobo that day and it actually works out pretty well. Accompanied by Elvis (Impersonator #3-dubbing himself the "Environmental Elvis"), we raid the luncheon that is taking place and give out hundreds of flyers to AFL-CIO organizers, who were very receptive to our message. We try to make a NAFTA tie-in: "We send jobs south to Mexico and Canada sends garbage south to the U.S." The tenacious Harold Stokes, like a man possessed, makes sure that every single flyer gets handed out. I'm glad he's on our side! We send the recycling truck home and head off to Windsor (border issues prevented us from taking the truck to Canada). 2:30 PM--Windsor--We cross the tunnel into Windsor with our garbage can, banner, flyers, etc. in tow and reach customs on the Canadian side. The customs inspector has lots of questions about our materials, getting it out of us that we are there for a protest, and she sends us to secondary customs. At this point, we are very nervous. But when we get to "secondary", the inspector greets us with "Oh, you are the guys from Michigan! We've been expecting you! We've been hearing about you on the radio all day!" (It was evidently a slow newsday in Windsor.) At 3:00 in front of Windsor City Hall, we don't see much action, but we set up our props and get ready to perform yet again. Moral support arrives in the form of Rick Coronado, our friend and all-around good guy at Citizens Environmental Alliance in Windsor. Before we know it, we are inundated with press people (newspaper writers, photographers, microphones and television cameras)! Environmental Elvis performs amazingly (complete with Elvis-style karate moves) in front of the cameras and microphones. Personally, I am asked a question by a TV reporter and before I know it, I am holding court in front of about a half-dozen microphones and three TV cameras, something I'd never experienced before. The message in Windsor is that Michigan doesn't want Windsor's sewage sludge and Windsor shouldn't want 40 truckloads of Toronto's garbage passing through each day. We definitely make our mark in Windsor. Afterword, we debrief at The Eclectic Cafe in Windsor, where a week earlier Mike and I had attended and addressed an International Environmental Rally hosted by Rick's group. We enjoy some good Canadian beer (Sleeman's Cream Ale--Why don't they export that?) and head home. On the way home that night, we periodically hear the news reports on the radio. Personally, it was quite startling and ironic to hear my voice on CKLW, the radio station I listened to in my youth, then hearing the voices of the Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, and the real Elvis. Home at 7:30 and rest for the marathon one-day trip to Toronto... FRIDAY, OCTOBER 24 On the road at 6:30 AM with Elvis (Elvis impersonator #4-the college student Elvis). After many delays in the Detroit area (such as figuring out how to get to Harold Stokes' house), we cross the Windsor bridge at 8:30, this time with no difficulty. We are still hearing reports of our Windsor escapades on the radio. Mike had prearranged with folks at the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) to meet at their office in downtown Toronto at noon. They had made arrangements for our events in Toronto. One of the things they asked us to bring was about 10 bags of garbage. Rather than bringing the garbage across the bridge with us, we decide to find it along the way. This proves to be a rather daunting task. We search a number of dumpsters at restaurants and shopping centers, to no avail. Another lasting image will be seeing Elvis #4 crawling into a Tim Horton dumpster to get a garbage bag. Finally, we hit paydirt at a service center dumpster and load up the pickup with the freight. It becomes apparent at about 10:30 that there is no way we are going to make it to Toronto by noon. So Mike calls TEA and gets directions to our first stop--the campaign headquarters of Mel Lastman. Lastman is the leader in the race for Mayor of Toronto. As the current mayor of North York and Toronto Metro Councillor, he voted for the contract to send Toronto's garbage to Michigan. We spend the rest of the trip getting Elvis #4 up to speed on the lyrics to "Return To Sender." Singing it in the car on the outskirts of Toronto gets us in the appropriate mood for some action! 1:00 PM--Toronto--We pull up in front of Lastman's office with a couple of reporters impatiently waiting for us. At the same time, about a half-dozen TEA folks arrive, decked out in work suits and hard hats. Stretching the banner across the front of the office, with the garbage can full of letters, and a street full of people watching (on very busy Yonge Street), Elvis does his thing. Even the TEA people have no idea what we're doing. The looks we get from passersby are priceless. Elvis #4 turns out to be a very good singer and Toronto Newsradio 680 records him for the airwaves. Then we pack it up and move inside for an encore performance inside Lastman's campaign headquarters. Elvis serenades the ladies and Lastman's campaign manager or PR guy (I'm not sure which) joins us in the singing and dancing. The campaign workers are clearly enjoying this break from the monotony. Unfortunately, Lastman is nowhere to be found. On a more serious note, we leave a pile of letters for Lastman to respond to and we make an official plea for Toronto to take a more responsible approach to managing their garbage and request an official response from Lastman. We also leave five bags of real garbage as a symbolic gesture of our appreciation for the forthcoming "gifts" we are to receive from Toronto. 1:40 PM--We hike up Yonge Street for another performance at Mayor Kathy Hall's campaign headquarters. We go through the same routine here, but the response is less welcoming. This is not surprising given that Mayor Hall is apparently heading to defeat in the election. However, they reluctantly let Elvis do his thing and a few hips do appear to be shaking. We again make a letter deposit and request an official response to our concerns from Mayor Hall, who as a Metro Councillor also voted for the contract. Five more bags of real garbage are left for her consideration. We reconvene outside Mayor Hall's campaign office and find out that a City TV camera crew is on the way. So we set up for what is to become our swan song performance. With the cameras rolling we give it all we have one last time, under a huge smiling picture of Mayor Hall. In the meantime, Harold Stokes is at it again, delivering our flyers to anyone and everyone who will take them on the streets of Toronto. I deliver our message to the residents of Toronto to the TV cameras and our mission is accomplished! We unwind for a bit at the TEA offices, with Mike doing a phone interview with WAAM back in Ann Arbor. We hear our message being delivered on the radio, with Elvis reaching far and wide across Ontario! We head to the local afterhours TEA hangout for burgers and beer (more wonderful Canadian brews--Budweiser be damned!) and hit the road by 5:30. It was a satisfying, yet long, drive home, knowing we had definitely made our mark in Ontario. It's unlikely that things will change, as far as Toronto's garbage is concerned. The garbage will begin flowing in January 1998 and another half a million tons per year of out-of-state waste will be deposited in Michigan landfills, from this contract alone. But a lot more people are now aware of the problem and perhaps we've picked up a few allies along the way. Maybe now it won't be so easy for Toronto to choose disposal in Michigan as it's long term solution, one of the options they are considering. Meanwhile, we still have Tom Alley to deal with... Jeff Surfus NO WASTE of Michigan Network of Waste Activists Stopping Trash Exports
Postscript (March 1999): Much has happened since that tour in the fall of 1997. Indeed, Toronto is now shipping its garbage to Washtenaw County, Michigan. They have actually renegotiated the contract to increase the amount of waste coming in. The Michigan Legislature didn't pass Senate Bill 4, which would have allowed Michigan to stop at least some of the waste. On a positive note, the key antagonist to our efforts in the legislature, Representative Tom Alley, lost in his bid to be elected to the Michigan State Senate. We will try again. Fortunately, this issue is now coming more into the public's awareness thanks to the battles between Virginia and New York City over its garbage.Post-Postscript (October 2000): Even more has happened since March 1999. Earlier this month Toronto indicated that Michigan is now the first option for long-term disposal, the situation we feared from the beginning. Elvis has been watching and waiting for the right time to reappear and, based on our secret conversations with him and the Colonel, we may have him talked into hitting the road again soon! Stay tuned...