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Tuesday, 07 February 2012 11:28

Startup repurposes organic waste, advises on sustainable choices

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GRAND RAPIDS — Managing waste is nothing new, especially for big industries such as health care and manufacturing. Sustainability initiatives, which primarily focus on monitoring the input/output metrics of businesses, have revealed a number of places where companies can improve their bottom lines — in particular, energy use and waste.

Organicycle wants to bring the same kind of efficiencies that large-scale operations are implementing and make it feasible and affordable for small businesses. However, the linchpin for the company’s strategy relies on education and the proliferation of technologies that repurpose organic waste.

“Organic waste is one of last items that is commonly thrown away that can be used in purposeful products,” said Organicycle President Dan Tietema. “The idea is to find a clean, efficient and affordable way of doing this.”

Tietema decided to start Organicycle shortly after selling his first venture, Omni Medical Waste Inc. He said the idea for the business was sparked when he saw how much organic waste he was throwing away at home and realized there had to be a way the refuse could somehow be put to better use. After visits to organic waste operations in Canada and researching established programs on the West Coast and in the Northeast, Tietema said he saw a real opportunity to cultivate best practices out of an emerging waste market in West Michigan.

“Being a part of the waste industry for the last 10 years and following trends, I felt there was enough interest to pursue the business model,” he said. “I was very attracted to the idea that this was the next thing in waste management.”

The company recently wrapped up its pilot project with Restaurant Partners Inc. affiliate Sundance Grill on 28th Street. With a focus on the organic waste the restaurant creates — leftovers, food scraps and unusable food parts — Organicycle takes ordinary recycling practices a few steps further.

While Sundance continues to divide up its typical recyclables, it places food scraps and other organic waste into a separate receptacle for Organicycle. From there, Organicycle will charge its customers for a pickup service and then transport the waste to a facility that can process the materials into a useable commodity. Some is transported to an anaerobic digestion facility where the once unused material is converted into methane gas. Some is composted and turned into fertilizer that can be redistributed to farms. Depending on the sugar content, some waste is processed into ethanol — now a common biofuel additive.

These methods, while still relatively uncommon, are not new. The problem is that demand for their use is low; with little competition in the market, the cost for the services remains high.

However prices for dumping waste at landfills continues to rise as waste companies merge and tipping fees increase, said Justin Swan, VP of sales and development for Organicycle. Swan said there is a “sunset” on the feasibility for the cost structure of landfills as they fill up and prices become too expensive for customers. He added that landfills also are not recognized as the best land-use option.

The South Kent Landfill is 44 percent full and has an expected closure date of 2029. In 2010, the dump took in 590,762 cubic yards of municipal waste. The same year, 75.5 percent of Michigan solid waste was disposed of in Michigan landfills — not including the amount imported from Canada and other states — up from 72.6 percent in 2009 and 69.9 percent in 2008.

“It’s about extracting as much from the landfill stream as we can,” Swan said of food waste.

According to his pilot research, Swan said Organicycle would effectively reduce Sundance’s contribution to local landfills by 75 percent. Considering the number of restaurants that produce comparable organic/inorganic waste volumes, the potential for landfill diversion could be enormous, Swan said. If other businesses choose to incorporate the model, this could have a drastic effect on the amount of waste being sent to landfills. The research further indicates that Sundance will have the option to lower its frequency of solid waste pickup from four times a month to once a month, reducing the cost for removal.

“This of course doesn’t even begin to examine the marketable benefits of going green, which has already shown to be attractive to local restaurants like the Green Well and Grove,” Swan said.

For Organicycle, the final hurdle is educating and consulting on the benefits and effectiveness of organic waste separation. The infrastructure for typical recycling is already in place and has proven to be a successful operation, but recycling organic waste doesn’t have the same support.

“(Sustainability) is hot right now. Not only that but it’s the right thing to do,” Tietema said. “What we need is buy-in from the whole organization. …There needs to be involvement from government, corporations, community leaders and nonprofits to bring the cost of these services down. Once that happens, it becomes easy and affordable for everyone, making the technology more prevalent.”

Waste GraphThis is where Organicycle’s educational work begins. Aside from just trucking the waste, which any waste hauler could do, Tietema said the company adds value through its consulting services.

“It’s still a time game before things get off the ground completely,” Tietema said. “We have to create demand, and right now there is little demand.”

Both Swan and Tietema said the growing push for sustainability in the local market will allow Organicycle to remain viable regardless of what happens in the waste industry.

“We recognize from a long-term strategy, there are going to be high-tech jobs in this field and new businesses coming out of this initiative,” Swan said. “It’s up to us to get as many partners on board as we can right now. If we can do that, then West Michigan has now become a hub for the zero-waste initiative.”

Organicycle currently works with composter Spurt Industries in Zeeland and biofuel processor Synenergy in Byron Center. Swan said the company is in the process of developing relationships with Davenport University and Calvin College to develop sustainability support programs.

Read 2929 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 August 2012 21:32

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