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Sunday, 05 July 2015 22:00

Manufacturers partner with Kent County to study solutions to divert waste from landfills

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West Michigan manufacturers need to identify new ways of processing hard-to-recycle materials so they can avoid sending the waste to a landfill.

In response to customers’ demands for greater transparency around sustainable business practices, manufacturers have looked for ways to handle waste such as excess powder coat paint, used sanding belts and scrap wood impregnated with resins and glue. In many cases, that’s meant sending the material to Kent County’s waste-to-energy facility rather than the dump.

But companies are facing a new challenge as the incinerator at 950 Market Ave. in Grand Rapids has maxed out its capacity.

That’s led a group of manufacturers in the region to collaborate with the Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) on a feasibility study to determine what new technology is needed to handle their waste, and just as important, who should pay for it.

“All the low-hanging fruit is gone from a recycling/reuse standpoint,” said Dave Mallehan, corporate environmental sustainability specialist at Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. “We realized that we didn’t want to use landfills, but also, we want to use waste to energy as an interim method — not an end all. Ultimately, we want our resources dedicated back into something more clean and efficient.”

With the waste-to-energy facility maxed out, Kent County officials have faced a dilemma: They need to decide whether to expand the current facility or to implement new and possibly more efficient technology to handle the waste, said Darwin Baas, director of the Kent County DPW.

The Kent County waste-to-energy facility currently processes approximately 600 tons of municipal solid waste per day or more than 200,000 tons per year, enough to generate roughly $8.9 million in electricity annually, Baas said.

Shortly after his appointment as DPW director in January 2015, Baas met with the Zero Waste to Landfill User Group — a group convened by Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West — to form the basis for a public-private partnership that would explore new options for recycling.

The user group has included representatives from Herman Miller, Haworth Inc., Trendway Corp., Grand Rapids Label Co. and Landscape Forms Inc., among others.

“We see this as much more than a Kent County effort,” Baas said. “We see this as a West Michigan effort driven by the interest of industries to move away from landfills.”

BUILDING A BUSINESS CASE

The feasibility study, which is expected to conclude by August 2015, will examine the various waste streams produced by members of the Zero Waste to Landfill User Group and the available technology to best suit those applications.

From there, the study aims to build a business case around which technology and waste stream would be the most profitable to address. It must also determine the amount of capital investment the technology would require and decide whether the project should move forward as a public-private partnership or be helmed by either the public sector or industry.

“Really, we’re leaving it wide open,” Baas said. “We want to make sure that everyone involved in the project will have a chance to put their input into it.”

Kent County DPW and members of the user group invested $50,000 to commission Grand Rapids-based Sustainable Research Group LLC and Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., a solid waste consulting firm from Fairfax, Va., to conduct the study.

Though the study is not yet complete, the partnership sees gasification as the most likely technology option, said Bill Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group.

With gasification, the technology rapidly speeds up the natural decomposition process by applying a high amount of heat to the material without combusting it, which causes the material to release burnable hydrocarbons and other gases. The process also minimizes the amount of leftover waste compared to the traditional incineration process, sources said.

“Composite products and (sandpaper) are hard to recycle, and it takes 10 to 20 years to turn it into a methane gas,” Stough said. “The gasification process turns this into hours instead of decades and is a lot cleaner.”

OVERCOMING THE COST FACTOR

Despite the optimism surrounding the study, the results ultimately hinge on a business decision for the manufacturers involved in the process as well as for Kent County officials, said Bill Gurn, manager of facilities and operational maintenance at Holland-based Haworth.

Gurn doesn’t see gasification as a viable alternative to waste to energy if entirely left up to the private sector. For the technology to be successfully integrated, the DPW would need to leverage its funding and expertise, he said.

“We’re manufacturers, and our core strength is to produce products, not to make energy,” Gurn said.

There’s also the issue of processing cost, he said. Landfills are often the cheapest solutions for companies, and even sending waste to traditional waste-to-energy facilities can be cost-prohibitive for smaller companies regardless of their commitment to recycling, he added.

“If gasification comes in at three times the cost of landfilling and it’s twice as much as it is to put it into a waste-to-energy facility, then it won’t succeed,” Gurn said.

Regardless of the outcome, companies such as Haworth opted to make the small investment up front with the study to push for more advanced recycling technology in the region.

“The greatest thing we have to gain is that it happens,” Gurn said. “It could be a few years down the road, (but) we saw this as an opportunity to see if it’s feasible and help the process by joining in.”

DRIVING INDUSTRY CHANGE

Regardless of the results of the study, it’s clear that transparent sustainability programs are becoming increasingly necessary for manufacturers to win and retain contracts and even customers, sources said. End users, retailers and OEMs across many industries are increasing sustainability requirements. Many OEMs are driving the practices throughout their supply chains, where they’re mandating that even small suppliers have measurable practices in place.

As customers demand more sustainable products, companies such as Herman Miller see zero-waste-to-landfill policies as a “sales generator” and a way to stand out from the competition as they push toward positive environmental action, Mallehan said.

“More and more, our clients are looking to see our numbers before they allow us to bid on projects,” he said.

Mallehan also sees the current study and the resulting technology it selects as a way to encourage and make it more feasible for other companies in the region to adopt zero-waste practices.

“There are a lot of companies sitting on the periphery waiting on technologies that are a lot of money and haven’t been proven yet,” Mallehan said. “We can help develop those technologies and make it more economical and hopefully that will draw in other companies who want to do the right thing.” 

Read 4007 times Last modified on Sunday, 05 July 2015 22:35

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