BYRON CENTER — West Michigan could become a hub for innovative waste processing companies in the coming years.
Kent County officials and other stakeholders believe attracting those types of companies fits in with the long-term vision to establish a sustainable business park on the South Kent Landfill site near Byron Center. They’re currently working to marshal local support for the plans.
“It’s time that we in West Michigan and Kent County make a decision to do something different with all the waste being generated,” Darwin Baas, director of the Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW), told MiBiz. “It’s not sustainable for us to continue to bury all of this material and think it’s OK.”
Baas expects to begin rolling out plans for the 200-acre sustainable business park — which is still in the conceptual stage — in conjunction with a new DPW-led awareness campaign to increase recycling among businesses and residents in West Michigan. The Imagine Trash campaign challenges organizations to reduce landfilled waste 20 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030.
Last year, Kent County generated 1.8 million cubic yards of trash — the equivalent of filling two University of Michigan stadiums, Baas said. Across West Michigan, trash generation from Ottawa, Kent, Allegan and Muskegon counties totaled 3.8 million cubic yards last year, and Baas expects that number to reach 4 million cubic yards in the near future.
Moreover, Kent County’s waste-to-energy facility, which helps divert waste from landfills, is running out of capacity, Baas said. The county-owned facility operated by Covanta Kent Inc. converts roughly 200,000 tons of trash per year into nearly $9 million worth of electricity, according to the county.
That’s where the concept for the sustainable business park comes into play. Instead of investing in additional capacity for the waste-to-energy facility or expanding the Kent County landfill system, Baas hopes to create a space for startups and other companies to develop and house their recycling technology.
After gaining support for the Imagine Trash campaign, Baas wants to create a master plan for developing the park and then court companies that are working in gasification, anaerobic digestion or other innovative waste-processing technologies.
“If you had 200 acres and wanted to put technology here to recycle glass or do gasification or remanufacturing processed wood waste coming out of the furniture industry, what is the best technology you can deliver, what does that look like, and would you like to situate yourself here on this property?” Baas said of the questions he’s hoping to answer.
In a follow-up email to MiBiz, Baas said he was unable to estimate the cost for the sustainable business park, but noted that it would require funding from the public and private sectors to be successful.
THE BUSINESS CASE
For waste-conscious companies, having the county develop a sustainable business park would expand the limited market for waste processing in West Michigan.
“We need to build more resources for recycled commodities,” said Bill Gurn, manager of facilities and operational maintenance at Holland-based Haworth Inc. The office furniture manufacturer operates under a zero-waste-to-landfill philosophy.
“The more opportunities to send resources to different places, the better our future is for staying landfill-free,” he said. “If I lose one of my key recyclers, I’m faced with what do I do with my material.”
Gurn also sees a real opportunity for entrepreneurs to establish waste-processing operations in West Michigan to take wood, plastic, powder paint and other waste streams from manufacturers and repurpose those materials into products such as knobs and handles that can be sold back to the manufacturer, creating a closed-loop system.
“Burying waste in the ground gets you nowhere (and) sending it to a waste-to-energy facility is a little better than that only because the byproduct is making electricity,” Gurn said. “The ultimate is using that material to make something else.”
In addition to Haworth, Herman Miller Inc., Landscape Forms Inc., Trendway Corp. and others have voiced their initial support for the sustainable business park concept, Baas said. He added that communities in Phoenix, Ariz. and Austin, Texas are working on similar business park concepts to attract waste processors.
Kent County DPW is collaborating with The Right Place Inc., the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center West, the Manufacturers Council, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and other stakeholders on the project.
Already, Kent County DPW’s recycling center generates approximately $2.7 million in annual revenue by selling its recycled waste to processors such as Holland-based Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co.
“We want to communicate for businesses in West Michigan that there are opportunities to divert this material out, process it and bring it back to market,” Baas said.
Still, Haworth’s Gurn believes that establishing the sustainable business park in West Michigan will take time.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever heard someone who operates a landfill shutting down a landfill,” Gurn said. “It’s a great concept but not something that’s going to happen in the next two to five years. It’s going to take some time.”
A STUDY IN WASTE
Kent County DPW’s announcement of the sustainable business park and the Imagine Trash program comes on the heels of a new, local economic impact report that found businesses and residents throw away approximately $368 million in usable material per year.
The report, which was compiled by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Grand Valley State University and Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber Inc., underscores the need for Kent County DPW’s project, Baas said.
“When we look at construction and demolition debris, food waste, organics and plastics, there’s a tremendous value there,” he said.
The report based its findings on waste collected in summer 2015 from landfills and incineration sites across Michigan and the market value of those materials at the time.
Among its findings, the report’s authors determined that companies and residents in Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, Allegan, Montcalm, Ionia and Barry counties annually throw away about $52 million worth of recyclable material. That’s the equivalent of 370 additional jobs in the West Michigan economy, according to the report.
“I think the key takeaway is that there is a lot more low-hanging fruit out there than what people realize,” said Dan Schoonmaker, director of West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. “I think we were operating under the assumption that people who could recycle found a value from it and were already doing so. That appears to not necessarily be the case.”
The study found that 40 percent of what is being thrown away is easily recyclable through already established channels.
For example, West Michigan landfills and waste-to-energy sites processed $6.8 million worth of corrugated cardboard, primarily from commercial sources, even though the material is easily recycled.
At $21.2 million, plastic comprised the largest value of material thrown away by businesses and residents during the study period.
“The economic opportunity is in capturing the things that are worth money,” Schoonmaker said. “Surprisingly, we aren’t doing a great job of doing that.”
While companies are increasing their recycling and sustainability efforts, Baas advocates for the solution to be a collaborative effort involving residents, businesses and government officials.
“Industry can’t do it alone and and the public sector can’t do it alone,” Baas said. “We can’t continue to bury four million cubic yards of trash every year and think that’s an OK thing to do. What about the year after, and the year after that? That’s the challenge we have.”