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Kent County burns recyclables for electricity as coronavirus affects waste hauling

BY Tuesday, March 31, 2020 05:12am

GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County officials announced last week that its recycling processing facility would close to protect workers from potential exposure to and spreading of the coronavirus. 

However, the county continues to accept recycled material from the city of Grand Rapids and neighboring counties through private waste management companies. Instead of processing the material to be sold downstream, the county is burning the recyclables at its waste-to-energy facility. 

“It’s the second-best option,” said Darwin Baas, director of the Kent County Department of Public Works

Baas said the only realistic alternative is sending recyclables to the landfill, noting supply chain challenges with selling the processed recyclables or shipping it to other processing sites across Michigan or neighboring states.

“It’s not perfect by any means, and it’s not the preference by any means,” Baas said. “Given this new reality we’re dealing with, that’s what we thought was best in the short term.”

The city of Grand Rapids, which contributes about 25 percent of the county’s recyclable material, will continue its curbside recycling program. Officials are encouraging residents to hold recyclable material on their property, if possible.

The county announced the closure of its recycling center on Thursday, citing safety concerns. Sorting was done by paid inmates at the Kent County jail and then through a temporary employment agency before it was shut down.

Workers at recycling processing sites are particularly susceptible to the spreading of the virus. Kent County is among dozens of U.S. municipalities to suspend recycling programs amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to Waste Dive. Bottle returns were also suspended as a safety precaution following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order last week.

But Kent County is in a unique position with its waste-to-energy plant, which opened in 1990 and provides enough electricity for 11,000 homes. More than half of the recycling center’s material — 60 percent — is corrugated cardboard and paper. Another 10 percent is plastic.

“If we can generate electricity from that material, that’s the second-best option instead of landfilling it,” Baas said.

Waste handling is being transformed as the coronavirus continues to spread in the U.S. The manufacturing slow-down has affected the county’s downstream vendors, such as mills, that accept material from the county, Baas said.

“We don’t have an over-abundance of storage capacity at the recycling center,” he said. “And commodity values are not great now, the workforce is decimated. Then they can’t move the material because the economy is kind of flipped into neutral. It’s a trifecta.”

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