Kent County is moving forward on plans for a roughly $370 million sustainable business park which public works officials hope will resolve the region’s fragmented and disjointed organic waste management infrastructure.
Late last month, the Kent County Department of Public Works publicly released a report on the status of its organic waste handling system, detailing how much food-related waste is going to landfills. The findings were relatively bleak, but there’s hope on the horizon.
“We have to own the fact that we as a department are not delivering, in my opinion, the amount of organic waste management that the county really needs,” Department of Public Works Director Darwin Baas told MiBiz.
He described a “fragmented” system with an unclear economic model in which food waste from homes, restaurants, grocery stores and food processors lacks a clear path to composting facilities or plants that can repurpose it into renewable energy or fertilizer.
However, the county is inching closer to the development of the nearly $370 million Sustainable Business Park in Byron Center and, hopefully, create a more efficient system that keeps organic waste from consuming space in traditional landfills.
Five years ago, the Department of Public Works set a goal to reduce waste going to landfills by 90 percent by 2030. Organic materials make up about half of all of the waste going to Kent County landfills, or about 400,000 tons a year. Capturing and converting that waste to marketable compost and selling it at current prices could be valued at up to $9 million annually, according to a 2017 estimate by the county.
“The restaurants, food providers and processors all face the same thing: How do you move that from its place of origin to where it can be processed, and do it in a way where you can look back and say this is the most efficient, cost-effective way to do it?” Baas said.
Eliminating the fragmented market between waste producers, handlers and processors is multifaceted, complicated and driven by economics and consumer behavior.
One option would be to establish curbside carts for food waste that would sit alongside yard waste, recycling and trash bins. Baas said the transportation and staffing costs of doing that — which he’s calculated ast $1.70 a minute — are currently out of reach.
“Do you need to have an organics cart? The volume and weight would suggest yes,” Baas said. “But the reality of transportation would suggest: You better check yourself.”
Grand Rapids-based Perfect Circle Recycling LLC is one private sector company that has stepped in to help fill the void. The company launched early last year at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has steadily grown with new equipment that separates food waste from packaging, said Chief Operating Officer Todd Wilson. The company currently has five clients, including one on a “very consistent, weekly basis,” he said.
According to Wilson, Perfect Circle Recycling has diverted more than 2.1 million pounds — or about 1,000 tons — of food and beverage waste from area landfills. The company uses any available avenues to process the organic waste, such as a biodigester facility in Fremont and compost sites.
“But the pricing for digesters and composters is a bit on the high side, which causes us to have to charge that much more to get rid of it sustainably,” Wilson said.
That’s where Kent County’s Sustainable Business Park fits. First proposed more than five years ago on 250 acres adjacent to the South Kent Landfill in Byron Center, the facility is a vital component in the county’s 90-percent waste reduction target.
“Achieving the goal of 90-percent reduction by 2030 will not be possible without a successful strategy to separate, process and repurpose the organic materials generated by Kent County residents and businesses,” according to the county’s recent report.
Early this month, county officials announced plans for an anchor tenant at the business park that would process the organic waste.
The anchor tenant is “how we’ve connected this question mark that the organic waste study created for us: How do you … find a solution that will work? That’s where we think the anaerobic digestion of food waste and other organics in the stream will best process that material,” Baas said.
That facility could produce what’s known as renewable natural gas for energy as well as fertilizer for agriculture uses. The county identified Philadelphia-based Continuus Materials and Carlsbad, Calif.-based Anaergia to process the organic waste that would be coming to the facility. The two companies and the county are now negotiating a project development agreement that will enable a final project design and engineering phase, Baas said.
The project development includes two phases: About $18 million for infrastructure upgrades that would make the property ready for future tenants and then the buildout of the $350 million facility.
The state’s fiscal year budget that started Oct. 1 includes $4 million for the infrastructure phase, which includes work on roads and utilities.
Plans to finance the property development include Continuus Materials and Anaergia seeking equity and bonding for their $280 million portion of the project, Baas said. The county would request approval from the Board of Public Works and the county Board of Commissioners to bond for $70 million for its portion. Baas said the department would seek county approval once the planned development agreement is “nailed down.”
Wilson served on the county’s recommendation committee for choosing an anchor tenant at the Sustainable Business Park. Perfect Circle Recycling’s lease at its current facility at 1739 Elizabeth Ave. NW ends in 2023, and Wilson hopes to be considered for space at the business park.
“That’s kind of why we placed our facility in Grand Rapids, because of Grand Rapids being so progressive and the sustainability park is going to be awesome,” he said. “We definitely want to be a part of it. It only makes sense for us to go over there when it’s available and work side by side with industry to divert all of this stuff.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected with the accurate name for Perfect Circle Recyling COO Todd Wilson.
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