Street Talk

Street Talk: Trash is information treasure trove

Common bonds.

May 12, 2017
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As far as economic indicators go, this one may not be at the top of the heap, but it does offer a glimpse into daily life in West Michigan.

Darwin Baas, director of Kent County Public Works, said he knows things are going well in Grand Rapids and surrounding cities by the truckloads of trash being delivered daily to the Kent County Waste to Energy Facility.

“When we were going through the recession in 2007, 2008 and 2009 — between a downturn in manufacturing and people tending to consume less — we saw a downturn in waste generation,” Baas said.

“Now, with all the really neat things going on in West Michigan, we are seeing waste generation on the uptick. We are probably generating more trash per capita than a lot of the rest of the state because of all the construction and industry and new businesses and people moving into the area.”

Baas said that uptick helped push the waste-to-energy facility to a milestone in April.

“We combusted our 5 millionth ton of trash for electricity,” he said.

He also said the facility, which takes in waste from the cities of Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Wyoming, Walker and Grandville, is running at capacity.

The waste-to-energy facility was a $100-million project that opened in 1990 with the goal of reducing the amount of waste going to the South Kent Landfill and producing electricity.

Baas said during its 27 years in operation, the waste-to-energy facility has sold more than 2.57 million kilowatt hours of electricity to Consumers Energy.

On an annual basis, the facility is powering the equivalent of 10,000 homes by itself.

He also said combustion is responsible for a 90 percent reduction in landfill volume, which is responsible in turn for extending the life of the South Kent Landfill by 10 years.

Baas said the waste-to-energy facility is about halfway through its lifecycle, and it’s time to consider possible next steps for handling the increased amount of trash coming in.

“We are looking at pre-processing facilities that would allow us to take corrugated cardboard, plastics and possibly some other materials, including ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and extract them out before we combust. That would help reduce the heating value that keeps us from processing everything we want to, and it would take some valuable material out and move it to the recycling stream instead.”

Baas said the facility also was constructed with room for a third combustion train, which could be added to process more trash, but he said that is a costly option.

“The cost of doing that is not insignificant,” he said. “We think the first thing is to improve upon the (recycling) diversion and pre-processing and get some capacity back that way. Then we can make a decision on another combustion train.”

Baas said the Kent County Public Works Department is working on a campaign to help people better understand what can and cannot be recycled with the hope of increasing and improving the city’s recycling stream.

“At our recycling center, we have almost 20 percent of the material coming in we can’t recycle,” he said. “That costs us money — $150,000 to take care of it.”

Baas expects West Michigan to continue to generate plenty of trash for years to come, which means he’s predicting good times ahead for the region.

First appearances

Straight out of a James Bond movie, or maybe “The Simpsons” episode “You Only Move Twice,” the new Switch data center at the former Steelcase Pyramid is extremely visually appealing.

Certain parts, however, can resemble a super villain’s lair, with all the red and black color schemes and swinging pendulum.

As Business Journal reporter Pat Evans went out for a tour of the company’s Grand Rapids campus last week, he was greeted by the Switch security team, all former military and law enforcement officers decked out in black fatigues, which only added to the movie-set feel.

Adam Kramer, Switch’s executive vice president of strategy, guided the tour around the facility, which is now filling up with servers from its clients across the country.

The Switch Pyramid was recently ranked atop trade magazine Data Center Dynamics’ “Top 10 Beautiful Data Centers.” Yes, we know what you’re thinking: There’s a data center trade magazine?

Oddly enough, the No. 2 data center on the list was a facility called Villain’s Lair, a structure built in a former nuclear bunker in Stockholm, Sweden. Apparently, the site was “consciously based on a James Bond bad guy’s crib and makes several references to the 1970s movie ‘Silent Running,’” according to the magazine.

The Swedish facility also features waterfalls and a saltwater fish tank, likely complete with sharks and laser beams.

Lifelong friendships

More than 50 years of friendship have been honored with the naming of three Western Michigan University facilities after a trio of men who met on campus as students and went on to become WMU trustees and successful businessmen.

The WMU Board of Trustees last month approved naming two campus residence halls and a Heritage Hall conference room for the three alumni, who met at WMU in the 1960s.

Ronald Hall, a 1965 WMU alumnus, was a Detroit civic and business leader and automotive executive who died June 1, 2016, halfway into his eight-year term as a WMU trustee. Dennis Archer Sr., a 1965 WMU alumnus, is a former Detroit mayor, former member of the Michigan Supreme Court and past president of the American Bar Association, as well as a former WMU trustee. William Pickard, a 1964 alumnus and current WMU trustee, is a longtime Detroit entrepreneur and founder and chairman of the Global Automotive Alliance.

The WMU board decided that, in recognition of a $3.05 million gift recently made by Pickard to the university and in celebration of the three friends’ lifelong bonds and ties to WMU, the two residence halls that comprise the Western Heights complex will be named Hall-Archer-Pickard Hall East and Hall-Archer-Pickard Hall West. In addition, a conference room on the main level of Heritage Hall will be named the Hall-Archer-Pickard Conference Room.

“I treasure the idea that future students will have an opportunity for the same kind of life-altering relationships, and I hope the three names on campus facilities become at least a small reminder of what can be,” Pickard said.

The three men were classmates at WMU, and Pickard and Archer were roommates in Vandercook Hall. All three were members of the Epsilon Xi chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, one of a handful of black fraternities at WMU. They maintained close ties with each other and with their alma mater over the years, even as they took on regional and national roles in their professions.

“The lifelong bonds these men nurtured over the years are exactly the kinds of connections we wish for all of our students," WMU President John Dunn said. “Pickard’s gift and his desire to honor the people so critical throughout his life really illustrate the transformational power that comes from friendship, common goals and powerful learning experiences.”

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