Government, Real Estate, and Sustainability

County eyes 90 percent waste reduction

Department of Public Works hopes to build a sustainable business park that will allow reuse of high-value items among incoming refuse.

November 17, 2017
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Landfill
Removing organic material from the waste stream may be the first focus of the project with a goal of reducing landfill waste by 20 percent in 2020. Photo by Justin Dawes

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The Kent County Department of Public Works is creating a plan to reduce landfill waste by 90 percent by 2030.

The agency will propose building a facility on 200 acres of land in Allegan County just south of the South Kent Landfill that will allow separation of the many high-value items received every day.

Without action, the South Kent Landfill will be at capacity by 2029, and a new landfill will have to be created on that 200 acres. To keep that from happening, Darwin Baas, the agency’s director, said it will take some big changes.

“We need a paradigm shift,” Baas said. “We’ve got to think differently about how we’re collecting it, how we’re separating it and how we’re going to process it going forward.”

The plan is to build a sustainable business park and rent the space to businesses that will sort through incoming trash and remove items that have value to their operations. Some of these items include wood, metals, plastics — anything that can be reused or repurposed, even items such as furniture. Compostable refuse and items that can be sent to a recycling facility also will be separated from incoming waste.

For instance, corrugated cardboard arrives at the landfill in nearly every load. At a market rate of around $120 per ton, Baas said cardboard shouldn’t be in the landfill. He also said residents throw away about $1 million worth of deposit bottles each year.

The landfill receives nearly 500,000 tons of waste per year. It is estimated 75 percent of waste destined for the Kent County landfill could be reused. County residents and businesses recycle 8 to 10 percent of their waste.

“That’s pretty low and pretty pathetic,” Baas said. “While we think we’re doing a pretty good job, we could be doing a whole lot better than what we’re doing.”

While many construction companies and commercial businesses are guilty of throwing away reusable materials like wood and cardboard because it’s easier, Baas said, a big part of the problem comes from many small businesses that think their landfill contribution is insignificant. 

An important piece of the plan going forward is to educate residents about how their actions affect the greater cause. That includes teaching them what should or should not go to the landfill.

A common misconception, according to Kristen Wieland, Public Works marketing and communications manager, is people think sending recyclable or compostable materials to a landfill is fine because they decompose. But once the landfill is permanently shut down and covered with clay, materials do not decompose. She cited a University of Arizona study by William Rathje, in which he uncovered U.S. landfills: He found intact hot dogs, pieces of lettuce and decades-old newspapers that still were readable.

For the building project, Public Works is receiving construction consulting from Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber; waste management consulting from Gershman, Brickner and Bratton; and a financial analysis from Stern Brothers.

At this stage, the agency is discussing the idea with stakeholders and receiving feedback. The next step is to send an RFI, which it is planning for early January. The agency won’t have a timeline until it is further along in the process, but Wieland said the hope is to have a sustainable business park within the next five years. 

Removing organic material from the waste stream may be the first focus in the project; if so, it would likely reduce landfill waste by 20 percent by 2020.

Public Works already has taken steps toward sustainability within its facility, such as capturing methane that creates 3.82 megawatts of energy and lights about 3,000 homes, and using disposed concrete for the site’s roadways.

There also is the waste-to-energy facility, which serves Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Grandville, Walker and Wyoming and has converted more than 5 million tons of refuse since 1990 into electricity that lights 11,000 homes. After the burning process, the agency has recovered more than 124,000 tons of scrap steel that otherwise would not have been recycled. The ash that results from the burning packs and hardens significantly, and the agency is researching ways to use it in infrastructure such as roadways.

These steps are not enough, however, to keep refuse levels at what Baas believes is a reasonable level.

Wieland said the Public Works team knows what needs to be done; now it’s up to the community to get behind them.

“This is what we want, and we want to make sure that the community agrees with us because it can’t be (just) us doing this. It has to take the whole community to make this change.”

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