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There's gold in them thar landfills: How Kent County is changing its stance on trash




Kent County has big plans for its trash.
 
The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF) recently released the Economic Impact Potential and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste report, which spelled out how much money this area could save if it changed the way it deals with trash. (See Rapid Growth’s story here.)

And while there isn’t actual gold in our landfills, the $56 million in potential economic value that is thrown away each year should be an incentive for entrepreneurs, businesses and government to find innovative ways to change the way solid waste is managed.

Using the report as a catalyst, the Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) announced strategic goals to reduce waste going to a landfill by 20 percent by 2020 and by 90 percent by 2030. The aggressive 20x’20 and 90x’30 Vision is similar to waste reduction goals set by New York City, Phoenix, Austin, and San Francisco.

Dar Baas, the director of Kent County Department of Public Works, discusses in an interview with Rapid Growth specific steps to better manage waste, the challenges to move forward and the need to reset perceptions about trash.

RG: What are the immediate next steps you will be taking to reach your 2020 goal? 
 
DB: Our focus is threefold. First, improve collection and processing of discarded materials in the business and residential sectors, where existing collection and processing infrastructure already exists, including bottle deposit containers, corrugated cardboard, all types of scrap metal, paper and plastic. Second, construction and demolition debris generated by new and remodel commercial and residential construction (improving the collection of this debris). Third, provide a robust composting network to divert food waste and other organic materials that have nutrient value and could be used as a soil amendment.
 
RG: What are the biggest challenges you face as you move forward, and what are you doing to overcome these challenges?
 
DB: Our biggest challenges are that we’re lacking a consistent message and we’re trying to change habits.

A consistent message for residential and public space recycling is critical to reduce confusion about what is accepted. This is lacking on a national level so we decided to start locally since recycling is a very localized system.

As for our habits, diverting food waste and organics in order to use this material for composting should be straightforward, but we’re conditioned to throw everything in the trash so most of us don’t make the effort. Or, more specifically, our system hasn’t trained us to make the effort. We need to change the system and then change the behavior. Having viable infrastructure and services developed to collect material will also be necessary, and finding cost effective ways to offer these alternatives will be required.
 
RG: What are the most innovative and successful programs being used in other communities (similar in size to Grand Rapids) to increase recycling efforts?  Would these work here? 
 
DB: Kent County has always been a leader in technology and infrastructure to manage discarded materials. For 25 years we’ve had two significant facilities, Kent County’s Waste to Energy Facility and Kent County’s Recycling Center, that are helping West Michigan to reduce landfilled waste. What we’re working on now is an expansion of that, but it’s interesting to compare our challenges to other communities (of any size). Almost universally, these four things rise to the top of most community waste reduction strategies: education and outreach campaigns to increase the quantity and quality of recyclables; providing cost-effective organics collection and processing; establishing programs and services for the business sector to reduce waste; and developing infrastructure to process construction and demolition waste.

As it turns out, our waste challenges and the resulting strategies to solve them are very similar to those of San Diego, Fort Collins, Santa Monica, Albuquerque, Maryland, Oberlin (Ohio), Boulder, San Jose, Austin, and even Scotland! Naturally, everyone’s approach is just a little different (policy changes vs. pure education) depending on their community dynamics.
 
RG: How do you envision the private sector's role in reaching these goals?
 
DB: The private sector will be important in several ways. A number of West Michigan companies have been leading the efforts to become more sustainable and desire to have zero waste to landfill policies that are driving the larger effort locally; we need to share their successes and the steps they took to successfully implement change. All companies, particularly smaller organizations, need to be open to change on how they manage their discards, and the first step is taking a look at their trash. This could be an internal assessment or through a formal waste audit to determine what they really are throwing away as trash and what they can to do to divert some, or all, of it. Waste haulers will need to diversify collection habits to deliver material to processing facilities. Private investment in waste conversion and processing technologies will also be part of the mix.    

RG: If you could change one misperception about trash, what would that be?
 
DB: The trash can is not the end of the line. We need to start looking at trash as “end of life” material with value that shouldn’t simply be thrown away, destined for the landfill. All of this material has previously been harvested, mined or extracted as a natural resource and should be placed back into a value stream where possible. Both the WMSBF study and our boots on the ground work at the transfer station and landfill supports that there are significant volumes of readily recyclable and compostable material including corrugated cardboard, metals of all types, paper, plastics and organic materials that can be collected separately and sent to facilities to prepare this material as a commodity to be used as a feedstock for manufacturing or agriculture or energy.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
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