UIX: The regional business forum driving sustainability on a national scale

About 132,000 tons of food waste winds up in West Michigan landfills every year. The number is even higher for plastics and inorganic waste. Members of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum are working together to drive that number down to zero.

3,142 copies of "La Grande Vitesse."


8,800 15-ton city buses.


Or, the weight of the all the water running through the Grand River for 18 and a half minutes.


That's how much food goes to waste in West Michigan every year — about 132,000 tons. Statewide, food waste makes up 13.6 percent of our yearly municipal waste total — 1.1 million tons — according to the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum's Trash Research project. Nationally, the USDA estimates that as much as 40 percent of food purchased is waste. It's the single largest source of material disposed in the Michigan's landfills and waste-to-energy facilities. Once you include paper, plastic, metals, and other possibly reusable resources, the impact of that trash is multiplied several times over.


According to the Economic Impact Potential and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in Michigan report, conducted in 2016, plastic made up 1,208,000 tons of the yearly total, with paper, metal, glass, and textiles adding another 2,638,000. All together, that's 3,846,132 tons of potentially reusable resources wasted every year in the state of Michigan.


That's 769 Comerica Park tigers.


3.75 Mackinac Bridges.


Or, an economic loss of $353.9 million.


Waste in Kent County winds up in places like the South Kent Landfill.

All of it has been deemed disposable — products created to expire. Their lifecycle is linear, with a beginning and an end. It’s not going anywhere but into the ground, unless someone diverts it.


When that straight line is bent into a circle, it creates a sustainable economy, maybe even an entire industry. There are nodes along the circumference, diverting, cleaning, processing, and manufacturing, but age no longer exists. Expiration no longer exists. There is no endpoint, only segments between reincarnation.


On the other side of the scale, three programs originating from the WMSBF are diverting those resources before they hit a dead end.


The WMSBF is a regional collaborative of businesses, working together to promote more sustainable practices. Most of its aims are accomplished through working groups, focusing on education, resource development, and relationship-building through networking. In addition to client resiliency and social responsibility initiatives, members of the WMSBF devote much of their resources, time, and knowledge to one of two circular economy programs, focusing on a "zero waste-to-landfill" goal.


Diverting food waste


The Western Michigan Food Recovery Council is directed by a multidisciplinary council of food waste stakeholders, and funded by a grant from the Michigan Local Food Council Network. The council concentrates on Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Allegan, and Berrien counties, targeting large grocery operations and commercial and institutional food service operations. By the Food Waste Reduction Alliance's figures, those businesses produce 48 percent of food waste landfilled in Michigan.


According to WMSBF president Daniel Schoonmaker, a lot of it would be better put to use on a farm.


"There are a lot of proven strategies by which we can reduce the volume that's going into a landfill, either through things like composting, animal feed, or donating materials to the hungry," Schoonmaker says. "Zero-waste strategies and recycling are an enabling strategy to allow for the development of circular economies. So we're trying to tighten up that loss from material waste so that we can start closing those loops. A big key of that is just recognizing the material value of feedstock.


"If you are letting that material go into the landfill, that's the opposite of circular," he continues. "That is very linear."


Daniel Schoonmaker with recycling and composting bins at the John Ball Zoo.

The working groups and research teams set up by the WMSBF are helping spread sustainable best practices around, especially where the impact of food and non-organic waste is high.


It's not hard to find a company that acknowledges the importance of reduction and sustainable practices, Schoonmaker says. But getting those practices to become part of regular operations can be a challenge.


"We were actually surprised by how far along the industry hadn't come," Schoonmaker says. "We thought there was a greater understanding of how composting food donation works, and we were surprised that there are some large knowledge gaps in that area, like how to work with compost operations, how to access donation streams, and the liabilities associated with donating product."


Participating businesses in the program can find technical resources to fill in those gaps, and match up with others who have been working toward sustainability through peer-to-peer education opportunities and multidisciplinary networking, some with client bases much larger than just West Michigan.


Janine Oberstadt is a LEED Green Associate, as well as Operations Director & Director of Corporate Sustainability at Creative Dining Services in Zeeland. Her job is to make sure her company's food and hospitality services, with a client base of more than 80 organizations at more than 95 different locations in 12 states, aren't leaving any nutritional value or excess plastic packaging behind.


With the support of the WMSBF's Food Recovery Network, direct food rescue, and donation activity in the communities the company serves, Creative Dining Services is managing waste at the source, and donating food to the hungry. The Trashed program focuses on preventing food waste through proper planning, including practices like:

  • Inventory accuracy and consistent labeling and dating

  • Organized storerooms and walk-in coolers with first-in-first-out product priority

  • Eliminating self-serve wherever possible

  • Practicing portion control, especially with animal proteins

  • Utilizing the appropriate vessel size

  • Going tray-less in All-You-Care-To-Eat venues (a potential food waste and economic savings of 10-20 percent)

"Deferring packaging from landfills and the increasing demand for grab-and-go foods are at odds with each other," Oberstadt says. "Comprehensive recycling and commercial composting are not available everywhere."


Resources may vary from location to location, which makes the process of responsibly getting rid of packaging very location-specific.


"It's micro-planning, education/advocacy, and incremental continuous improvement," she says. "Tedious but necessary."


Diverting plastic, metal, and other materials


The Imagine Trash Partner Program offers technical support and resources for small and medium-sized organizations in the West Michigan region to help them improve their recycling efforts and potentially establish zero-waste-to-landfill goals in support of the Kent County ReImagine Trash 2030 landfill diversion goal.


Katie VenechukKatie Venechuk, Recycling and Waste Minimization Specialist for the Department of Environmental Quality Waste Management and Radiological Protection Division, covering Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, says the WMSBF is a key player and facilitator in all of the working group's initiatives, though, depending on the initiative, the task force members that are involved vary.


Before joining the DEQ in 2012, Venechuk worked in the private sector with a firm focused on environmental remediation. Her first position at the DEQ was as a solid waste engineer, responsible for reviewing landfill expansion plans for facilities in southwest Michigan, inspecting landfills for compliance with critical parts of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, and more.


"An in-depth understanding of how we manage our solid waste in Michigan has helped me to appreciate the role of landfills, but has also shown me the reality of how much the current system relies on them," Venechuk says. "It has also shown me how quickly they are filling, with plans submitted for facility expansion almost every construction season. In promoting recycling and waste minimization, we have to speak intelligently about how we currently manage our waste. We also have to speak intelligently about the various opportunities for change."


She's been in her current position since 2014, and a part of the Waste Task Force for the last three years.


She says the group's biggest challenges are often time and availability, but members have taken a "divide and conquer" approach, splitting up the work into areas of their expertise.


"This is very common in this type of work," Venechuk says. "The forum does an excellent job with the resources they have and are often successful with grant applications. Consistency in these resources and in grant opportunities is a challenge to keep forward momentum, though."


One of the biggest instigators to a successful grant application is a problem that needs to be solved.


When Kristen Trovillion, LEED AP and Sustainability Coordinator at Grand Rapids Public Schools, began receiving questions from regional school districts struggling to establish recycling programs, she turned to the forum, which initiated a K-12 education subgroup to discuss needs and obstacles those institutions faced.


Kent County's Waste to Energy facility helps divert waste from landfills.

Trovillion started with GRPS in 2014, after the district was selected to host a Green Schools Fellow through the
Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council. Prior to that, she worked for both the Indiana Office of Energy Development and the City of Indianapolis Office of Sustainability where she managed retrofit building, renewable energy initiatives, fleet conversion projects, and worked on Indianapolis' first city-wide sustainability assessment.


"The Center for Green Schools placed me in the district to accelerate their sustainability efforts," she says. "After two years, the district created a permanent position of Sustainability Coordinator and solidified their commitment to sustainability."


Trovillion has participated in the forum's Recycling Working Group since August 2018, and says she appreciates the opportunity to discuss industry developments — like the impact of China's national SWORD policy, which placed stringent requirements on the quality of materials sent to Chinese plants for processing — share capacity project opportunities, and share best practices.


Now, she uses those practices to keep GRPS focused on sustainable practices, and is making enough progress to direct further initiative from the WMSBF.


City High School students sort lunch waste into recycling and composting in the cafeteria.

The recycling staff at the Michigan DEQ has been working on a guidance document to help schools understand the process taken to establish recycling, "But as we have not received a lot of inquiries, we have prioritized other guidance documents first," Venechuk says. "The K-12 conversation prompted action on our part to finalize publication of the draft guide."


The guide is still being finalized, but Venechuk will share it with the working group when it is finished.


Recognizing leaders in sustainability


The WMSBF helps improve local businesses' approach to sustainability and recognizes those who exemplify the practice. Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids was named the WMSBF 2018 Circular Economy Leadership Award winner for maintaining at least an 80 percent landfill diversion rate for the year.


Goodwill manages vast amounts of household donations on a daily basis. Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids comprises 19 traditional retail locations and one outlet center, and it's in the organization's best interest to make sure each donated item is put to good use.


"Our goal is to extract the most value that we can from those donations that we've been entrusted with, and use the funds that we've earned from that material to fund our workforce development and job training programs," says Nick Carlson, Vice President of Donated Goods Operations at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids. "But, what a lot of people don't know about, is our online sales program through shopgoodwill.com, our exporting and recycling programs, and the outlet center where we sell materials that we can't sell in our retail stores."


Things that can't be sold in the Goodwill outlet center may still find opportunity elsewhere. After a decade of intentional waste reduction policies, Goodwill knows a thing or two about repurposing its products. The landfill is always a last resort, but it isn't out of the question.


"Some of the most challenging products that we have to manage is furniture, especially if it's covered in fabrics," Carlson says. "It's very tough to find homes for that. We used to be able to send wood products with varnish to a location where it would be ground up and used for alternative uses. When those markets go away, it's very tough to maintain a high diversion rate."


Still, Goodwill has not allowed more than 20 percent of the items that come through its donation doors to end up in the trash. That's an accomplishment worthy of praise, worthy of the WMSBF's sustainability award, and worthy of spreading around.


"We're definitely proud members of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum," Carlson says. "And we're thankful for kind of all the different collaborative opportunities that they provide in this area towards creating a sustainable community."


Goodwill doesn't work directly with the WMBSF's circular economy programs. It's largely responsible for its own waste reduction, recycling, and reuse. But, by building and testing sustainable practices that get results, the organization is making it easier for others in the community to follow suit.


Whether you're working in a K-12 school or college dining hall, a hog farm or a soybean processing company, zero waste goals may require wildly different approaches to satisfy. But, that diversity of specialized knowledge is what brings the entire system together. In a siloed community, without a forum of sustainability champions to share their successes and failures, the whole system falls flat. Bottlenecks and miscommunication can drive waste diversion down, and landfill volume up.


In short, it doesn't matter who's doing the work, as long as they're willing to work together.


"To create a sustainable materials management system in Michigan will mean an integrated approach to how we manage our waste," Venechuk says. "This approach includes composting, recycling, and more. We are on the verge of so much opportunity!"



Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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