Grand Rapids has long been a model of sustainability nationwide. Government, business and nonprofit partners have come together to set – and exceed – aggressive sustainability goals, earning the community top sustainability honors for more than a decade. This is a look at some innovative ways the City is working to ensure water quality and energy efficiency.

Protecting the river and boosting the economy

Grand Rapids has long been a model of sustainability. In 1991, the City initiated what would ultimately be a $400 million investment in a state-of-the-art wastewater collection system. It keeps 100 percent of sanitary sewer water pollutants from entering the city’s namesake Grand River unless extreme weather conditions occur like flooding or 100-year rain events.

The project was completed in 2015 – four years ahead of schedule. It eliminated 59 sewer overflow and discharge sites into the river by separating and replacing storm and sanitary sewers and installing 119 miles of new pipelines.

At the same time, the City made other green infrastructure improvements. These included the installation of rain gardens, porous pavement and hydrodynamic separators to remove sediments. Improvements are continuing citywide, and they have decreased the amount of stormwater diverted to storm sewers, allowing rainwater to replenish groundwater.  

Beyond the environmental impact, these green infrastructure improvements have resulted in $232 million to $418 million in estimated average annual net economic benefit.

Raingarden near the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.

Raingarden near the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.

Photo by City of Grand Rapids

Planning for sustainability

Since completing the combined sewer overflow project, the City adopted a Quadruple Bottom Line approach to sustainability, adding Governmental Accountability to the trio of Environmental Quality, Social Responsibility and Economic Prosperity performance measures in 2016. Three years later, the City published its FY2020-FY2023 Strategic Plan, which identified sustainability as one of six core values that are embedded across all of our operations and services.

The plan identified a number of sustainability objectives, including reducing carbon emissions, expanding the tree canopy, improving the overall water quality of the Grand River, minimizing waste generation, maximizing waste diversion, and increasing the percentage of the City electricity supplied by renewable sources from 34% (2018) to 100% (2025).

The City has signed on to the We Are Still and Cities Race to Zero campaigns, which contain pledges to reach zero emissions in the 2050 or sooner. It has joined the Zero Cities Project to develop policies to equitably decarbonize the building sector by 2050. It has also partnered which community stakeholders to create the Community Collaboration on Climate Change (C4), with the aim of integrating environmental justice and climate change into the city's Master Plan, and creating a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

Waste to energy: An innovative public-private partnership

One tool being used to reach the 100 percent renewables goal is a new $85 million bio-digester at the Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF), operated by the City of Grand Rapids.

It all started when Grand Rapids’ largest craft brewer – Founders Brewing Co. – wanted a better way to dispose of its bio-waste and the City needed a way to handle a growing influx of commercial wastewater.

The solution? A local, dedicated wastewater pipeline and bio-digester that turns Founders’ and other companies’ concentrated bio-waste into renewable energy and fertilizer. The biodigester, brought on line in 2022, reduces the amount of solid waste that is landfilled after the City's sewage treatment plant and biodigester processes it.

There are actually three biodigester tanks at WRRF – one handling the concentrated waste from commercial businesses and two handling residential solid waste, such as feces.

The biodigester reduces waste and saves money in the process. It also generates revenue through the sale or renewable natural gas that is produced when bacteria in the biodigester breaks down the solid waste.

As business continues to flourish in Grand Rapids, the City’s commitment to sustainability grows along with it. Officials with its Environmental Services Department expect to add other customers to the commercial wastewater-biodigester pipeline to reduce the load on the WRRF over the next several years.

Solar panels in Grand Rapids.

Solar panels in Grand Rapids.

Photo by City of Grand Rapids

More innovation in the pipeline

In addition to the renewable energy captured by the bio-digestion process, the City recovers phosphorus from digested sewage sludge. This has both economic and environmental benefits.

Plants need phosphorus to grow, so it’s an important component in fertilizer. The City will sell the phosphorus to the fertilizer industry, recapturing some of its investment in the bio-digestion program.

But beyond that, reclaiming phosphorus from bio-waste keeps the phosphate out of the watershed and reduces the threat of toxic algae blooms. It’s also a far more sustainable method of producing phosphorus than mining.

So, Grand Rapids continues on its sustainable journey, making real, measurable progress and earning the recognition it deserves of its peers. Since 2018, it has been named the #1 U.S Metro for Sustainable Development and its sustainability efforts have been honored by the Zero Cities Project, Michigan Green Communities Challenge, West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Greater Lansing United Nations and more.

Sustainability initiatives are also happening on the county level. Check out what the Kent County Department of Public Works is doing to reimagine trash.

Grand Rapids is Michigan's fastest growing metro area and one of the nation's strongest economies, fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investments. Experience Grand Rapids highlights leading sectors of the local economy to underscore the city's suitability for innovation-focused meetings.