The people of West Michigan have a deep love for the Great Lakes, the surrounding watershed and the other natural resources that make Michigan a distinctly beautiful place to live.

We feel a responsibility to protect these precious and globally significant resources. That’s one reason the Kent County Department of Public Works and local stakeholders are determined to find a better way to handle our trash. Collectively, they’ve drawn a line in the sand – in this case, along the border of the Kent County landfill – and said it’s no longer acceptable to simply dig a hole in the ground and bury our trash.

They’ve decided we can do better, and they have a plan.  If the plan comes to fruition, it could become a global model for how to effectively and sustainably transform solid municipal waste around the world.

Local solutions

Each year, Kent County residents and businesses discard about 2.1 million cubic yards of trash – that’s enough trash to fill the Van Andel Arena nine times over.

The Kent County DPW estimates that about 75% of that trash could be reused, recycled or converted. And they know it has value.

In fact, a 2016 municipal solid waste (MSW) report by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum pegs the dollar value of the landfilled waste in Kent County in the tens of millions. And, while the value of recyclable plastics and papers has dropped significantly in recent years, the importance of recycling has only increased as consumers produce more MSW each year.

Interior shot of Van Andel Arena during a Griffins Hockey game.

Interior shot of Van Andel Arena during a Griffins Hockey game.

Photo by Grand Rapids Griffins

The Kent County DPW has developed a vision to reduce the area’s landfill waste by 20% by 2020 and 90% by 2030. It projects that changing the way we handle our waste can generate $56 million and 370 jobs for the local economy. 

The vision is driven by one of the most aggressive county-led sustainability efforts in the nation. Dubbed Reimagine Trash, it’s a comprehensive strategy to upgrade DPW capabilities and help local municipalities, businesses and residents keep thousands of tons of waste from hitting the natural environment each year. 

A circular economy

Kent County recognizes that we must move from the make, take and use – or linear – economy to a circular economy where we make it, use it, and then find a way to reuse it or change its structure so its valuable to someone else. It’s critical that we develop ways to do that right here at home so we’re not dependent upon the fluctuations of the global recyclables market.

That’s where the plan for the Kent County Sustainable Business Park comes in. For the past several years, Kent County DPW has been working with local stakeholders, gathering data and prioritizing project goals to determine the feasibility of developing a sustainable business park on 250 acres of land adjacent to the county’s current landfill. The open acreage has been earmarked for a new landfill once the current one reaches capacity – estimated to occur in 2029.

Instead, DPW and its partners envision a more sustainable use for the land – a park where businesses would transform trash into products with new uses including materials for manufacturing, fuel sources for clean energy, compost for agricultural applications, or entirely new products. The park would leverage private sector investment to support a regional circular economy and localize the recycling and conversion process. It would also create jobs, preserve open space, expand research opportunities, generate and use renewable energy and reduce landfill waste, protecting water quality and promoting sustainability.

In March 2022, the county signed agreements with two companies that would anchor the proposed business park: Anaergia, which turns organic waste into biogas and fertilizer through anaerobic digestion; and Continuous Materials, which makes a roof coverboard out of low-value plastics such as grocery bags. The two companies will jointly operate the Kent County Bioenergy Facility at the business park.

The Bioenergy Facility is critical to sorting and processing the waste from Kent County businesses and residents Based on analyses – both of the waste currently coming into the landfill and the proven technologies available to sort and process it – about 20-25% of the waste  be organic and could be composted, anaerobically digested or converted to fuel. Another 10-15% could be recycled and 50-60% could be converted into energy through a physical or chemical transformation, either on-site or off-site. These technologies together would help Kent County DPW reach its goal of 90% reduction in landfilled waste by 2030

The next step is to obtain final approval for this project from the Kent County Commission. The DPW expects to present the proposal near the end of the first fiscal quarter of 2023. If approved, the project could be up and running by 2026.

Kent County DPW infographic detailing statistics about their work.

Kent County DPW infographic detailing statistics about their work.

Photo by Kent County Department of Public Works (KCDPW)

The right place and the right time

Burying trash in a landfill prevents it from fully breaking down and produces gases that are harmful to the environment. But separating the trash, sanitizing it and utilizing it for something beneficial would bring not only environmental improvements over landfilling it but economic benefits to the entire community. This is precisely why Kent County enlisted the expertise of The Right Place, Inc. as its economic development partner.

According to Tim Mroz, senior vice president of community development at The Right Place, the Bioenergy Facility is fundamental to the success of the business park. Now that the primary sorting facility is locked in, efforts to attract second- and third-tier processors and complementary manufacturers can get underway.

For instance, waste conversion processors could turn construction waste into new ash brick, residual organic waste into compost and fertilizers, discarded plastic into plastic flake used to manufacture new clothes and bottles, or wood scraps into wood pellets used to make new pallets and particle board.

“The ultimate goal will be to have a business park where a variety of innovative boutique-type companies process or reuse various components of the sorted waste,” explains Mroz. “This might include construction and demolition waste partnerships that would take concrete, wood, drywall, glass or metal waste and reclaim things like gypsum for new drywall or wood fuel pellets for heating.”

The technology already exists for much of this reclamation and processing, but the innovation comes in bringing the various components together in a single park.

“The feedstock for the whole thing will be the trucks coming into the landfill entrance, one-quarter mile north of the business park,” says Mroz. “Instead of dumping their trash in a hole in the ground, they’ll feed the sorting company and the anaerobic digestion plant. Those plants, in turn, feed the companies that create compost or plastic flake or wood pellets, which in turn feed the companies that make clothing and fuel and materials for manufacturing and construction.”

Environmental + economic benefits

Mroz and his colleagues at The Right Place think the park makes sense for several reasons.

“Number 1 – the environment,” says Mroz. “We’re a region surrounded by lakes and in the heart of the Great Lakes watershed. It doesn’t make sense to continue to pile up our garbage for future generations. Second, economic growth. There is tremendous business opportunity in sustainable manufacturing and for communities looking for new uses for municipal waste streams. And finally, if this works, it will put us on the map of sustainable regions.”

Kent Count DPW agrees and envisions everyone from university researchers, green retailers and artists-in-residence setting up shop to take advantage of the data collection, business start-up and reclamation opportunities.

As the project edges ever closer to fruition, stakeholders are listening closely to the needs of the community and remain optimistic about their ultimate success. After all, there’s a lot at stake.

“We can no longer perpetuate the act of burying millions of cubic yards of trash. Our children and our region deserve something better,” contends Kent County DPW Director, Darwin Baas. “We’ve matured as a community. We have the resourcefulness to lead this change across the country. Our hope is to transform what was destined to be landfill into a community resource that will help West Michigan become a leader in reclaiming, recycling, repurposing, reducing and reimagining waste.”


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