West Michigan one step closer to 90% trash reuse

Kent County DPW narrows anchor tenant search for Sustainable Business Park down to two finalists.
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The Sustainable Business Park could be home to more than a dozen businesses once completed. Courtesy Kent County DPW

Kent County is another step closer to turning its trash into treasure with the Sustainable Business Park project.

The Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) in 2018 set a goal to divert 90% of Kent County-generated trash that goes to landfills by 2030 by building a Sustainable Business Park on 250 acres of land adjacent to the South Kent Landfill on the Allegan County-Kent County line in Dorr Township and Byron Center.

As the Business Journal reported in October, the DPW drew nine proposals from around the world during its request for proposals (RFP) phase.

The DPW at its March board of directors meeting selected two finalists as possible anchor tenants — Madrid-based Urbaser and Philadelphia-based Continuus Materials.

Tim Mroz, vice president of strategic initiatives at The Right Place, is on the project’s RFP advisory/evaluation committee. He said both anchor tenant candidates have proposed solutions that would provide an array of output products from waste materials diverted from the landfill.

“The great thing about this is we’re working with companies that aren’t converting waste into just one product. They’re actually producing a portfolio of different products, which allows them to diversify their investments and create hopefully a more stable operating environment,” Mroz said.

In addition to the ability to sort out metals and plastics and redirect them into recycling markets, both companies proposed composting solutions for organics. Additionally, one of the outputs Urbaser produces is renewable biofuels from a waste treatment/ biomethanization process. Continuus Materials, on the other hand, takes thin-film plastics — which have posed a huge issue for Kent County’s sorting equipment and recycling processes — and converts them into construction boards similar to plywood that are used in commercial roofing projects — a needed innovation at a time when lumber and other materials prices are soaring.

Dar Baas, director of the Kent County DPW, said the evaluation committee in late April and early May conducted initial interviews with the finalists and will be making site visits to the companies’ U.S. facilities in June, if all goes as planned.

Barring any COVID-19-related delays, Mroz said the hope is to be able to choose one finalist in June, conduct due diligence, and begin negotiations by October, on the way to hopefully having the anchor tenant complete its facility at the park and start operations by 2024.

The RFP specified the anchor tenant facility will be designed, built, permitted, operated and maintained by the company. The county will be a partner in ensuring there is adequate infrastructure and materials available to process, and it will handle residuals that cannot be processed. RFP respondents were required to demonstrate they have the capacity to convert at least 50% of the inbound waste materials, which both finalists did.

Baas said the multi-step process is intentional.

“While it feels like it’s taking a little longer than we want it to, I think that care of how we’re approaching it is important,” he said. “We’re going to move as fast as we can, but in a judicious way. We want to be sure that we’ve made a good recommendation that goes to the Board of Public Works and ultimately to the Board of Commissioners and the community to kind of go, ‘OK, here’s what this looks like; are we ready to do this?’”

As important as the anchor tenant selection process is, Baas said there is an equally important set of other activities happening to ensure the Sustainable Business Park can be up and running to meet its waste diversion goals by 2030, a target date Baas said is still “very attainable.”

First, the DPW has to raise about $18 million to cover infrastructure improvements on the property before construction can even begin.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) provided a $75,000 site readiness grant with a local match of the same amount in November to help bring the project closer to shovel-ready status, which includes the creation of adequate utility and roadway infrastructure. Another grant from the MEDC is helping the DPW get engineering and architectural drawings done. And the DPW also is pursuing grants from the Michigan Department of Transportation and other sources on the infrastructure side, as well as looking into more local match dollars. The county also is keeping an eye on state legislative changes that could lead to more tax dollars being available to support recycling infrastructure projects such as this.

Baas said it’s hard to say how high labor and materials costs will have risen by the time the DPW is ready to gather construction bids, but it’s another factor the team is watching.

The DPW also is beginning initial conversations with potential secondary and tertiary tenants. One example is Eddystone, Pennsylvania-based AeroAggregates, which turns 100% post-consumer recycled glass into lightweight foam powder that can be used in civil engineering projects such as roadbed building. Baas said this company would require a minimum of 15,000 tons of glass feedstock annually to support a plant within the Sustainable Business Park. The DPW is about to conduct a study of how much recyclable glass is available in Michigan each year, using a grant it received from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). Baas said all he knows for sure is the Kent County Recycling & Education Center processes about 3,000 tons of glass per year from the residential recycling programs. Other sources could include glass from construction, post-manufacturing or automotive waste, but it’s still unknown at this point how consistent those streams would be.

Mroz said The Right Place is actively marketing the Sustainable Business Park to other complementary businesses and developers across the country in order to fill up the 12 or more spaces available in the park.

While many of the projects The Right Place helps market are huge job creators, Mroz said the Sustainable Business Park will be less traditional, in that its goal is to “put West Michigan on a global map as a leader in sustainable economic growth and sustainable technologies.” Currently, the U.S. — except for a few locations on the West Coast — lags behind Europe and Australia when it comes to waste diversion and reuse, he said. The locations in California that are doing similar projects are heavily subsidized by the state government, whereas Kent County’s goal is to have the Sustainable Business Park be just that — a self-sustaining, revenue-producing business development.

“The goal is to have (the world) start realizing that West Michigan is a hotbed of innovation when it comes to the circular economy and the green economy … which is an industry segment that is going to do nothing but grow over the next several decades,” Mroz said. “Everybody’s got trash.”

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