Panel details local, statewide sustainability efforts

State Sen. Winnie Brinks joins Kent County DPW leader Dar Baas, Spectrum Health’s Sarah Chartier for presentation.
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Sen. Winnie Brinks and Dar Bass, Kent County Department of Public Works, discussed sustainability improvements for West Michigan. Courtesy West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum

At West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum’s annual meeting this month, a trio of leaders shared what is happening to advance sustainability in the region.

WMSBF held its annual member meeting July 12, at LMCU Ballpark in Comstock Park, and its featured speakers included Michigan Sen. Winnie Brinks; Dar Baas, director of Kent County Department of Public Works; and Sarah Chartier, senior sustainability project manager for Spectrum Health System.

The group formed a panel that collectively highlighted the importance of the coming decade and beyond to the state and region’s sustainability goals.

Spectrum Health

Chartier kicked off the discussion by sharing Spectrum Health’s sustainability goals for 2021, 2025 and 2040.

“Our CEO, Tina Freese Decker, who has been instrumental in us establishing organizational goals, really understands the interconnection between human and environmental health, economic health and our community,” Chartier said. “And so, with that, we have set some fairly bold goals, which we believe are achievable, as well, for both 2021 — which in my mind is a year to reset and develop some more infrastructure and governance around our program — and then guiding us to our 2025 and 2040 goals.”

The health system’s 2021 goals included the following: 

  • Increasing its electric fleet by five to 10 vehicles
  • Adding 10 local, sustainable and diverse-owned businesses and farms to its Nutrition Services division
  • Including diverse suppliers at 50% of its indirect sourcing events
  • Including diverse suppliers at 25% of its information services sourcing events
  • Converting 50% of its lighting to LED
  • Integrating single stream recycling at 100% of its hospitals, surgical centers and ambulatory locations

Chartier said Spectrum already has met the third, fourth and fifth goals on the list for 2021 and is on its way to meeting the others. The health system’s 2025 goals include the following:

  • Converting 70% of its vehicles to hybrid or electric power
  • Composting or reprocessing 40% of waste
  • Buying 25% of food products from local sources in accordance with the Good Food Charter
  • Reducing its energy use by 15% compared to a baseline of 2020
  • Doubling 2020 purchases from minority-owned and women-owned businesses in Michigan communities. Linked to the health system’s anti-racism pledge, announced last fall, this commitment is intended to help build wealth within local communities of color and resiliency in the supply chain.

In April, Spectrum announced its commitment to achieve 100% carbon neutrality in its scope one and scope two facility emissions by 2040.

“That’s a really ambitious goal for us, and today, we don’t know exactly how we’ll achieve it, but we’re working on that process,” Chartier said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, scope one covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources; scope two covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the organization; and scope three includes all other indirect emissions that occur in the company’s value chain. Chartier said it will take Spectrum longer to reduce its scope three emissions because it involves working with its supplier base to measure and increase progress.

Kent County

Baas said Kent County is continuing to make progress on its Sustainable Business Park project, which has a goal of diverting 90% of the county’s waste from landfills by 2030 through a park full of businesses that can process the waste and reuse it.

As the Business Journal reported in May, the evaluation committee is down to two finalists after putting out an RFP for an anchor tenant for the park — Madrid-based Urbaser (which was recently acquired by Beverly Hills, California-based Platinum Equity) and Philadelphia-based Continuus Materials.

Both companies would offer mixed-waste sorting and processing, converting organic and inorganic materials into new products. Continuus Materials proposes to establish a manufacturing plant that makes roofing boards from thin-film plastics and, along with its partner, Energia, to co-locate a biodigester on-site that would generate renewable natural gas from compost and fertilizer.

Similarly, Urbaser has proposed to make renewable natural gas in a plastic-to-oil processing facility and large-scale enclosed composting operation.

The DPW’s evaluation committee has been making site visits to the two companies’ U.S. facilities and is working to answer within the next month the question of how much these solutions would cost compared to landfilling.

Baas said now is the time to ask ourselves if the region is ready to embrace a technology alternative to landfilling trash and whether we are willing to support the project. If so, Baas said the economic development impact could be comparable to the likes of Medical Mile, as the project would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of economic investment and output, technologies and researchers that the region didn’t have before, doing innovative processes that are currently only happening in Europe and on the West Coast.

“As we’ve taken this journey over the last five years, this is what I’ve discovered: I’ve discovered that this is a process of economic development, it’s a process of business attraction, of employment, of land use, intergovernmental cooperation, public-private partnerships, investment, natural resource conservation, and above all, it’s about sustainability,” Baas said.

He said the RFP evaluation committee for the Sustainable Business Park will be making a recommendation to the Board of Public Works about which finalist it thinks would be the best to move forward with in September or October.

Michigan Legislature

Brinks came to speak to the forum on the work the state legislature is doing that relates to sustainability. She serves on the Michigan Legislature’s Health Policy Committee as well as the Energy and Technology Committee, and she said it’s easy to see how the two intersect.

“What we do for sustainability and environmental quality has a massive impact on public health (and) on individuals’ health, and the decisions that we make in just about every area of government have an impact that needs to be considered on those two areas,” she said.

She said the infrastructure investments in President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan are a start but will not be enough; commitments are needed from businesses, state and local governments, and philanthropy to innovate and create investments that are sustainable.

Brinks said state government actions have included recent investments to remediate and prevent PFAS from getting into drinking water by modernizing water treatment plants in cities such as Grand Rapids and replacing lead pipes, plus extending city water to areas that were contaminated by PFAS.

Currently, there’s also a package of bills under review in the Senate Regulatory Committee that, if passed, would rewrite solid waste laws to help change the way we manage garbage.

Reading from the summary of the legislation, Brinks said, “This bill package would level the playing field for businesses that give value to what we once thought of as waste. Material composting sites, material recovery facilities, recycling centers, and new and emerging technologies would be legally recognized, giving guidance for operations and resources. The package would also guide the creation of a strong county materials management plan for each county and create a stronger post-closure plan for landfills and protect taxpayers from paying for contaminated site remediation. If passed, this upcoming bill package, five years in the making, could revolutionize how we dispose of materials. It could triple recycling rates, keep our environment clean and create a more resilient materials management market and workforce.”

Finally, she referenced a bottle bill rewrite in the works (Senate Bill 167 and House Bill 4331) that would expand Michigan’s 10-cent deposit to all noncarbonated beverage containers except milk cartons and would provide millions of dollars in funding to address abandoned contaminated sites.

More information about the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum is at wmsbf.org.

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