Kent County is home to one of eighty-six waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities in the United States (there are two in Michigan). The facility processes 625 tons of municipal solid waste each day, and produces up to 16 megawatts of energy. WMEAC Policy Director Nick Occhipinti and I had the opportunity to tour the facility and learn about options for the future of waste management in Kent County.
There are numerous benefits of WTE as an alternative to depositing waste in landfills. When compared to the original municipal waste material, the ash byproduct of the combustion process is reduced 90% by volume and 77% by weight. Since 1990, the Kent County WTE facility has diverted waste that would fill a 150-acre landfill. This reduction in waste volume has extended the life of landfills in Kent County by 20 years or more. The waste burning process prevents the spread of pathogens that would otherwise be a contamination risk in landfill waste. Recently, the Kent County WTE facility has begun accepting pharmaceutical drugs, diverting them from landfills, and preventing contamination of ground and surface water. The Kent County WTE facility, like most similar facilities, is located in a central location; centrally located facilities significantly reduce the high transportation costs associated with the longer distances to landfill. WTE is attractive for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean WTE is the ideal outcome for much of our municipal waste.
The desirable waste utilization outcomes are commonly agreed upon in the following order: source reduction and reuse, recycling/composting, and energy recovery (WTE). Landfilling is the least desirable outcome in the hierarchy. The operators of the Kent county WTE facility recognize the position that WTE holds on the waste utilization hierarchy and are eager to explain that WTE is fully compatible with a comprehensive recycling program. Plastics, metals, glass, paper, electronics, and textiles are not preferred materials for WTE because they burn too hot and require the facility to slow down. Michiganders fail to recycle $435 million in materials each year and the Kent County WTE operators see a disappointingly large number of recyclables arriving each day. The WTE facility recovers the ferrous metals after combustion, unfortunately most other recyclable materials are destroyed.
Standing on the tipping floor, where trucks deposit municipal waste, recyclable materials can be seen scattered throughout the waste pile. The Grand Rapids recycling rate is one of the highest in Michigan, but it is clear that there is a lot of room for improvement. The Grand Rapids single-stream recycling program has put the necessary infrastructure into place. Now, citizens and businesses must continue and increase their efforts to participate in the recycling program so we can stop burning and burying valuable recyclable materials.