Creating an Industrial Ecosystem


The roadway to the circular economy, where material and energy wastes are minimized, has many lanes and much of the work to be done will lie outside of the traditional purview of solid waste management professionals. New classes of materials may be needed. Product and packaging designs must evolve. New technologies for manufacturing, recycling, and conversion must be developed. The drivers of change will likely be a combination of economics, consumer choice, and government initiatives. It may take years or decades for a circular economy to come to full fruition. In the interim, however, daily discarded waste materials must be managed safely, economically, and in an environmentally responsible manner. So how should public solid waste professionals proceed to lay the groundwork necessary for the future? This is a story of how one public agency, the Kent County (Michigan) Department of Public Works (DPW), is planning for a circular economy future.

Inspiration in West Michigan
Kent County is home to almost 650,000 residents and is the economic hub of West Michigan. Leading nationally-recognized manufacturing firms in the region, like Steelcase and Herman Miller, have aggressive Zero Waste to Landfill policies. Kent County’s DPW operates an integrated solid waste system that includes a materials recovery facility, a waste-to-energy facility, and a landfill to manage solid waste from the region. Despite this comprehensive system, the DPW landfills over 1,000 tons per day of solid waste and its landfill has only about nine years of airspace left.

The DPW purchased undeveloped acreage adjacent to its landfill for future landfill expansion but DPW leadership wanted to explore a different path for that land. A question arose: Could the waste generated by Kent County’s residents and businesses be the driver for a Sustainable Business Park to promote a more circular economy? If so, the Park could be an opportunity to work collaboratively with private industry to recover, recycle, and use the County’s waste for its material and energy values to become an economic engine for West Michigan.

As described by the County, “The development of a Sustainable Business Park, a type of industrial ecosystem, will stimulate the paradigm shift towards a Circular Economy, which is a value-added system in which virgin resource inputs, wastes, emissions, and energy leakages are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy loops to eliminate loss. This can be achieved through thoughtful design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling of stocks and materials flow. This approach contrasts the current one-time Linear Economy which is based on a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production and consumption.”

Essential to Kent County’s bold goal for dramatically reducing the amount of waste landfilled—20% by 2020 and 90% by 2030—is the Sustainable Business Park. To develop plans for their Sustainable Business Park, a Resource Park which will be sited on the land adjacent to the landfill, the Kent County DPW hired the solid waste consulting firm Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., who teamed with the local engineering firm Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber (FTC&H) and the financial advisory firm PFM to develop a master plan for the Park. The combination of the three—subject matter, engineering, and financial expertise—working in tandem with Kent County DPW and the communications firm, Byrum & Fisk, brought on board by the County would prove to be an important combination of skillsets along the way.

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Stakeholder engagement was integral throughout the entire master planning process, especially in its early stages. The planning process started with a series of stakeholder meetings in November 2017 designed to inform the public of the forthcoming study and to garner their input into the park’s design. Sessions were held with interested groups including municipal officials, nonprofit and environmental groups, private-sector waste management companies, regional manufacturers, and economic development and real estate groups. A general public meeting was held near the site of the landfill so that impacted residents could learn of the initiative. From the stakeholder sessions, a Stakeholder Review Committee (SRC) was established to provide advice and to review the eventual draft master plan for a Sustainable Business Park.

In early 2018, a group of DPW employees and members of the Stakeholder Review Committee visited several advanced mixed waste processing and material recovery facilities in Phoenix, AZ, and around San Jose, CA, to learn about processing technologies and business models. Over a three-day period, the group heard perspectives from privately-owned and operated, publicly-owned and operated, and publicly-owned with privately operated facilities. In addition to the site visits, an online survey was issued in January 2018 to small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies within a 50-mile radius of the proposed park. From the responses received, a majority reported a desire to divert as much waste possible from the landfill; cost was the top concern followed by environmental benefits in terms of what would entice them to use the Sustainable Business Park.

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Kent County reached out to the public for proposals.

Request for Information
With the results of the stakeholder input, survey results, and facility visits in hand, the team issued a Request for Information (RFI) in March 2018 to technology suppliers and project developers worldwide. The RFI provided an overview of the DPW system and program objectives. It invited respondents to provide technology and reference facility information, to identify the wastestreams they proposed to process, and to provide information regarding the products produced by the technology and the markets for such. They were asked to provide an estimate of the amount of land required to host their technology, what public infrastructure would be necessary to support the technology, and what business relationship the respondent desired with the DPW and Sustainable Business Park.

In the RFI, the DPW sought respondents providing solutions falling under one or more of the following categories:

  1. Material Reuse
  2. Material Recycling
  3. Fuel/Feedstock Preparation
  4. Energy Generation
  5. Other/End-Market Users/Manufacturing

There were 23 RFI responses received on or before the due date of April 26, 2018. Proposed technologies included anaerobic digestion, aerobic composting, biofuels production, mechanical biological treating, mixed waste composting, processing for alternative solid fuels, and several material-specific recycling or reuse operations. The project team reviewed each response and categorized them into three maturity classifications:

  1. Proven: generally defined as having a reference plant at least 50% the size proposed for Kent County with no less than three years of commercial operation
  2. Demonstrated: generally defined as having a reference plant at least 10% the size proposed for Kent County with no less than 1,000 hours of commercial operation
  3. Pilot and research: defined as all other technologies

The GBB team categorized the respondents and extracted key information used for conceptualizing the Sustainable Business Park and developed potential groupings of respondent types. Groupings A and B differ by method of mixed waste processing (MWP). Grouping A uses a thermal option for MWP, while Grouping B presents a non-thermal option for MWP. Both groupings have source-separated organics, ash processing, and potential pilots and end-users/manufacturers.

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Kent County held public meetings on the proposed project.

Existing Conditions
While the RFI process was underway, FTC&H undertook an assessment of the existing conditions of the proposed park site. The site was inspected for threatened or endangered species and regulated wetlands and no major impediments to the anticipated site development activities were identified. The nearest location of public infrastructure utilities such as electricity, natural gas, railways and roadways, water, and sewage were documented, and the local land use classification of the site was determined.

Funding Sources, Potential Costs, and Economic Benefit
In addition to considering stakeholder engagement, respondent grouping, and existing conditions, the team considered the available sources of funding, both for the site infrastructure and private businesses operating within the park, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of ownership structures and contracting options possible for infrastructure. The potential costs for offsite improvements, such as exiting road preparation and utility extensions, and the infrastructure costs for Groupings A and B were also estimated. Estimates for both Groupings considered (see Master Plan for detailed list and cost estimate):

  • Site Preparation and Earthwork for road and utility infrastructure
  • Water, Wastewater, and Utilities
  • Roads
  • Design, Construction, Testing/Permits
  • Sustainable Site Design
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Credit: GBB Inc
Example of a rain garden sustainable site design

The team also looked beyond the environmental valuation of landfill avoidance to determine the potential economic impact this project could have. An estimated $130 million in local economic impact annually could be realized if a processing waste sorting component of the Sustainable Business Park is implemented. This would attract private sector investment while creating hundreds of jobs.

Preservation in Mind
The Master Plan suggested sustainable features of the land development proposed at the park site to include protecting wetlands and surface water, preserving and enhancing open space, and managing stormwater runoff due to new development. Key to the project are climate protection and responsible resource allocation, so actions such as using renewable energy, diverting waste from landfills, and using regional materials as inputs were included. Along with environmental preservation and improvement, quality of life for the Sustainable Business Park tenants, visitors, and neighbors was also considered, with suggestions to stimulate sustainable development; minimize light pollution, noise, and vibration; and preserve views and local character.

Approval of the Master Plan
After more than 12 months of work, on October 4, 2018, the Kent County Board of Public Works approved the Sustainable Business Park Master Plan. Next steps include forming a business development team and working to advance the Master Plan over the next several years. Updates on the planning process and the final Master Plan itself, along with all of its appendices, are available on Kent County DPW’s website,, for download.


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