BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — If you live in Kent County and toss your trash into a curbside container, chances are it ends up at the South Kent landfill.
“There’s 7 million tons of trash buried here. So (it’s) a 7 million-ton trash bag,” said Dar Baas, director of the Kent County Department of Public Works.
Every day, hundreds of dump trucks take the road hugging the South Kent landfill up to the top of the 150-foot slope to empty West Michigan’s waste — over 1,000 tons of it each day.
The “working face” of the landfill is bordered by a temporary fence to keep plastic bags from blowing away, blanketed in thousands of seagulls, covered in trash and occasionally smells of methane. The ground vibrates from the heavy machinery pushing around and packing down West Michigan’s castoffs.
“This is what people don’t see. It’s fantastic that they can place their material in a cart that goes to the curb and then no one really thinks about it unless their driver happens to miss their route or their (home). But this is the reality of most trash across the country, certainly in Michigan and unfortunately for Kent County. And we have our Waste to Energy Facility, we have our recycling facility, but there’s so much material that’s brought to the landfill,” Baas said.
WHAT WE TOSS
On this late November day, Baas pointed out a soiled shirt, a torn furniture cushion, an empty macaroni and cheese box and a plastic pop bottle. The bottle is just a dime’s worth of the roughly $1 million in deposit containers Baas said are thrown away each year in Kent County.
“And there’s no way to pick it out. It’s just impossible,” he said.
There’s also a mangled bicycle that could have been recycled for scrap metal at Kent County’s Waste to Energy Facility. Baas says since the that facility opened in 1990, it has recycled 140,000 tons of scrap steel, roughly enough to build the Mackinac Bridge twice.
“That’s just six communities in Kent County, six cities that had brought their material there. They were thinking forward and made a decision back in the 1980s that they wanted to do something very different,” Baas said.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A LANDFILL: ‘IT’S MADDENING’
At the South Kent landfill, the bent bicycle will have a different fate, starting at the blade of a bulldozer.
“I think the most disappointing thing here is once he’s pushed that into the pile, it’s never coming back. It’s gone forever,” Baas said.
A compactor smashes the waste into a “cell” on a 10-foot layer of the landfill, called a “lift.” At the end of the day, an excavator dumps “daily cover” soil on top of the site to keep the trash from blowing away and curb the smell.
“And then the next day you scrape that off and it’s another day,” Baas said.
For over an hour that day, Baas watched as truck after truck came in and tipped their load, including material that could’ve been recycled.
“The amount of corrugated cardboard, fiber, plastic, you can see all the bags, it’s just unreal,” he said.
“I think the sobering part for me is that every load that’s tipped here, you’ve just thrown away value,” Baas said. “Corrugated cardboard is probably $150, maybe $200 a ton right now, yet the decision made by that contract or that company or whoever it is, is we’re just going to throw it away because it’s too much hassle to do anything else with it.”
In November, Baas said it cost dump trucks roughly $40 per ton to tip at the landfill. While the county has made recycling easy by allowing customers to throw all their materials into one cart, the equipment and workers it takes to separate it back out is costly.
“All of those things add up to it does cost more than burying it in a hole in the ground,” Baas said.
It’s a sight Baas has watched unfold for many years during his 25-year career in the industry.
“This to me is maddening because this isn’t like, ‘Well, it’s just a busy day.’ No, this is every day, in one community. And it’s repeated probably in 40 other locations in the state. And you go, ‘OK, how’s this sustainable? How is this a solution for our future?’” Baas said.
MORE THAN MOUNTAIN OF TRASH
The roughly 300-acre South Kent Recycling & Waste Center opened in the mid-1980s after the North Kent landfill reached capacity. It’s more than a giant hill of trash.
“This is a highly engineered facility. There’s liner systems and gas collection systems and storm water (retention) and all that (type of) protection systems,” Baas said.
The county is still tackling the problem of PFAS — a chemical that has been used for decades in making all sorts of things from Scotchgard to firefighting foam but only recently became publicly known for its hazards.
“PFAS leeches out. It’s a reality. It’s in the materials that we buy and use every day. So the state, the federal government, EPA, wastewater treatment plants locally, we’re all looking to find solutions to pull it out before we release that water,” he said.
The South Kent landfill features countless wells that pump the gas that builds up underground out of the landfill, sending it through headers and pipelines to a facility to generate electricity. At the base of the landfill is a SafeChem area where people can drop off chemicals, rechargeable batteries and other household products that aren’t safe to dump in a landfill.
The landfill portion of the South Kent Recycling & Waste Center contains about 40 cells, the last of which was constructed the summer of 2021. That last space is expected to fill up in eight years, but work at the landfill won’t end there.
“This landfill, when it’s full in 2030, we have a minimum of 30 years of what’s called post-closure due care. We’ll be managing this site actively ‘til at least 2060. And so you think about grandkids, you think about that next generation, you just asked yourself, how, how does that make sense?” Baas said.
A NEW VISION OF LESS WASTE
That’s where Kent County’s new project — the roughly $350 million Sustainable Business Park — comes into play.
Baas says over the last 20 years, the county has purchased about 250 acres of property just south of the landfill, including farmland the county is leasing back to farmers until needed, and four residential homes when the owners decided to move.
The original plan was to expand the landfill, but that shifted over the last several years. Last month, the Kent County Board of Public Works approved a project development agreement with Kent County Bioenergy Facility.
Continuus Materials and Anaergia are teaming up to create and run Kent County Bioenergy Facility. Continuus Materials creates roofing coverboard called Everboard from plastic film and paper that is thrown away and Anaergia converts organic waste into fertilizer and renewable energy using anaerobic digestion.
If all goes well, the new facility could be up and running in about three years. Economic development groups involved in the project expect other tenants to join the Sustainable Business Park after that.
“That’s the hope, that’s the vision. And we’re going to continue to work with our county commissioners and the Board of Public Works and stakeholders in the community to talk about it and share our common vision about what we want to do instead of this,” Baas said from atop the landfill.