GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s cheaper to send waste to a landfill than recycling, but turning trash into a commodity could become more streamlined in West Michigan in the coming years.

The Kent County Recycling and Education Center is the largest facility of its kind on the west side of the state.

The communications and marketing director for the county’s Department of Public Works, Kristen Wieland, shared the changes she has noticed in what materials are showing up at the facility.

“Cardboard is the biggest thing. It’s really been growing in about the last eight years, but I think COVID has really shifted how much cardboard we’re getting at our homes instead of at retail,” she said.

Wieland called it the Amazon effect. Large pieces of cardboard can jam up the equipment at the center, which is why it’s so important to cut it down to size before placing it in a recycling bin.

Cleanliness is also important. Recyclables don’t need to be pristine but should be mostly free of food. They are a commodity that the county sells, so it’s important that they retain their value.

“If we keep sending (vendors) stuff that’s not clean enough, they’re going to start rejecting it. Similar to the stock market, those values rise and fall. There are a lot of complexities to how much the recyclables are worth in the marketplace, and that’s one of the revenues we use to help pay the people who work here as well as do the maintenance,” said Wieland.

Many people don’t put that commodity in recycling bins and send it away as trash instead.

The waste-to-energy facility across the street from the recycling facility has helped cut down on how much material makes it to the landfills, but Wieland said there is still a lot of work to do. The county came up short of its goal to reduce landfill waste by 20% by 2020 but is now on track for its next goal of reducing what goes to the landfill by 90% by the year 2030.

“We have to advance the technology that we’re utilizing in order to be able to capture more of the materials. Otherwise, they’re going to continue to go to the landfill. Landfilling is pretty cheap, but all we’re doing is burying it in the ground and it’s going to have an enduring impact on our community,” Wieland explained.

The Department of Public Works has a 250-acre property adjacent to the South Kent Landfill that will either become an extension of the landfill or something different. The department is working with surrounding communities on a plan to break out the waste that currently goes into the landfill into different commodities that still have value.

Wieland said about 35% to 40% of what goes into the landfill is organic material not suitable for recycling but something that could go to a compost facility for anaerobic digestion.

The goal is to build up the infrastructure around the property and turn it into a sustainable business park, to get that material out of the waste stream and capture it for use as a commodity.

A board manufacturer has also shown interest in becoming part of the park, taking the scrap paper and film plastic and turning it into boards similar to MDF boards. They could be used for flat roofs like those at big box stores.

If the county gets approval for these plans, the development contracts could be secured in 2023, with construction starting in the following two years. Whether the county moves forward with expanding the landfill or creating a sustainable business park, the decision has to happen in the next year or two, since it will require permits and planning.

HOW A LANDFILL WORKS, INSIDE AND OUT

At the South Kent Landfill, Wieland showed the process of collecting waste, crushing it down, and covering it up. A 120,000-pound machine that looks like an excavator with large, metal cleats instead of tires drives over all of the trash repeatedly, so it doesn’t take up any more space than it needs to.

Mattresses have become more challenging material to deal with. Wieland thinks the ease of online ordering has created more mattress waste, and they are difficult to crush down since they get caught in the machine.

Businesses, like Recycled Dreams Grand Rapids, will take the mattresses and break them apart to use the materials inside, but it’s a labor-intensive process. The county has been working with a company in the Rockford area, but one business can’t handle the 30,000 mattresses the public works department collected at one facility in the last year.

The excavator that crushes waste at the landfill.

Although a landfill is a giant pile of trash, there is a lot that goes into designing and engineering every section of it. The South Kent Landfill has pipes sticking up out of each section, serving two purposes. One pipe system collects the methane gas that builds up after a section is closed, and another collects the liquid that seeps into the ground and sends it to the wastewater treatment plant.

The property also has a monofil, which is the ash from the waste-to-energy facility in Grand Rapids. That area holds 30 years’ worth of waste in a much smaller space than the 30 years worth of waste that exists in the landfill since it was all incinerated.

Workers must also be careful when starting a new section in the landfill. The previous section can’t get too high before starting the next one, since the ground could become unstable, so there is a precise process for filling each section.

Wieland said 75% of the material that ends up in the landfill could be diverted, but it will take practice and patience.

“It’s not a snap of the fingers or a flip of the switch. We’ve got to build up habits. We’ve got to build up infrastructure in order to accommodate those types of changes,” she said.