SOLID WASTE: Cities set up recycling malls to repurpose trash

Whitney Blair Wyckoff, E&E reporter  |  Published: Friday, February 14, 2014
The future of garbage disposal looks a bit like a shopping mall to California-based environmental engineer Gary Liss.He’s an advocate for so-called resource recovery parks: single locations where residents can drop off food scraps, bottles, tin cans and other materials for processing. The parks bring together recyclers and remanufacturers, creating opportunities for companies to use rubbish as a resource.

Similar to a shopping center that has anchor stores, the parks often play host to major recycling facilities, like a curbside recycling center, that are flanked by other recycling or repurposing businesses. “It’s a public-private partnership enabling the development of facilities that are needed to get to zero waste,” Liss said. “Those facilities are often difficult to site by themselves, so it’s providing a location for those types of activities to occur.”

The parks have cropped up in a few communities across the United States and Canada, like Chester, Va. And other municipalities have plans to put them in place. “People are tired of landfilling and tired of garbage incineration — and those are the other two competing technologies,” said Dan Knapp, the founder of a waste recovery business called Urban Ore who has consulted on recovery park projects around the world. “Either you bury it or you burn it or you … turn them into commodities and you dispose of them that way.”

Liss said the idea isn’t new, but it’s gained some traction in recent years as municipalities look to reduce the environmental footprint of their trash. It’s often a long, arduous journey from the recycling bin to a processing plant. The United States exported 39 million metric tons of scrap commodities last year through November, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Recent technological advances also have offered more opportunities to recycle refuse, which could account for the growing interest in the idea, said Julie Rhodes, Austin, Texas’ recycling economic development liaison. “We’re seeing these new technologies driving the viability [of the parks] in a way that probably wasn’t possible 15 years ago, 10 years ago,” she said.

As part of Austin’s effort to divert 90 percent of its trash from landfills by 2040, city officials are building a resource recovery park to help pull materials out of the waste stream. The Austin [re]Manufacturing Hub, built on a decommissioned landfill, is expected to start hosting tenants by 2015.

Officials in Alachua County, Fla., which includes Gainesville and the University of Florida, have a similar project underway on a 40-acre lot. Like in Austin, part of Alachua County’s goal is to cut back on how much trash it sends to landfills. “The community is very environmentally conscious,” said Edgar Campa-Palafox, economic development coordinator for Alachua County. “It’s part of the culture.”

But there are other benefits, Campa-Palafox said: The county doesn’t have a landfill within its borders, so it could reduce the expense of shipping and landfilling the trash elsewhere. The park also has the potential to create manufacturing jobs for locals. “From our perspective, for the job creation side, manufacturing is considered the gold standard of jobs in economic development,” he said. In Virginia, a private company established its own resource recovery park in the shell of an old Brown and Williamson tobacco factory in 2006.

Brenda Robinson, president and founder of the 143-acre Sustainability Park in Chester, Va., said the factory came with some perks that made it easier to attract manufacturers: The site itself already had a wastewater treatment plant, fire system and multiple loading docks in place — as well as existing stormwater and air permits.She said the park currently is home to companies that process construction demolition materials, recycling glass and reusing leftover wood products. Robinson said working with waste is inherently more difficult because it requires navigating through additional red tape.

“You have to really be really committed to work hard to make it happen,” she said. “You can’t be faint of heart and be in this business.”