West Michigan contractors face challenges with diverting waste as Kent County looks to get out of the landfill business. West Michigan contractors face challenges with diverting waste as Kent County looks to get out of the landfill business. COURTESY PHOTO

West Michigan’s construction industry grapples with diverting waste from landfills

BY Sunday, November 26, 2017 03:39pm

BYRON TOWNSHIP –– As Kent County looks to exit the landfill business by 2030, executives say West Michigan’s construction industry will need to adjust to a new model. 

Darwin Baas, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW), acknowledges the region’s booming construction sector faces a host of challenges in adopting “zero waste-to-landfill” policies that have become commonplace in West Michigan’s office furniture industry.

While he doesn’t think the path to diverting waste from area landfills will be easy for area construction firms, he’s confident it can be accomplished with the right leadership and planning. 

“These are smart, thoughtful tradespeople that if they just got together and said, ‘We’re going to do this differently because this is not a sustainable practice,’ I think we could solve it — I truly do,” Baas said. “You need to move the materials into the right container that’s going to the right place, but we need the place. It’s kind of that Field of Dreams thing: ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

Baas’ pitch to the construction industry comes at a time when the Kent County DPW thinks it has a value proposition for industries to move their waste away from landfills. 

With the South Kent Landfill near the U.S. 131 and 100th Street interchange nearing capacity in the next decade, the DPW plans to wind down the facility. The department now is developing plans for about 200 acres immediately south of the existing facility that the county purchased in recent years for a business park that could handle and process materials — construction or otherwise — and divert them from the landfill. 

Given the “pathetic” rate of recycling in West Michigan —  which Baas said hovers around 10 percent — the county, area residents and industry must complete a paradigm shift with regards to the disposal of waste, he said. 

“My challenge –– and the challenge the department has put out there –– is, ‘Are we going to do something different?” Baas said of the planned sustainable business park, which is still in the early planning stages. 

The county has only begun to engage its stakeholders on how best to develop and build a facility that could convert waste materials into usable products. Still, Baas thinks the sustainable business park could be dedicated in part to better reusing construction materials such as cardboard, plastic, appliances and other waste that winds up in the landfill and that often has significant value. 

“We’ve got to change,” Baas said. “We want to maximize the use of what we have (at the South Kent Landfill), but we need to do something very different in the future if we’re going to meet our (goal of a) 90 percent reduction in landfilling by the year 2030.”


Logistical issues abound for construction companies when it comes to disposing of their waste. In particular, they face challenges with setting up multiple receptacles for sorting different materials, which can be tricky on small job sites. 

But with enough planning on the front end of a building project, the construction industry could divert solid construction waste from the landfill, as well as reclaim and reuse many materials, sources said. More and more, it can make sound economic sense for the companies to do so.

“Working closely with your partners and your suppliers to drive waste out from beginning to end is an important element to landfill (diversion),” said Chris Beckering, executive vice president at Pioneer Construction Co., a Grand Rapids-based general contracting firm.

Pioneer Construction regularly diverts more than 60 percent of construction waste materials from landfills, Beckering said. The target diversion rate is 75 percent or higher for projects seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications, a rating system administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) aimed at evaluating the energy efficiency of buildings. 

Independent analyses of LEED buildings show that certified, newly built facilities tend to be around 30 percent more efficient than buildings without LEED certification, according to a 2016 cost benefit analysis from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Existing buildings renovated to LEED standards can generate more than 50 percent energy savings, according to the study.

Beckering agrees that using LEED as a main driver of diverting waste makes economic sense.

“What we’ve found as a company is a lot of the LEED point-generating activities associated with landfill diversion were actually just good business practices,” he said. “So to the extent you can recapture value from what was previously considered waste, why not just do that?”


While LEED ratings have become common over the last two decades, it’s largely driven by developers seeking the certification for their projects. As such, there’s still no widely-adopted industry standard when it comes to construction and demolition waste diversion. 

“I think the industry has gotten much better,” Beckering said. “But there’s still a wide spectrum when it comes to the adoption of best practices.”

Daniel Schoonmaker, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, applauds efforts by companies like Pioneer Construction to divert and cut down on waste materials. But he also notes that given the complexities of the construction industry and the wide variety of companies –– ranging from large, multi-million dollar general contractors to one-man subcontracting operations –– it’s all but assured that waste will continue to wind up getting buried. 

“It is complicated as business itself,” Schoonmaker said. “It’s the tower crane type of projects where I imagine most effort is being given to reclaim materials because those projects have the most money. But it’s a general given that on most projects –– I don’t want to say ‘all’ –– but in pretty damn close to all, (waste materials are) going to go to the landfill, full stop.”


Reports from the state of Michigan tend to back up Schoonmaker’s sentiments.

In the 2016 fiscal year, more than 49 million cubic yards of waste wound up in landfills in Michigan, according to a report from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. 

Of that landfilled waste, at least 6.5 million cubic yards were reported to have come from construction and demolition materials.

Kent County’s Baas notes that construction and demolition waste actually accounts for far more than the annual DEQ reports show because it’s often difficult to track what types of materials are actually brought to a landfill. 

For instance, the DEQ report breaks down landfilled waste into three categories: municipal and commercial waste, industrial waste, and construction and demolition waste. 

In fiscal year 2016, the South Kent Landfill in Byron Township disposed of more than 940,000 cubic yards of waste, according to the DEQ report. All of that waste was classified as municipal and commercial waste, despite a significant amount coming from construction projects. 

With the volume of truck traffic hauling waste into the facility, the county doesn’t track what kinds of materials are being brought in, Baas said.

Given the increasing volume of trash and the limited amount of space to dispose of it, Kent County must use new methods to deal with waste, meaning that the community’s various industries might have to as well, he added. 

“Landfills are really easy to do. We’ve been doing this for 50 years,” Baas said. “I don’t want to look at another 200 acres of (landfill). We don’t want to do it the old way. We want to do it the new way.” 

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