The New Gold Rush

How does a city take waste and turn it into gold? The City of Phoenix is converting 80 acres adjacent to a waste management facility into a circular economy hub that will create local economic activity.

ARTICLE | Mar 20, 2017

The City of Phoenix no longer accepts the premise that trash has no value. What was once viewed as worthless is now seen as a golden opportunity to improve the local economy.

In 2015, the City took a new approach to solid waste disposal. Through the Transforming Trash into Resources Request for Proposals (RFP), the City asked the market “What if…? What if instead of paying to landfill materials, the City paid to return those materials to our local economy?” Also in 2015, the City issued a Call for Innovators (CFI), commonly known as a Request for Information, to solicit information that is being used to create Phoenix’s circular economy hub and future RFPs. Through these mechanisms, the City has identified opportunities to create economic activity by diverting materials otherwise landfilled.

For example, Instead of paying to landfill mattresses, the City is paying a local non-profit to disassemble mattresses and sell the components for use by other businesses. And just this spring, the City Council authorized Public Works staff to contract with a company that will manufacture palm fronds (palm tree trimmings) into livestock feed, a potential diversion of 34,000 tons of palm fronds every year from the landfill. These two initiatives alone will result in 20 new jobs and the palm frond operation is expected to general up to $10 million in livestock feed sales.

Cities all across the nation are working toward increased waste diversion, but the City of Phoenix has taken these initiatives one step further. In 2013, the Mayor and City Council established the Reimagine Phoenix Initiative to divert 40 percent of solid waste from the landfill by 2020. To achieve this goal, the Public Works Department partnered with the Community and Economic Development Department to create economic activity by re-purposing waste. Together, the departments identified public and private partnerships as an integral component to changing the way the City and its residents view discarded materials and meeting the diversion goal.

Recognizing the City’s vacant land near the transfer station could create a synergistic environment for like-minded organizations, the City immediately began envisioning what would be called the Resource Innovation Campus (RIC), a circular economy hub that will create local economic activity from items currently landfilled or exported to other states or countries.

The City of Phoenix is converting 80 acres adjacent to a transfer station that includes a materials recovery facility and a closed landfill for the RIC, which will be home to manufacturers that use materials from the City’s waste and recycling streams, a state-of-the-art composting facility, and a technology solutions business incubator that will be operated by Arizona State University’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives (ASU).

City leadership including Mayor, Council, City management and staff were the primary initiators of the Reimagine Phoenix Initiative and this program. To engage stakeholders, City staff organized a “roadshow” to introduce to a diverse group of business and community organizations in Phoenix the Transforming Trash into Resources RFP, the CFI, and the City’s vision for creating a circular economy hub. This innovative approach demonstrates the value of partnerships with organizations such as the Goodwill of Central Arizona, its mattress recycler; Recycled City, LLC, its food waste collector; Palm Silage, LLC, its palm fronds diversion contractor; and ASU, which provides diversion research projects and will manage the technology solutions incubator at the RIC.

The City was extremely honored last year to be the first U.S. city invited for membership in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100. This strategic partnership is evidence of the efficacy of the City’s partnership with ASU and is the catalyst for an Ethical Circular Economy Certification Program being offered in Phoenix.

Reimagine Phoenix, as well as the City’s other efforts to achieve a circular economy, has been featured in local, national and international media. Nationally, Phoenix’s innovative projects have been featured in, Governing Magazine, USA Today and NPR’s Here and Now. Trade publications, including Recycling Today, Bio Cycle Magazine and American City and County, have also given the program attention.

Through reimagine Phoenix, the City has expanded the 3R’s to 5R’s—reduce, reuse, recycles, reconsider and reimagine and invited the community to play a participatory role in the future of their community. The impact of these initiatives is three-fold: first, they increase the City’s solid waste diversion rate; second, they create jobs; and third, they stimulate the local economy by attracting new businesses, manufacturers and innovators to the City.

The City of Phoenix will present at TLG at 9 a.m. on April 20, 2017. Get your tickets now. Online sales end April 4, 2017.

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