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PHX Looks to Convert Waste into Gold

Resource Innovation Campaign Seeks to Move Waste Products into Circular Economy

By Roland Murphy for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

When is garbage not garbage?

When it’s a resource.

The City of Phoenix Public Works Department has undertaken an ambitious waste collection and processing overhaul project that seeks by 2020 to divert 40 percent of materials currently sent to landfills and convert them into energy or newly-innovated project types.

The city has committed $3M over four years to develop resource management solutions for research, technology evaluation and development and managing a solutions business incubator program.

In partnership with Arizona State University’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, the city’s Reimagine Phoenix Initiative created the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN).

According to John Trujillo, public works director, RISN has begun working with a variety of public and private partners to improve the city’s diversion efforts and turn trash into resources.

“That process has started already,” Trujillo said. “We’re working with partners to provide a collaboration platform where we can get cities and the private sector together to try to figure out what we can do to improve our diversion rate moving forward. As part of those discussions, we talked about learning about circular economies. A lot of the materials we collect here either get shipped to the landfill and buried or recycled material gets shipped to China to create products. Our question then became: Why can’t we do that here?”

Resource Innovation Campus

The program’s goal is to develop an incubator program based at its 27th Avenue and Lower Buckeye Resource Innovation Campus. The campus will have 30 acres dedicated to a composting facility currently under design. Fifty acres will be available for lease to tenants involved in developing and executing the program’s goals.

A Call for Innovators (CFI) was issued in March, and the program received 118 responses from organizations looking for solutions that not only make use of currently recyclable materials, but expand the conversion into useful materials for manufacturing or energy production of items currently sent to landfills.

Items targeted under the CFI include market-ready manufacturing processes, waste to energy technologies, and start-up or emerging technology and manufacturing processes, which will be the target tenants for the incubator project.

The city will generate RFPs for the infrastructure to support the plan and its attendant facilities. An RFP for the RISN facilities could go out at the end of the current or beginning of next fiscal year if funding can be identified.

“This is our land,” Trujillo said. “We decided, ‘Why not do something with it, rather than just letting it sit there vacant?’ Part will be the composting facility and part will be the areas set aside for the incubator. We’ve started the master planning process to figure out the infrastructure process and everything that’s going to be required on that.”

Plan Draws Attention, Becomes Model and Leader

Phoenix’s RISN program and innovation campus have already been drawing both national and international attention. According to Trujillo, RISN is becoming an international model, having created hubs in both Guatemala and Lagos, Nigeria. Other discussions for hubs to provide solutions based on resource issues are ongoing.

“ASU has really taken a lead on that, and they’re really becoming an international expert on some of this stuff through what we’ve created here,” he said.

Unlike other regions, particularly in the northwest and northeast, participation in Phoenix’s programs and diversion campaigns is voluntarily and individual, rather than mandated. Households separate their materials and place them in the appropriate curbside containers based on education, outreach and incentive rather than by mandated compliance.

According to Trujillo and Project Manager Gretchen Wolfe, that requires a greater upfront time and energy investment in education and outreach but yields a greater ultimate compliance with less community resistance.

“The Phoenix way is to educate the people first,” Wolfe said. “Sure, it’s the slow process. I’m not going to fine you, but if I educate you, it will stick better. That’s why our second focus area is to ramp up our education and outreach. There are always more different, fun and imaginative ways to approach sustainability.”

Phoenix’s efforts have received such note and regard the city has been asked by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to join its circular economy program. Palo Alto and NYC are the only other cities to be invited. When asked why traditionally conservative Phoenix was asked to join the program in addition to those two traditionally liberal cities, Trujillo pointed out that while the messaging may be different depending on the audience, the processes and results are the same.

In politically liberal areas like Palo Alto and New York, the initial public face of the project could be its environmental benefit, which would also realize economic development advantages. In a conservative climate like Phoenix’s, that message could be reversed to say we will cut costs and boost economic development, while at the same time working environmental and sustainability goals.

“It’s two sides of the same coin,” Trujillo said, “working to realize important goals for the economy and the environment. No matter how it has to be packaged, the benefits are the same in either community.”

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