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How Phoenix Is Transforming Trash Into Resources

Image credit: Rob Schumacher/The Republic

Phoenix, Arizona is a huge and growing city — the sixth largest in the U.S. — with a population of 1.4 million residents embedded in a metropolitan area of more than four million people. Because of its location surrounded by mountains in the hot and dry Sonoran desert, Phoenix has by necessity become a leader in the world of sustainability, with a plan focusing on the nexus of energy, water, population and waste. Waste value stream management is one of the most difficult — but potentially rewarding —  challenge areas within the city’s strategy.

A 2003 waste characterization study conducted by the city of Phoenix concluded that more than two-thirds of the single-family waste stream consisted of material that could be recycled or diverted through standard recycling and programs for green organics, such as composting and biomass to energy. In 2011, Phoenix buried approximately 900,000 tons of waste material in the State Route 85 landfill, over 600,000 tons of which were generated from the residential solid waste stream. Although the city’s commingled recycling program has been in effect for more than 20 years, Phoenix’s average residential diversion rate was 18 percent in FY2011-12, well below the national average recycling rate of 34.1 percent.

How can the city raise awareness of waste diversion and change the behavior of Phoenix residents?

According to John Trujillo, Assistant Public Works Director for the city of Phoenix, the Phoenix Public Works Department created a Waste Diversion Action Plan, consisting of a number of programs, strategies, measurable outcomes and responsibilities. These are organized into short-term, mid-term and long-term strategies focused on achieving a citywide waste diversion rate of 40 percent by 2020.

“In order for our plan to be successful, we have to identify and execute near-term opportunities for waste diversion and aversion that will lead to a reduction in waste sent to landfills, while saving money for the city and its citizens,” said Trujillo.

This strategic action plan was branded Reimagine Phoenix: Transforming Trash into Resources. In order to meet its ambitious goals, the city is collaborating with the Sustainability Solutions Services (S3) at Arizona State University (ASU), one of the country’s most respected sustainability institutions. S3 is one of the eight Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, a program of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Trujillo recruited myself  General Manager of S—  and Rajesh Buch, practice lead for S3, to form an expert team of ASU staff, graduate students and faculty. The team held a series of workshops engaging key stakeholders from businesses, government entities and other cities in the Phoenix area to facilitate a regional collaboration that will help develop technologies and markets, maximize value and create economic opportunity.

The Center for Resource Intelligence

Most individual cities, like Phoenix, don’t have the critical mass to manage material flows, so it makes the most sense to take a regional approach. The most impactful idea that came out of our collaborative workshop was the development of a regional Center for Resource Intelligence (CfRI). The center will be a research and development facility focused on intelligent, efficient and restorative use of all key natural resources, with a special emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. It will also identify and analyze policies and best practices for technologies that may include a mixed stream Regional Resource Recovery Center and the development of a Regional Material Management System. Immediate opportunities include projects in waste-to-energy, and food scraps and multi-family recycling. The center is planned to launch in January of 2014.

Sharing the Wealth of Resources and Ideas

The CfRI is becoming a broad collaboration of partners and market players who will contribute technology, market information and financial resources. To promote innovation, these regional public and private partners will be engaged to develop an industry cluster with hubs of businesses around the Valley for the purpose of integrated resource management and value creation. One of these partners is Ryan Kirane, Sustainability Officer for Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

“The correlation between our environment and health is important,” said Kirane. “A partnership between the city of Phoenix, Arizona State University, and the healthcare sector will be key to delivering innovative waste-reduction solutions.”

An industrial ecology-based economic development zone will be located within the city of Phoenix. This zone will house the CfRI campus as well as a variety of businesses that transform trash into resources. Companies within the zone would have the opportunity to share feedstocks and resources, suppliers, technologies, skilled workers and markets; the CfRI will in turn provide a wide variety of research, technology development, education and solutions services to help these companies manage their resources more effectively.

A Win-Win-Win Situation

The lessons learned from the Reimagine Phoenix effort can be re-framed and taken into any region in the country, and around the world, through collaboration with ASU and S3 and its many commercial, non-profit and government collaborators.  This collaboration provides the opportunity to partner with an internationally recognized research university that will provide solutions with the goal of creating value for public and private good.

It’s a winning strategy in terms of reducing waste and improving quality of life in the region. It’s also a winning strategy for any city because of increased cost savings, tax revenues and job creation, and it’s a winning strategy for companies who profit from the integration of resources in the economic development zone.

According to Trujillo, the additional economic benefits that come from new business and job creation, tax revenues from new firms entering the area, and increasing revenues from higher diversion and more efficient waste management “really does amount to turning trash into treasure.” 

SB Issues in Focus To learn more about innovative ways organizations worldwide are are turning waste into resources, check out the #WasteNot editorial channel.
SB Issues in Focus For more examples of innovative sustainability #solutions from ASU and beyond, check out the editorial channel.

Dan O’Neill is General Manager for the Walton Sustainability Solutions Services at Arizona State University (ASU). In this role, he connects the sustainability needs of local and global stakeholders to the knowledge and delivery capabilities of ASU and its global network of partners… [Read more about Dan O'Neill]


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