One Company's Waste Is Another's Raw Material

By Darren Waggoner
American News Service

Imagine an industrial park in which all the products are designed and manufactured in environmentally friendly ways. Not only that, but the businesses are organized so that the waste produced by one company can be used as raw material by another.

That's the dream being pushed toward reality by The Green Institute, a public-private venture in Minneapolis that is setting up what it calls an "ecological industrial park."

The Minneapolis project is one of about 20 similar projects operating independently nationwide. The President's Council on Sustainable Development, a project of Vice President Al Gore, acts as a clearinghouse for information, sources of funding and ideas.

The idea goes far beyond the kind of recycling that most cities already practice. In its ideal form, Green Institute executive director Michael Krause and others like him envision an industrial system that would emulate nature, where nothing is wasted.

The project is being built in Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood, one of the city's poorest areas, on land that was once destined to become a garbage transfer station. Phillips residents fought that, and eventually they won.

"I figured anything would beat a garbage plant," said Annie Young, a Phillips resident who was one of the leaders in the fight. The ecological industrial park, in addition to being much cleaner, also aims to eventually bring 200 much-needed jobs to the neighborhood.

Next to the site, The Green Institute has already created one related business: the Re-Use Center, a 26,000-square-foot retail operation that sells building materials salvaged from demolished properties. It employs 13 people and generates $350,000 in annual sales.

But the institute hopes to start construction within the year on a $4.5 million, 70,000-square-foot building that would house 15 to 20 more businesses. Eventually, it hopes to expand to 200,000 square feet of industrial space.

Krause has been talking to a variety of possible tenants for the new building. One would open a paint remanufacturing plant that would recycle old paint, some of it becoming high-quality caulk. Other possibilities include a firm that helps companies find ways to cut their energy expenses, one that makes canvas bags, and one that makes solar energy devices for home and business use.

Krause especially likes the idea of businesses that can use each other's waste. "That's almost always cheaper than using a virgin raw material," he said.

But the concept does not always succeed.

One of the nation's biggest monuments to dashed environmental hopes stands in Rochester, N.Y. More than a decade ago, the state and county governments spent $80 million on what was supposed to be a high-tech, state-of-the-art recycling center to turn trash into useful products such as paving materials and fuel to sell to the local electric utility.

As it turned out, few markets were found and the electric utility could not burn the fuel efficiently. Today the plant is used primarily as a garbage transfer station, sending waste to traditional landfills.

Overall, however, the concept of ecologically friendly industry seems to be catching on. A handful of the nation's largest investment companies, including Fidelity and Invesco, have set up mutual funds that invest primarily in recycling and other environmentally oriented businesses.

Londonderry, N.H., is another town hoping to attract some of this investment by setting up an ecological park.

Peter Lowitt, the town's director of planning and economic development, said town leaders became interested in the eco-park idea in 1995 after taxpayers had spent almost 10 years and more than $13 million to clean up three toxic sites.

"We've learned a hard lesson. It helped us want to work harder with our industries to create a model showing you can be good to your bottom line while being good to the environment," Lowitt said.

"We want to show the industries that their waste stream can be a revenue stream, as well as saving mightily on the cost of disposal."

Town leaders are negotiating with three prospective firms interested in moving into a 100-acre site the town obtained by foreclosing for unpaid taxes. Meanwhile, Yale University forestry students are analyzing the town's industrial waste stream, a study that could help Londonderry officials identify prospective businesses.

Unique to the Londonderry project is a legally binding covenant the companies will be asked to sign, agreeing to account for all their waste and try to make sure it is recycled.

"We hope the covenant will protect a company's investment. They'll know that another company won't come in next door and put in a junkyard," Lowitt said.

Yet another eco-park is taking root in Brownsville, Texas. The local economic development council studied more than 100 businesses, then gathered information about the waste produced by 35 companies on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

With help from the Bechtel Corp., a high-tech research firm, a computer has spit out a list of companies that might be good matches to use each other's waste. "The final scenario has uncovered hundreds of potential matches," said Rick Luna, project manager.

There were some early glitches in the computer program. For example, it could not distinguish between waste motor oils and waste food oils -- products that would have very different uses. However, when the report is finished he expects to see opportunities for reuse of a variety of cardboards, oils, plastics and solvents.

Eventually, Luna said, the Brownsville project will have about a dozen businesses working together in the eco-park. But it is also hoping to expand the idea of businesses feeding each other's waste to others without necessarily having to pick up and relocate into the park.

In early March, Brownsville hosted a conference for eco-park developers across the country. The keynote speaker, a vice president at Chaparral Steel near Dallas, explained how his company takes junked cars and separates the steel from the plastics and glass. Then, the company runs the metal through a minimill to produce a top-quality steel. Chaparral is also looking for ways to recycle the plastics and foams from those cars.

"The company's goal is to get to zero waste where everything that comes from the cars finds a market," said Luna.

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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