Trash Goes High-Tech

American Waste's new facility is first in the nation – and expanding

TRAVERSE CITY – When you spend $12.5 million on something, it seems kind of odd to call it garbage. That's just semantics though, say the people behind American Waste's innovative new 4.5-acre facility off Hammond Road in Garfield Township.

"The goal is to be a zero landfill facility," said Kelly Ignace, American Waste's director of marketing. "Right now, 70 percent of what comes in here is recycled, but the hope is for that figure to be 100 percent someday."

Nationally, the recycling rate is only about 32 percent. But American Waste, a local company owned by brothers Mike and Eddie Ascione, is able to best that with their new line of computerized machines, conveyor belts, vacuum tubing, balers and optical scanners that open trash bags then sort the contents.

The facility is housed in the renovated Tower Automotive building. Where car parts were once manufactured, trash is sorted for recycling. In the space of about only five minutes, a 30-gallon bag of garbage is opened, jostled, polarized, magnetized, vacuumed, sifted and filtered.

The business just expanded beyond the Tower Automotive building, too, with the purchase of the old Just for Kicks/TBAYS soccer building. "It's a great fit as a vehicle storage garage and truck maintenance facility," Ignace notes. And just last month, American Waste began doubling shifts, running two shifts of 20 workers each on the line. This is allowing the company to keep trash collected from satellite operations, such as its Charlevoix facility, out of the landfills.

The state-of-the-art line makes the recovery of valuable recyclables possible, but it couldn't operate without a human component. The entire Hughes Drive facility employs 91 workers, from people sorting and monitoring the line, to people answering phones in the call center, to people greeting customers and driving the collection trucks.

"We are the only facility in the nation with the ability to process the three streams of waste with one line of equipment," Ignace said, referring to municipal solid waste, single stream recycling, and construction and demolition waste. In addition, there is only one other facility in the nation that processes consumer trash – i.e., tears open bags to recover recyclables. (Ignace stresses the importance of consumers continuing to separate their recyclable materials from their trash. "It's how the facility operates best," she says.)

So, how is it that Traverse City got the honors? A perfect storm of interest, investment, and curiosity.

In the 1970s the Asciones' father bought his first garbage truck. Eventually, the brothers bought the business from their father and in 2005, Grand Traverse County put its recycling contract out for bid. Ignace was working for the county at the time and encouraged American Waste to bid. They did, got the contract, and got busy hauling everything to their Kalkaska facility. On a whim, the Asciones thought, 'Hey, what would happen if we ran some trash over the recycling line?'

What happened was the brothers saw first hand that a lot of valuable recyclables get thrown away and end up in landfills, never to be seen again. Research, travel, and investment followed. The company was given the single-hauler contract for Traverse City and Peninsula Township in April 2011, and now Traverse City has a municipal and commercial waste and recycling facility that is the envy of the nation, for both economical and environmental reasons. It even impressed Gov. Rick Snyder on a recent visit.

"Everyone talks about the carbon footprint and conserving our resources, but for the average consumer, it's hard to know what to do," said Ella Cooper, board chair of the Michigan Green Consortium. "American Waste is an active member and very proactive of our efforts. We all generate waste. Recycling is something that everybody can do and thanks to them, our options here have expanded extensively."

On March 11 the Consortium ran its semi-annual "Clean-Up and Green-Up" event at American Waste's new facility. It is the largest, most comprehensive recycle, reuse, repurpose event in northern Michigan and Cooper said a record 900 carloads of refuse, from junk cars to mattresses to appliances to furniture, were recycled with 20 recycling partners on hand to accept material. The next event is Nov. 4.

The future of trash

At American Waste, we believe this is the way trash collection is headed, says Ignace. Consumers are beginning to demand recycled products; materials are just too valuable to be tossed in a landfill and forgotten, and landfills won't always be profitable. A good example of that is right in the facility's township.

On Dec. 31, East Bay Township closed its municipal transfer station. The two on-site trash compactors were aging and would have cost residents $180,000 each to replace. Residents who used the transfer station expressed concerns initially, but, according to East Bay Township Supervisor Glen Lile, have been happy with the new service on Hughes Drive.

"I think American Waste is in this for the big picture and the long haul," Lile says. "They have the facility and the capital to put together an operation that local government just can't compete with." BN