Just north of State Route 665 to the west side of I-71 there lies a land of opportunity, practically bursting at the seams with all manner of resources. Milk and honey are nowhere to be found, though. Instead, empty cartons and hollow plastic bears degrade ever so slowly in an amalgamated mass of tissues, discarded toys, and junked metal parts. Highway travelers typically regard it as a gigantic pile of garbage.
But Doug Haughn sees treasure in this mountain of waste. His new-age gold rush targets the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill, which sits on the outskirts of Grove City in a heap that grows by slightly more than 1 million tons – or 2 billion pounds – every year.
Haughn is a founding partner and president of Team Gemini, an Orlando-based project design and development company that focuses on resource recovery and recycling, sustainable agriculture, and renewable energy.
Team Gemini searched the Midwest for a suitable location for a facility that could capitalize on a synergistic approach to maximizing its capabilities, and the quest led to Grove City, Haughn’s hometown – in fact, his roots in that community are deep; his great-great-grandfather has a road named after him, and his family has been a part of the community for generations. Company executives met with Columbus 2020, an economic development organization, which pointed them toward a Request for Proposal regarding the landfill from the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio According to Haughn, the gist of it was simple – We have this waste stream. We have this land. What would you do with it?
“We didn’t pretend to know what the possibilities were,” said Phil Honsey, SWACO’s director of development, energy, and resource recovery. “We left it very open-ended so that we could learn from the private sector what the opportunities might be.”
The response from Team Gemini was ambitious and comprehensive – large-scale resource recovery facilities adjacent to SWACO, as well as the Gemini Synergy Center, a 343.5-acre industrial park that features renewable energy sources, greenhouses, aquaculture farms, and a water treatment plant. Once completed, GSC will be off the grid, operating from its own self-generated power supply.
“We wanted it to work completely on its own, and being synergistic, things feeding off of each other, helped improve that model,” Haughn said. “It still goes back to our mission statement of ‘people, planet, profit’ – that it would equally benefit the community, as well as the planet, as well as make money doing it.”
In the case of the Gemini facility, the “triple bottom line” is addressed directly by reducing the waste stream, improving recycling, and using more bio-based recycled materials and products.
Team Gemini will lease the land from SWACO, which will also sell a significant portion of its municipal solid waste to the company. The first destination for the waste will be the Center of Resource Recovery and Recycling (known as “COR3”), which broke ground in December 2013 and is scheduled to be completed by July 2016 as Phase I of the project.
COR3’s effect on landfill growth will be immediate. Of the 1 million-plus tons of waste collected annually, COR3 will sort through about 700,000.
First, SWACO’s rolling stock equipment will separate and evaluate waste on the floor of the landfill receiving facility, and then a conveyor belt will carry the solid waste with valuable recyclables to the materials recovery facility within COR3 for further automated and manual sorting. Unusable waste will be pulled out and sent to the landfill, and clean recyclables will be baled and sold to mills and recyclers.
The goal is to remove and sell 250,000 tons of recyclables from the solid waste, hence reducing landfill growth by nearly a quarter. The stream of valuable recyclable materials will allow Team Gemini to quickly create revenue in a way that is simple for investors to understand and also aligns with SWACO’s push to move away from outdated methods of waste disposal.
“The will of the people of Ohio was established years ago that we reduce reliance on landfilling and come up with alternatives other than just piling our trash,” Honsey said.
If Phase I will have an immediate impact, Phase II may be a quantum leap forward for Columbus. Once completed, the Gemini Center aims to process and use all 700,000 tons diverted from the landfill, virtually wiping out close to 70 percent of the city’s waste if successful. After the initial sorting process at COR3, the remaining 450,000 tons will be conveyed across State Route 665 for further chemical sorting or heat separation for the creation of fuels like ethanol and butanol, plastic-to-oil processes, and anaerobic digestion, which converts waste into methane gas and steam heat to generate electricity.
The finalized GSC industrial park will also feature biomass, biogas, and solar energy sources to power its facilities and associated businesses. Team Gemini will serve as the center’s anchor tenant, and other eco-friendly businesses within the research and industrial park will be able to take advantage of the stream of recyclables and renewable energy.
Gemini’s current forecasts estimate that GSC will create excess energy of 120 gigawatt hours per year that could go back to the power grid, and the plan is to build a substation on the property for interconnection. If GSC becomes an electric service provider with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, that excess electricity could power tens of thousands of homes per year.
The bulk of GSC’s energy will fuel on-site ventures, like three greenhouses powered by roof-mounted solar panels and the anaerobic digesters. The agriculture will yield pesticide-free, hydroponic and aquaponic vegetables and herbs, as well as fish from the aquaculture farms. While the majority of the food will be sold to grocery store and restaurant chains, the rest will be available for community purchase.
All told, the project is expected to require close to $300 million from Team Gemini, although the company will continue investing in new ways to leverage resources and reach profitable markets long after Phase II is completed. Haughn hopes to begin mining the existing landfill for valuable resources 10 to 15 years down the road, and eventually GSC will probably also feature recycling and reclaiming facilities on the land, in addition to COR3’s sorting capabilities.
And though the project and financial commitments are immense, the scale and scope are the keys for economic sustainability from Haughn’s perspective. The site will be the largest of its kind in North America and will require a wide variety of revenue streams and complementary, self-sustaining processes in order to operate without government incentives, grants, subsidies, or tipping fees – tonnage charges required at waste-processing and recovery facilities across the country.
“Our goal is to prove that a disappearing tipping fee is the wave of the future, because that’s the way it is now in Europe,” Haughn said. “Tipping fees have disappeared or [are] disappearing all over the place, because they’re reorganizing those resources.”
If all goes as planned, Columbus could lead the way forward in the United States and redefine waste itself as a resource.
“I think there’s a point in the future when Columbus can become a net-zero-waste city,” Honsey said. “We should certainly set our sights on working together here in this region to achieve that.”