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Turning Trash Into Revenue: How Phoenix Plans To Create New Jobs And Build A No-Waste Economy

The 27th Avenue transfer station as seen from the air.
(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Public Works)
The 27th Avenue transfer station as seen from the air.

At the 27th Avenue Transfer Station in southwest Phoenix, trucks carrying up to nine tons dump recycling loads to the right, garbage to the left.

The trash is then packed into big diesel trucks and hauled to Phoenix’s landfill, located in Buckeye, more than 50 miles away.

“We travel in one year about 7 million miles, all our vehicles driving around," said Phoenix Public Works Community Outreach Specialist Isabel Gutierrez.

Inside the center where they sort recyclables, a machine pushes plastics, paper and aluminum to the side to be bundled.

"A lot of it gets shipped from the facility here to L.A. and then to China," said Public Works Director John Trujillo.

He wants to keep as much trash as possible in Phoenix.

“Really garbage is a resource and has value and we just gotta find a way to extract that value," Trujillo said.

They think they’ve found a way with mattresses. Recently, the city started paying Goodwill of Central Arizona $7 for each mattress the nonprofit removes from the transfer station. According to the city, that’s $4 cheaper than it costs to send one to the landfill.

Michael Dizinno, who oversees Goodwill’s program, said, “We’ll actually with a razor blade cut open the top of the mattress and take all the insides out. We have the capability of doing 160 mattresses a day."

Dizinno said collecting and selling the metal, foam and fabric has produced nine full-time jobs.

Public Works officials want to expand the operation beyond mattresses. The goal, they say, is to create an "international circular economy hub." A circular economy aims to eliminate waste-- the manifestation of the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle triangle of arrows, going around and around without end.

Phoenix has about 80 acres to do it. That’s how much city-owned land surrounds the 27th Avenue Transfer Station. Right now, it’s mostly a bunch of dirt, but Trujillo says it will be transformed into the city’s Resource Innovation Campus.

Photo courtesy of the City of Phoenix.

The Resource Innovation Campusis part of Phoenix's effort to meet its goal to keep 40 percent of trash out of the city's landfill by 2020. That's about double the current rate.

The next move will be to find another company like Goodwill to target the bulky fronds of palm trees, which aren't easily disposable and take a long time to break down.

“We spend $17 dollars a ton to take those palm fronds out to the landfill and put them in the landfill," said Project Manager Gretchen Wolf.

By this fall, Wolf expects the city council to award a contract that will keep palm fronds out of the landfill.

"We’re creating that economic impact," she said. "We’re creating jobs. We’re creating products that will then be sold.”

Future calls for business will target paper, plastic, glass and other items. Public Works Director Trujillo hopes to have three or four companies running by year’s end.

"There’s only one other city in the nation looking to do that right now and that’s Austin, at a smaller scale," he said.“It is exciting. I’m excited.”  

It’s also exciting to outreach specialist Isabel Gutierrez, who would love to highlight new products during the public tours that she leads at the transfer station.

“We don’t want this material going to the landfill," she said. "We’re damaging the earth and we only have one.”

Photo courtesy of the City of Phoenix

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.