separation

Phoenix Draws Waste-Converting Innovators to a Regional Hub

The latest offshoot is an incubator soon to launch next to Phoenix’s landfill on what will be called the Resource Innovation Campus.

In 2013, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton set a goal to bump the city’s diversion rate from 16 percent to 40 percent by 2020. Public Works Director John Trujillo figured he could get the city to about 24 percent with a few procedural tweaks, but he’d need technical and infrastructural support to go further. And he’d need a lot of innovation.

“We happened to have an innovator right in our back yard: Arizona State University,” Trujillo says.

Trujillo approached the university, which is known for its work in the sustainability space. Many brainstorming sessions later, the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN) was born. RISN is a platform where the public and private sectors can come together to develop and share ideas for turning difficult waste streams into opportunities. RISN also provides research, development and education to help members reach their goals.  

The latest offshoot is an incubator soon to launch next to Phoenix’s landfill on what will be called the Resource Innovation Campus. Entrepreneurs at the incubator will develop new products experimenting with feedstock provided by Phoenix. Arizona State will provide administrative and business development support as businesses work to finetune their products.

“When we came up with the idea for RISN we were thinking of focusing solely on the Phoenix area,” says Rajesh Buch, practice lead with Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives at Arizona State. “But John and his team began sharing their vision at conferences around the country. It sparked interest in others facing the same kinds of sustainability issues. We realized this was a global issue and we would be more successful if we created a collaborative network.”

Today, RISN’s nearly 40 members include cities, school districts, renowned institutions like the Mayo Clinic and corporations like Dell as well as smaller players like local mom and pop grocers. While most members are from Phoenix and the surrounding area, some are based as far away as India. The members’ common ground is a desire to create closed loop economies and to share ideas on how to do it.

There are currently several RISN projects in the works.

For example, one project includes regional partners exploring options to turn recycled asphalt into other products. Another involves six cities, two counties and one indigenous tribe that are all involved in a study looking into sharing costs and benefits of a regionwide green waste diversion plan that would turn yard scraps into commodities.

“Everyone knows this is a good idea, but no one has resources to do the analysis or enough feedstock or monies to create their own program,” Buch says. “So we created a model with input from these communities’ solid waste folks. We crunched their numbers to show them what they could potentially save through a regional solution.”

Meanwhile, as these RISN-supported projects evolve, the first two incubator participants will likely set up on the Resource Innovation Campus later this year. But the new facility will have more space to fill.

“We are looking for entrepreneurs who will work with existing businesses, like saw mills who can acquire wood from the city that could be turned into other products,” says Buch.

There are six Arizona cities that belong to the RISN hub. But its creators are working with national partners who are looking for ways to address their issues.

“This is about sharing solutions—and we are hoping more RISN hubs will launch over time,” Trujillo says. “We would help others set them up, and work together and share across the hubs.”

Already, companies who have heard of what the city and university are doing have asked to work with the network to create pilot programs in Phoenix to further develop their ideas. 

“We have the infrastructure to test their solutions,” Trujillo says. “We have the recycling facilities and the trucks to pick up materials. And we have the experience and the partnership with ASU to support them in their research.

“Our focus is to identify more efficient ways to manage our resources and to invite others with similar goals to benefit from each other’s knowledge. We know we will be effective. It’s just going to take time, effort and a lot of innovation to continue to move this forward,” he adds.

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