Steps toward action in the circular economy

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By TRAVIS HIGH

Every time your smartphone screen shatters, do you ever stop and think: why do I have to buy a new one? Why can’t we just replace the parts that still have some value? These questions were raised by Janine Finnell, Executive Director of Leaders in Energy, at the third annual Circular Economy event on September 28, 2017 at the University of the District of Columbia.

Several dozen participants from different backgrounds joined to learn about the circular economy and engage in small group discussions on how to expand its practices in our businesses, communities, and daily lives. The goal was to develop an action framework to further enable the circular economy in the Washington region.

Conceptualizing a new circular economy

Barbara Englehart

Barbara Englehart, Director of Business Sustainability for Leaders in Energy and Principal of Englehart Consulting, introduced the circular economy concept. It refers to an industrial economy that is restorative, sustainable and collaborative by intention. It relies on renewable and clean resources: energy, water, materials, land. Through careful design, it aims to keep materials and products in circulation for very long cycles and eliminate waste.

Transforming the product life cycle, the circular economy seeks to minimize inputs to business processes and reduce harmful outputs or waste. This can be accomplished by moving from tinkering with essentially the same processes to redesigning them to utilize resource value for longer and reduce waste.

This resonated with David Woessner, General Manager of Local Motors in National Harbor, Maryland. “Why are we still making products” using linear processes, he asked, “when we can go back to the drawing board?”

Local Motors uses the technological advances that have enabled co-creation and micro-manufacturing. Products can be designed globally and produced locally – thus promoting innovation and saving supply chain costs. According to Jim Schulman, AIA, Executive Manager of the Alliance for Regional Cooperation, the circular economy can also address equity and the negative consequences of the globalized economy.

Call to action

This year, 64 companies representing 7.5% of the global fashion market signed a call to action in Copenhagen to take steps toward a circular economy business model. Some of the world’s leading brands – Adidas, Inditex, Marks & Spencer and Target, to name a few – signed up. Companies are responding to the need “to capture important resources from being wasted and to meet future resource demands.”

Resource imperatives are an important driver for the circular economy. Kamran Zendehdel, Assistant Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at University of the District of Columbia, spoke about the high social costs of food insecurity in the District.

One of the university’s responses to this problem is the Urban Food Hub concept. The DC Urban Food Hub is designed to consider full life cycle of food production, from farming to food preparation and distribution, as well as waste and water recovery. But the heart of the project is in addressing inequitable access to food.

Workshop participants recognized the constraints placed by shrinking resources in developing a circular economy action framework.

Brainstorming

Janine Finnell

There is a wealth of information on models for the circular economy that can be applied in the Washington region. Finnell presented on success stories such as Ecovative, iFixit, Optoro, and Steelcase. Locally, there are many examples such Amicus Green Building Center, Alexandria Renew Enterprises, Arlington Zero Waste Initiative, Community Forklift, Goodwill, paintcare, TechShop, and Yuck Old Paint.

Woessner presented on his company’s innovations in 3D printed vehicles and UAVs. By design, the Olli has as few components as possible in order to make it easier to assemble and service. While the average vehicle has 25-30,000 components, the Olli has 50. Local Motors is therefore trying to rightsize the type of vehicles are actually needed.

David Woessner

In a session moderated by Beth Offenbacker, Ph.D., HR Consultant and Coach, Waterford, Inc., workshop participants split up into groups for a breakout session. The sessions were designed to help participants identify opportunities in the circular economy, thinking about the design of sustainable solutions, means of reducing inputs, impacts and outputs, and keeping materials cycling in the business cycle loop.

The groups reported on some possible business models. Here are a few of them:

  • Food waste diversion: Collecting what would otherwise be food waste, centralizing it, and using anaerobic processes to convert it into energy as an input for other processes, such as food production in greenhouses. This concept would help to reduce food waste, which is one of the biggest CO2 producers.
  • Coffeffe: The event’s Environmental Leader sponsor presented on some of the innovative ways it uses to collect coffee grinds and mix them with other substances, like old flowers and sawdust, to create new products such as soap, fire logs, and wood stain.

Make it happen

Breakout session

Economic development is never easy; much less so when the economic players have little or no experience in setting up this kind of model.

Enter Peter Lowitt, Director and Land Use Administrator for the Devens Enterprise Commission, the agency charged with permitting the redevelopment of the former Fort Devens army base in Massachusetts. Devens is one of about 40 eco-industrial parks in the U.S. Eco-industrial parks pool the resources of multiple businesses in a mutually beneficial arrangement that also protects the environment.

These parks can go in many different and exciting directions. The Devens park created around 6,000 jobs and includes over 400 residents. They also launched a pilot study on energy-negative, sustainable, and affordable housing. The prototype house generated enough excess power to power an electric vehicle for 30,000 miles per year.

Jim Schulman

So eco-industrial parks would be one way to foster a circular economy. Regional economic development organization groups can facilitate preferential discounts to members of regional hubs. This would promote local commerce and reduce reliance on high transportation and environmental costs, according to Jim Schulman, AIA, Executive Manager of the Alliance for Regional Cooperation.

Local and regional circular economy hubs also offer promise, such as the ones in Amsterdam, Glasgow, Nord-Pas de Calais (France), and Phoenix. One of the outcomes of this workshop was the beginning of a Circular Economy Action Framework and the formation of a working group within Leaders in Energy. This group will continue to look at opportunities for growth in the Washington area.

Another enabling factor is to leverage government bodies to create awareness and build incentive structures. For instance, Schulman mentioned a recent building code change in the District of Columbia to incentivize use of salvage materials.

Finally, it all comes down to the basics. Successful circular economies ultimately require “active consumption” consumers (also known as “conscious” consumers), who are committed to choosing products that are designed with zero waste in mind. In that regard, workshop participants made commitments to support businesses with ties to the circular economy.

Our partner is The College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) at the University of the District of Columbia. Thanks to MOM’s Organic Market for being our Clean Energy sponsor. Coffeffe and FilmBison Media were the Environmental Leader sponsors.

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