How the Solid Waste Industry Factors into the Circular Economy

How the Solid Waste Industry Factors into the Circular Economy

Last month, 40 companies discussed what’s being referred to as the “circular economy” in an inaugural business tour in Seattle.

Defined as a regenerative model that aims to keep components, materials and products at their highest value at all times, creating no waste for the landfill, the circular economy might be a new term but it refers to a growing practice that “encourages economic growth using yesterday’s waste as tomorrow’s resource,” according to organizers of the two-day tour which featured best practices and proven solutions through programs, presentations, discussions and site visits.

The circular economy is a $4.5 trillion opportunity over 15 years, according to a report presented by Accenture.

The tour was presented by Ecova, an energy and sustainability management company based in Spokane, Wash., and the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Jennifer Gerholdt, environment and sustainability director at U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, says the circular economy is at its core an economic innovation opportunity.

“We focus on the art of the possible and on advancing American business competitiveness,” Gerholdt says. “This tour fits squarely within our sweet spot where we focus on providing a powerful platform for sharing, learning, networking, and capacity building to accelerate business innovation to solve global sustainability and social challenges.”

Attendees toured Republic Services, General Biodiesel, Phillips and PCC Markets/Wiserg, and heard presentations from Stuffstr, Interface, Alaska Airlines, HP, Accenture, SunPower and Repurposed Materials.

“We're really the pioneers, in terms of putting together an actionable event around the circular economy,” says Kristin Kinder, LEED green associate, project lead, waste solutions for Ecova. “This is the first of its kind. The people that we brought into the room and the networking opportunities that were there—we can tell already that that conversation is only getting stronger which is really our goal.”

Waste360 grabbed a few minutes with Kristen Kinder and Jennifer Gerholdt to get some more details about the tour and to find out what’s next.

Waste360: What was the motivation behind doing this circular economy business tour?

Jennifer Gerholdt: The foundation launched its circular economy program this year. The circular economy is a fairly new term for a very well-worn concept. Companies and society have been thinking about ways to eradicate waste for a very long time. This isn't really a new approach but it is increasingly becoming attractive to companies in which they are actively pursuing alternative approaches to the linear model that decouples economic growth from resource constraints.

That is how this circular economy has really risen up on the radar of companies in which they see the economic opportunities of a viable model to successfully tackle sustainability challenges, drive performance, innovation, competitiveness, economic growth, and development. For us, we are all about bringing the business community and other strategic stakeholders together to really advance the dialogue and collective action around shared global priorities. This topic of the circular economy and in particular this tour was something that very much resonated with our business network. They love coming together with other partners across the value chain, across sectors and industries to really explore what our shared challenge is and what are opportunities where we can work together to drive innovative business solutions that benefits society and the environment.

Waste360: Why was this national tour held in Seattle?

Jennifer Gerholdt: From our perspective, we see Seattle as one of the leading cities that is driving the circular economy. There are a number of businesses both small and large as well as at the government level with the city of Seattle that's really looking at what are ways that we can close the loop to advance a new economy. We really saw this location as a prime area where we can bring companies together to really look at how at a city level and at a company level, the circular economy is accelerating.

Waste360: When you're talking about the circular economy being a new term, were the companies that were part of the tour already referring to themselves as these kinds of companies?

Kristen Kinder: This is great question. I would say that a lot of them actually were doing circular economy actions. Philips North America, for example, they've been refurbishing and redistributing their equipment for years and just recently, they learned that that actually has a name. I think a lot of these businesses had been doing the concept but didn't have a name to rally around.

Jennifer Gerholdt: In my experience, if you five different companies what the circular economy is you might get five different answers. It's kind of like the word sustainability, it depends on who you ask and what kind of definition that you get. I think that's one of the both challenges and the opportunities around the circular economy in the U. S.

There's certainly an education component that we were using on this tour to talk about the circular economy in which educating folks that it's really a system geared towards designing out-waste and that looks at all options across the entire chain. Number one to use as few resources as possible in the first place and then keeping those resources and circulation for as long as possible, getting as much value from those resources as you can, and then recovering and regenerating those materials and products at the end of the particular useful life.

Waste360: What were some of the interesting practices featured on the tour?

Kristen Kinder: What we really wanted to do at this event was make it tangible, to make it tactical. We really wanted to make an event that could not just talk about the theory of it but could really bring to life.

There's recycling, there's redistributing, re-manufacturing, there's looking at byproducts from your system and how those can be used as a valuable resource in another industry. A good example of that from our tour is General Biodiesel. Glycerin, a byproduct of their chemical process, is sold to markets for absorption, soap and other industries.

Jennifer Gerholdt: The WISErg Harvester was also a huge hit. It processes organic waste into this nutrient dense fertilizer. What's really cool is that it actually collects a fair amount of data that helps grocery stores and commercial kitchens understand how much food their using, what kind of that their using and wasting, and how that food waste could be reduced and ultimately eliminated.

Waste 360: What’s next? Will there be another tour in a new location?

Jennifer Gerholdt: Yes, we're really looking forward to continuing this dialogue. Next year we're hosting our second annual circular economy tour in Phoenix, with the City of Phoenix and Arizona State University. We want to use these tours as opportunities to bring companies back again and again to continue to advance the dialogue and move the solutions around the circular economy that delivers economic and sustainability benefits. 

It will be held in November of 2016. We haven't yet nailed down the specific dates yet but there'll be more information coming out in the coming weeks. 

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