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Closed Loop Forum Recap

Photo credit: Leah Kuhn Photography

Plant Chicago held our second annual Closed Loop Forum Event on Saturday, September 28, 2019. We engaged with over 100 people on local circular economy topics, hosted 12 breakout sessions to dive deeper into closed loop practices, heard from 9 local sustainability leaders, and compiled a list of action items for participants to complete.

Our Auxiliary Board took detailed notes throughout the day and put together a great summary of the event! See below to learn more about each panel discussion and breakout session.

Keynote Speaker

First we heard from Garry Cooper, the founder of Rheaply. Rheaply is an online marketplace for academic institutions, healthcare facilities, and other companies to trade, share, and/or sell equipment and supplies. This model helps keep valuable materials out of the landfill and also encourages companies to connect with sometimes unlikely stakeholders. Garry’s discussion focused on the enormous potential economic benefits of transitioning to a circular economic model, highlighting the estimated $550 billion that could be saved in the healthcare industry by utilizing a CE framework and the roughly $3,000 per household in average savings. Garry also brought attention to other innovators finding circular solutions to today’s economic issues. He touched on a company making leather from mycelium and another capturing carbon-rich pollution and turning it into art materials. The keynote speech concluded that there was no “one size fits all” solution for replicating circular success in other cities.

Doing Business in the Circular Economy

Moderated by Dr. Weslynne Ashton, Associate Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability at IIT, Stuart School of Business

Speakers: Eric Schneider with Huron Paper Stock, Alex Poltorak with The Urban Canopy, and Kirk Douglas with VLV Development

The first panel discussed the need for financial viability and the unfortunate conflict that sometimes arises between making a profit and “doing the right thing”. Key in the conversation was the idea of a “Local Living Economy,” where localized spending flows through the ecosystem of the local economy. Panelists also discussed the dichotomy between changing consumer behaviors versus modifying legislation in order to change the status quo. Both changes are certainly needed, and each require clever thinking to effectively influence change on all levels. This discussion highlighted the need for collaboration and social organization offered by advocacy groups and nonprofits within each speaker’s industry. Local factors and available resources combined with a little innovation will be the key to success.

Breakout Sessions

Community Engagement and Asset Mapping went over how to map out resources within your own community! To make sure we’re not competing for the same resources, Majorie Hoffman of the Nature Museum shared some of the worksheets they use to assess what resources communities already have and what they are lacking.

Can We Afford a 100% Renewable Energy Future? talked about the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). The Sierra Club is urging Illinois to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050, cutting carbon from the power sector by 2030, reducing gas and diesel vehicles from the transportation sector, and creating jobs and economic opportunity. Check out our action items below to get more involved with CEJA!

Workforce Waste: The Cost of a Throw-Away Workforce discussed workforce burnout in small businesses that lack resources, training, and adequate pay. The breakout highlighted the needs for transparent pay structures, employee benefits, and continual job training/maintenance of skills.

Degrowth and the Circular Economy was one of the day’s most hoppin’ sessions. This talk covered the need for us to reduce our consumption in order to create circular systems. Degrowth calls for a re-evaluation of how to measure economic success. Rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), degrowthers opt for Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), a measurement that also considers the social and environmental repercussions of our actions (i.e. lowers value when oil spills, mass land degradation, or fraud occurs).

Circular Economy as a Collaborative Practice asserted that cooperation facilitates circular economic practice. This discussion highlighted how small businesses are more cooperative by necessity and can find it easier and more natural to share resources when seeking common goals.

Plant Chicago’s Circular Economy Toolkit covered opportunities and barriers facing small businesses attempting to build a local circular economy. Opportunities highlighted during the session included local sourcing, considering social impact in business activities, and the many benefits of sharing resources. Aversion to risk, lack of circular economy-based policies, and perceived lack of flexibility in business models were discussed as a few main barriers to cultivating a community-driven circular economy.

State of Materials Reuse and Recycling

Moderated by Ning Ai, Associate Professor at University of Illinois Chicago

Speakers: Alyson Wright with City of EvanstonShantanu Pai with Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and Olga Bautista, with Southeast Environmental Task Force

The second panel focused on how policy can have an impact on waste diversion and material consumption at local, state, and national levels. When done correctly, the policy process has the potential to engage the public in meaningful and inclusive ways. Each panelist agreed that their success was largely based on the diversity of thought from within their own institutions and in the communities they serve. Panelists stressed the necessity of engaging communities who will be affected by policies from the very beginning of the planning and decision-making process. It was pointed out that many times, these communities aren’t the ones who are able to attend meetings downtown during the workday. In order to have a truly equitable local circular economy, all voices must be heard.

When asked about the most rewarding parts of their work, panelist’s answers ranged from iterative implementation of cumulative impact metrics to full scale development of climate action resilience plans. Each answer circled back to panelists’ interactions with their communities generating a vision and the ability to implement the needed changes.

Lastly, panelists cautioned that we should always be thinking ahead for the unintended consequences that even circular economy based policies can bring. Photovoltaic solar cell waste was brought up as one specific example of this. Solar energy is a popular renewable alternative to other more environmentally detrimental sources of energy, but few have considered the material waste that will result from these systems in the future.

As during the first panel, barriers of culture change, education, and the need for communication between organizations and individuals doing comparable work were discussed. Panelists concluded that through the use of transparent data, an inclusive policy-making process, and a lot of communication (as well as a bit of humor), these obstacles could be overcome.

Breakout Sessions

Cradle to Cradle Certified Products for the Circular Economy went over resources you can use to ensure the products you buy were designed with the circular economy in mind. Cradle to Cradle certification requires manufacturers to consider the beginning, middle, and ‘end’ of life for products.

Everyone Needs A Little R&R discussed how to effectively scale circular economies. While single use economies are convenient, the food and plastic streams of production simply cannot be ignored. What can we do to make sure that all of our needs are met while recapturing all the items circling throughout our economic system? Sharing economies is a start!

The Role of Regenerative Farming in Climate Mitigation Through the lens of regenerative agriculture, the farm itself can be viewed as a hub for all facets of climate mitigation and social/economic change. Topics ranged from the sequestration of CO2 in properly managed soil, to increased biodiversity, and habitats for pollinators on the farm – to the direct to consumer economic benefits of wholesale/CSA and similar market models that reduce distance traveled, processing, and food waste.

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint with Energy Efficiency went over energy saving tips for consumers. Check out some of the resources offered by the Citizens Utility Board, an organization focused on advocating for consumers in Illinois.

Reducing Food Waste in Chicago asked the question: “How do we use this?” as a guide, the workshop covered tips and teaching methods for using scraps and damaged foods to produce stocks and other “Upcycled” food items for yourself and community. The conversation also focused on the effects of the Good Samaritan Act for absolving liability to food donors, stressing the need for businesses to participate in distributing their expired (yet still edible food) to those who need it.

Making Recycling Accessible shed light on lack of education, changing rules, and different types of recycling system capacities were identified as barriers to recycling participation. Also mentioned were aspects of privilege, time constraints, and lack of access. The breakout session concluded with proposals for increased education, avoiding single use plastics, producer/corporate responsibility for their products’ reclamation and design, as well as the balancing act of comfort and convenience with personal responsibility.

Action Items

So you came, you learned, you left inspired… Now what? Check out these actions items you can complete to cultivate local circular economies in our communities!

Plant Chicago also collected comment cards from attendees to let the City of Chicago know what actions they could take to cultivate a local circular economy in Chicago. Here are some of the suggestions that emerged from those comment cards:

  1. Bring back the Department of Environment so there is a central policy and technical support hub for sustainability and circular economy initiatives in Chicago

  2. Make data more open, transparent, and accessible

  3. Set an example through City practices

  4. Implement a City-wide purchasing policy that prohibits single-use plastics

  5. Require composting in all City departments/buildings

  6. Waste diversion policy

  7. Offer municipal composting

  8. Introduce a recycling ordinance

  9. Per-pound “waste tax” for all waste sent to landfills

  10. Facilitate a materials marketplace to keep materials from going to landfill – there are multiple cities that do this already

  11. Require Community Benefits Agreements and community input for all new developments


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