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Elise O'Malley: Reflecting on the 2023 CELN Program and My Time at Plant Chicago

Hi, my name is Elise and I’ve been the Circular Economy & Small Business Manager at Plant Chicago for the last two and a half years. By the time you’ve started reading this blog post, I will have moved on to another organization, Rheaply, to continue working on the circular economy front lines. My time at Plant Chicago has felt like school: lots of learning, successes, challenges, and making lifelong connections. I am especially grateful for the collaboration with small business owners and want to recap some of the amazing work from this year.

Over the last few months, the Plant Chicago team and I worked closely with two small business owners: María Rivera of Cadinho and Bernice Vargas of El Hongo Magico. Cadinho is a Portuguese bakery and El Hongo Magico is a vegan, mushroom-based taqueria. Both of these businesses found us - we did not have to recruit them - and asked if they could join the network. They were both very eager to implement circular business practices.

Waste audit for Cadinho

To start, each business owner and I conducted waste audits. If you’re anything like me, these are very fun! :) María and Bernice collected one week’s worth of trash and recycling (at the time of the audits, neither business was able to compost) and brought the materials to Plant Chicago. There, I sorted the materials into their respective categories (i.e. cardboard, plastic film, #1 plastic, food waste, etc.) and measured each material. This information provided us with an exact breakdown of which materials were being thrown out each week, and how much.

We discovered that for each business, food waste constituted the largest portion of their trash receptacles. El Hongo Magico’s food waste, for example, represented 56 out of 68 pounds - that’s 82%! After seeing this data and doing some brainstorming, Bernice and her co-founder Carlos realized they could develop an in-house vegetable stock to absorb some of the food scraps they typically accumulate, like onion skins and pepper cores. Additionally, since they already use vegetable stock in their production process, making an in-house vegetable stock spares the usage of single-use packaging needed for the store-bought stock.

Waste audit for El Hongo Magico

María of Cadinho also examined her food scrap composition upon learning that food scraps represented 76% of her total waste stream. Some of her food scraps were edible, like the many leftover egg whites from baking egg yolk-based Portuguese pastries. María typically has an excess of 100 egg whites per month and can store the egg whites in the freezer for future use. After blasting out a request for potential egg whites buyers to the Circular Economy Leaders Network, we were connected by Lori of Cakewalk Chicago to Christopher of Eat Tha Cake. Christopher makes Swiss/Italian buttercream and macarons, which require a lot of egg whites! Christopher now regularly purchases egg whites from María; this partnership amounts to the sourcing of ~1,500 local egg whites per year and the prevention of 40 32 oz. single-use cartons for store-bought egg whites.

María of Cadinho and Christopher of Eat Tha Cake

In addition to conducting waste audits, Cadinho and El Hongo Magico completed the Product Inputs worksheet. This worksheet is included in our Circular Economy Toolkit for Small Business and assesses a business’ most used ingredients. Then, Cadinho and El Hongo Magico completed the Input Deep Dive worksheet, which prompts businesses to assess the origin of their most-used ingredients. Cadinho and El Hongo Magico determined their most used ingredients to be eggs + flour and mushrooms + cauliflower respectively.

We got to work on sourcing these ingredients locally! Once again, by reaching out to the Circular Economy Leaders Network, we were connected to a viable resource: Monica of Monica’s Farm Eggs. Now, Cadinho has officially transitioned from industrial eggs to Monica’s local (Indiana), pasture-raised eggs. We also came across Janie’s Mill, an organic mill based in Ashkum, IL; Plant Chicago became an official distributor so that we can make organic, local flour accessible to small business owners. As a result, Cadinho has been able to use Janie’s Mill for their products and aims to source entirely from them in the future.

Cadinho’s recently purchased eggs from Monica’s Egg Farm

While we were not able to secure long-term sourcing of mushrooms for El Hongo Magico (if you know of a local cremini, white button, and/or portobello producer who would be open to working with small business owners, let us know in the comments,) we were excited to work with local growers for El Hongo Magic’s cauliflower ceviche at our fundraiser. El Hongo Magico also hopes to develop ongoing relationships with these growers (Urban Growers Collective and Wild Trillium Farm) for their cilantro, tomatoes, peppers, and red onions. This work was a reminder that the implementation of circular economy business practices doesn’t have to be all or nothing; local sourcing can be tackled gradually, and even shifting one ingredient makes a difference!

El Hongo Magico with their cauliflower ceviche at the Plant Chicago fall fundraiser

A frequent question that came up within our small business support work is how to measure the “intangible” impact, like community building and knowledge sharing between members. I think the following testimonials from Bernice and María speak to a long-term, intangible result from this year’s work: a new mindset.

Bernice shares, “I really enjoyed and learned so much from being in the CELN program. We now understand the need to view everything we do from a different lens. We didn't have this lens a year ago, when we first launched El Hongo Magico, but now it is a big part of our identity and our connection to the community.”

María adds, “Throughout our time together we found ways to reduce waste, change practices, and connect with other like-minded businesses. But, most importantly, we learned to change our mindset into ALWAYS finding ways to do better and seek ways to improve and become a more sustainable business. We appreciate everything we learned and all the connections that are and will continue to be valuable for our journey as a sustainable business.”

To know that our work over the last year lives on through transformed mindsets is especially gratifying. On a personal level, I will also bring a more refined, circular approach to my work ahead - and I can thank the Plant Chicago community for that!


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