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Inclusive Circular Economies

The importance of equity can get lost in the conversation around cultivating circular economies; too often we focus simply on materials or big picture economics. The circular economy movement has done a great job of drawing attention to the trillions of dollars of economic opportunity in keeping materials out of landfills through the reuse and recapturing of materials. By focusing only on the total economic opportunity, however, we risk creating another system that is still extractive and exploitative of low-income, marginalized, and otherwise vulnerable populations. Plant Chicago isn’t here to create a perfectly circular system of materials that only benefits the wealthiest people in the world.

For example, in Chicago we often focus on the abysmal recycling rate (under 9%). We shake our heads and ask how to increase it. Instead, we should consider what benefits an increased recycling rate brings to the most marginalized communities. Does it bring living wages and safe working conditions? Or will increasing recycling rates mean more pollution for low-income communities? Will this highly efficient recycling rate rely on below living wage labor?

We need to look at what is already happening in marginalized communities and how we can learn from them.

In just the 2 block stretch of Ashland avenue around the corner from Plant Chicago, there are no less than 7 storefronts that are repairing and selling used/refurbished appliances. Similarly, the auto repair shop next to us actively collects car batteries for recycling and the alley behind the firehouse is a paradigm for “scrap” metal collection by waste reclaimers. These businesses and entrepreneurs are engaging in age-old practices of keeping materials in use through repair, refurbishment, and as a last resort… recycling. Yet none of them are calling what they do “circular”.

This spring, Plant Chicago's Executive Director, Jonathan Pereira, served as a mentor for a working group from the Harris School of Public Policy's "Inter Policy School Summit" which focused on creating inclusive circular economies in Chicago. The team found that there are significant opportunities to support inclusive circular systems in food scrap diversion and material marketplaces, both in terms of jobs, GHG reduction, and landfill diversion. Such as:

1) Food waste bans (following the lead of other major cities in the US)

2) Community composting events drop off sites at urban farms, gardens and non-profits (such as Plant Chicago and other organizations in the region are already doing)

3) Circular public procurement policy

4) Supporting existing materials marketplaces, or creating new marketplaces as necessary

5) Public information campaigns to support the above

We are excited to see that a few of the above measures are being considered by the City of Chicago as a part of the recently released Waste Management Strategy. In particular, the city is proposing pilot community composting drop off sites and further support of material marketplaces. While the details are still yet to be released, it's promising that the city is finally taking to heart some of the opportunities for food scrap diversion. With close to 20% of residential waste in Chicago being food, and up to 40% of food being wasted in the US, this is an important step. Combined with the fact that composting is a paradigm of a local economic activity; food scrap haulers, processors, and compost sellers are all hyper local!

The 2021 IPSS was a partnership with the Harris School and the Pyxera group. The papers take a look at waste “reclaimers” in Ghana, circular construction in Prague, and the beverage industry in China. You can read all of the policy papers on the Pyxera global website here:


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