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Local Circular Economy Principles

With our focus on local, Plant Chicago thinks about circular economies from a unique angle. In 2017, Plant Chicago hosted a portion of the CE 100 meeting with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. We held a working group with CE 100 members and small business owners at The Plant to explore core principles of local circular systems.

A mentioned in previous posts, there is no universally established definition of what a circular economy is and most of the conversation is focused on macro economic systems and multi national companies. Drafting principles for local circular systems allows us to:

  1. Simplify the concept

  2. Address social issues alongside resource issues

  3. Provide a starting point for small businesses to set goals around circularity

In the past year, we’ve been testing the “eight principles of a local circular economy” with some of the small businesses co-located with us at The Plant. The first four principles are in line with popular thinking around circular economies, as they focus on resources, energy, and efficiency. The last four, however, are a result of the work we have been doing at the facility and local scale.

Local Circular Economy Principles


All energy should come from renewable sources. Businesses install it, buy it, or use it. Non-renewable energy, such as fossil fuels, do not fit into the idealized circular economy. This is perhaps the most straightforward principle, but also one of the more challenging for small businesses to participate in.


Businesses should ensure that the materials in their products and processes come from materials than can be recaptured, either through reuse, composting, or recycling. Reduction or elimination of single-use packaging (regardless of material) is a top goal.


Materials, nutrients, energy, and labor are sourced as locally as possible. This reduces the amount of energy needed for transport, and supports local economies. Clearly “local” can be interpreted different ways, as local grain typically has to come from hundreds of miles away, whereas local labor would be a factor of just a few miles away.


“Waste” energy, nutrients, and/or materials are recovered as close as possible to their processes. In this sense, “waste” would be the byproducts. This includes materials and energy that are not a part of the final product. In the example of a brewery, this would mean spent brewers grain, water, carbon dioxide, and heat. Like sourcing, downstream recapture/reuse of materials reduces overall energy needed.

The second set of 4 principles are not talked about as much in other circular economy conversations, perhaps because the focus is not typically on small businesses. Unlike large companies, small businesses (under 20 employees) are often more receptive to the idea of sharing between businesses, perhaps due to lack of corporate bureaucracy.


This may be something that comes more naturally to small businesses. Resource sharing could take the form of sharing of tools, equipment, space for common usage, or even knowledge and networks.


This means that it is in the best interest of co-located businesses that their neighbors are successful, even if that business could be considered a “competitor” in the traditional sense.


It’s not enough for a business to focus on their own success, but to consider what benefit they are bringing to the community where they are located. After all, the fact that a business is located somewhere means that they are relying on the resources of that community (both from a infrastructure and social standpoint).


The benefits of a circular economy are shared among many, and not just a few. If we focus just on CE at the macro scale, it is entirely possible that a handful of large companies aggregate all of the extracted resources and share them between themselves. That system could be very efficient from a material and energy sharing perspective, while at the same time only a few people at the top are reaping the economic benefits.

In the coming months we’ll elaborate more on each of these principles with some examples from local small business, including co-located businesses with us at The Plant and more!


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