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Small businesses and the circular economy

Plant Chicago is located across the street from a McDonald’s, a former Wal-Mart, and several small restaurants. Wal-Mart has been making bold moves to become “zero-waste” by 2025, and is self-reporting that they are diverting over 78% of their materials from the landfill globally. McDonald’s has set ambitious goals around their packaging to be 100% “fiber based” materials coming from recycled or certified sources by 2020. The impact that these large businesses can have on supply chains is incredible, not to mention the fact that their aggressive goals have the potential to activate their competitors to do the same.

Yet the fact that these large companies are setting ambitious goals around packaging and waste does not translate into impact on the brick and mortar small businesses that exist in their shadows. The small local restaurants that are serving delicious food every day are also engaging in prototypical “linear” practices, such as using single use polystyrene (Styrofoam) packaging and sending materials like aluminum cans and food waste to the landfill. The fact that the McDonald’s or the Wal-Mart next door has set lofty goals around waste diversion doesn’t mean that the small business will follow in their footsteps. It is easy to dismiss the small businesses as only a minor portion of the problem, or that they are negligent for not caring about waste issues. Neither of these narratives are true.

Impacts of Small Business

Consider this: according to the Small Business and Economic Council, businesses with under 20 employees make up 89% of total business and 46% of total GDP in the United States. This suggests that there is a massive amount of opportunity for small businesses to engage in the circular economy and have a large collective impact.

Furthermore, there is certainly a desire from many small businesses to have an impact on waste. Many of our co-located businesses at The Plant, such as Just Ice, are making concrete efforts to divert materials from the landfill despite the fact that they are unlikely to make a profit off of it. Or take our nearby Mexican restaurant, La Monarca. They are currently using Styrofoam for take out orders, but are more than happy to accommodate our catering requests to use only reusable metal trays! They are also quick to point out that in their home state of Michocan it is very common for people to bring reusable packaging for their takeout orders for “comida corrida”. It’s the U.S. where the cultural norm is to give customers single use plastic packaging for take-out.

Yet despite a desire from many small businesses to be a part of the circular economy movement, you still do not hear about the role of small business in circular economies.  If you read case studies, go to conferences, or look at the membership of global circular economy initiatives, they focus on what large multinational companies are doing to be “circular”.

Where is the voice of small businesses?

The answer is perhaps obvious: small businesses are busy working. The small business owner doesn’t have the financial stability or time to attend an expensive conference, nor the luxury of time needed to focus on initiatives not directly related to improving their bottom line. Multinational companies have the ability to hire consultants, scientists, and marketing teams, but small companies are lucky to be turning a profit and pay their employees living wages. This is especially true if they are a small food company, where profit margins are often smaller and money tighter.

Who is working with those small companies? What transition structure exists (or could exist) to facilitate circular economies among them? Plant Chicago’s approach to date has been to support the network of co-located small businesses at The Plant and others nearby on the southwest side. We’ve co-facilitated monthly meetings for sharing knowledge, created marketing opportunities, and in some cases facilitated resource sharing. Now, we are planning to set ambitious goals in partnership with our small businesses collaborators.

Plant Chicago’s partnership goals:

  1. Set our own ambitious goals, such as diverting 90% of materials from the landfill across our program areas. This means diverting materials in our market and education programs first to composting and reuse, and only recycling if reuse is not an option.

  2. Set goals in partnership with our co-located food businesses (such as Just Ice) to set similar ambitious goals around “waste” diversion. This means working to set measurable goals, while at the same time looking for ways to help accomplish it.

  3. Develop a “toolkit” for small businesses to engage in CE. The toolkit will provide guidance for small businesses and establish common language around the local circular economy.

Plant Chicago’s mission is to cultivate local circular economies, and small businesses are a critical partner in this effort. Not only is the desire there, but also the potential for great collective impact. The challenge is figuring out new ways that we can both support them in their efforts, while devising systems where small businesses can support each other.


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