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Summer of the Circular Economy

Post written by Tyler Washington, Plant Chicago  2017 Summer Market Intern

Tyler and Market Manager Liz conducting a waste audit after the market.

Tyler and Market Manager Liz conducting a waste audit after the market.

Things did not always go smoothly for me at Plant Chicago. The project I had initially hoped to develop, which would measure and compare the environmental efficiency of The Plant and its tenants to an average business, quickly proved itself to be much too time-intensive and expensive to be viable within the span of a summer internship at such a tightly-financed non-profit. Luckily, I was introduced to Professor Weslynne Ashton and PhD candidate Andre Nogueira.

Professor Ashton and Andre are working with Plant Chicago through IIT conducting research on industrial symbiosis, or how networks of businesses work together to drive mutually beneficial innovation, and are using the businesses at The Plant as case studies towards that end. Unfortunately, like me the two had run into problems with scale. With nearly 20 tenants at The Plant there is simply too much data to be handled by two people. Moreover, Professor Ashton and Andre were having difficulty motivating tenants to collect the necessary information on their own. With no basis for what the data they were collecting would turn into, and still having to deal with the realities of running their own businesses, tenants often chose to leave any requested forms unfilled. After puzzling over this problem it was Andre who came up with a simple solution. First he’d compile a report on Plant Chicago, providing a demonstrable product for what the data tenants were collecting would turn into. Then, armed with his report, he’d teach the tenants how to collect this same data for themselves.

I studied as much of the available Plant Chicago data as possible. I compiled and summarized info about the building’s energy and water usage. I compared the prices of produce vendors at the Plant Chicago market to neighborhood groceries, large-scale outlets, and other farmer’s markets around the city. And I tracked where the patrons of Plant Chicago’s market and tours were coming from, compiling thousands of data points into an interactive map which quickly shows where knowledge of the circular economy has spread. This wasn’t the work I had originally intended to do, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it was far better. Instead of hassling busy business owners for details on the comings and goings of their plastics I got to design a system which can continually inform Plant Chicago employees where they need to focus their educational efforts.

Over my summer at Plant Chicago I was able to learn a lot, everything from obscure Excel commands to what bins people are actually throwing their recyclables in. I was able to meet visitors from as close as Back of the Yards and as far away as Brazil and Germany, and I was able to finally understand that the circular economy is about much more than simply limiting an organization’s trash output. The magic of the circular economy is not in the reduction of refuse, but in the mentality of turning waste into opportunity. And while my career may take me elsewhere, that’s a lesson I can carry with me down whichever path I choose.

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