Building a Circular Economy in Charlotte
Charlotte has made a bold commitment: be the first US city to adopt a circular economy striving towards zero waste and inclusivity. We will strive to use our resources that are now destined for the landfill as the basis for future innovation and job creation.
We currently live in a linear society. We buy a product, like a cell phone, and throw it away as soon as the latest version is released. We are in turn not only losing the resources that made that phone but also the time and energy that went into its production. The US EPA and the Institute for Local Self Reliance estimate low-value activities like incineration and landfilling only generate one to six jobs per 10,000 tons of goods disposed verses 36 jobs created for recycling and even more impressive, almost 300 reuse and refurbishment jobs for the same amount.
In 2018, Envision Charlotte and the City of Charlotte hired Metabolic to study Charlotte’s waste stream and come up with a strategy to move our City towards a circular economy. The Vision that was created has four areas of focus:
Charlotte as a Zero Waste City
Over the next 30 years, Charlotte will aim to separately collect 98% of all residual waste materials. This is obviously an ambitious goal and we are far from that not only in Charlotte but around the US. This will take a number of different strategies from better sorting and collecting to the facilities run by large companies and smaller entrepreneurs accepting different materials.
Charlotte as a Resilient and Healthy City
As the circular economy grows in Charlotte, our dependence on foreign imports would decrease and one area to benefit is local food production. From growing locally both traditionally and through aquaponics/hydroponics to the reuse of organic waste – this opportunity has the possibility of transforming the food culture in Charlotte to a more sustainable, healthy, and accessible system.
Charlotte as an Innovative City of the Future
As Charlotte grows in expertise around the sorting and collecting of its waste stream, it will allow for more innovations due to a higher high-quality of materials. Our focus will start with textiles, plastics, and construction waste, which have been identified as some of the largest opportunities.
Charlotte as a City with Opportunities for All
As innovations occur, there will be a significant focus on skill development, training, and inclusive programs targeting the economically disadvantaged.
Currently Charlotte only diverts about 10% of its waste to the landfill, leaving a great deal of opportunity. Based on Metabolic’s research they have suggested the following 5 business cases:
- Building a closed-loop textiles chain
- Upcycling food waste into feed
- Creating an Innovation Lab
- Creating a circular concrete recycling business
- Developing a reversed logistics system
We are currently moving forward on all of these initiatives, however, the one that is the furthest along is the Innovation lab or as we call it – our Innovation Barn. This is a City owned building that in the 20’s and 30’s, as lore would have it, was a Barn for the oxen that were used to pick up the City’s trash. Since then it has had other uses, from being the City’s vehicle maintenance facility to more recently serving as a storage facility for bikes of a local nonprofit.
This 36,000 square foot building will serve as ground zero for Circular Charlotte. The vision for the Barn is to become a living lab for circular projects, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Some components of the Barn include a full-service restaurant, local craft beer bar, event space, innovation lab/makers space, co-working space, composting facility (both traditional and organics – soldier flies), aquaponic/hydroponic gardens, and retail space with focus on circular products.
This facility will be open to the public and will offer opportunities for the public to learn and understand closed loop systems. The garden’s produce will be used in the restaurant, organic waste will be composted, the larvae from the flies will be used to feed the fish in the aquaponics and round and round it goes. All of these activities will be visible to the public.
The Architect on the project is ProgressiveAE, a local firm that worked close with Metabolic to advance their knowledge of designing a project within the principles of a circular economy while managing a limited budget and permitting constraints.
One example of where we bumped up against these issues was around the current windows. The current windows are not up to energy code and needed to be replaced, however ProgressiveAE found a way to incorporate them into the interior of the building and avoid them going to the landfill. Additionally, the windows had asbestos in the caulking so to remediate those windows was very costly and not in the budget. Fortunately, we were able to find an EPA program that brought the cost down and they are currently working to save as many windows as possible.
Bringing the Innovation Barn to life takes many partners with a variety of expertise. Beyond the City of Charlotte, Envision Charlotte, and Progressive AE, we have many other partners working on several different aspects of the projects:
- Johnson C. Smith University – designing/helping with the Aquaponic/Hydroponic gardens
- UNC Charlotte – designing, prototyping exterior elements
- Crown Town Compost – designing and managing both traditional and organic (soldier fly) composting on-site
- Carolina Urban Lumber – providing furnishings made from local wood as well as a retail space for circular products
- TreesCharlotte – providing local trees for outside landscaping
These are just a few of the partners and partnerships but we know that to make a Circular Charlotte it will begin with both the business community and our residents working together to make this transformation. The Innovation Barn is expected to open fall 2019 with several additional projects launching over the next 12 -24 months. Charlotte is up to this very important challenge and we are excited to see where this journey takes our great city!
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from the Meeting of the Minds Blog
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
The water-energy nexus is not new. The concept that our water and energy systems are reliant on each other is sometimes paired with a third issue, like food security or public health. This can make it more relevant to our daily lives. Despite a basic understanding of resource interdependencies, city and utility leaders still allow planning and implementation processes to remain predominately separate. A common local scenario finds the water utility facing system upkeep alone, the energy utility not considering other utility issues or city goals as they operate, and city leaders generally focused on more visibly troublesome urban systems, like housing or transportation.
Waiting for car manufacturers and ride-hail operators to decide the future of urban AV deployment will not create the cities that urban planners hope for, and often work very hard to make happen. While significant penetration of AVs — private or shared — is likely a decade or two away, deferring directional, optimization, and livability strategies will rob cities of flexibility, influence, and degrees of freedom within a decade.
If you believe AVs are coming eventually, the time to start getting ready is now, even if you believe human drivers will remain dominant for many decades. The steps outlined here are important support for the alternative to SOV, of expanding mobility-as-a-service such as Uber and Lyft.
In a circular city, “reduce-reuse-recycle” will replace “take-make-dispose”. Urban mobility will be carbon-neutral, relying on low- to zero-emission vehicles within a broader energy network powered by renewables. Cities and businesses will also generate savings from using recycled building materials and turning waste into fuel to power buses.
In other words, circular cities will blend ancient approaches with modern technologies. But how will they do it, and where will the money come from?