Circular Charlotte - Towards a zero waste and inclusive city
Charlotte is the first city in the United States to make a commitment to adopting the circular economy as a public sector strategy. In its circular future, all of the material resources that now end up in landfills will be the basis for Charlotte’s next industrial revolution: the foundation for an era of green manufacturing that unlocks new technological advances, increases local resilience, and supports workforce development.
Our report, “Circular Charlotte: towards a zero waste and inclusive city,” explores how Charlotte can start implementing a strategy to become the first circular city in the United States. We investigate how many valuable resources are currently lost through Charlotte’s waste system, and how these could be diverted into new, high-value uses. We present a vision, co-created with stakeholders from the city, for how a Circular Charlotte could look and function. Finally, we describe a roadmap of actions that should be taken on the pathway towards this vision, and detail five initial business cases that can serve as a starting point for action.
Growth brings transition opportunities
Charlotte is in the midst of a building boom. This expansion of the city points to Charlotte’s increasing popularity as a place to live and work: it is now ranked as one of the fastest-growing metropolitan regions in the United States (Thomas, 2018) and was recently named the number one city for attracting millennials (Abadi, 2017). Beyond changing physically, Charlotte is undergoing a broader transformation in its character, evolving from a banking-focused city with a history of manufacturing and logistics, to a dynamic urban center with unique specialties in high-tech industry. This growth is not only an opportunity to cash in on Charlotte’s successes, but also to address challenges, such as economic mobility, on which Charlotte is currently ranked lowest out of America’s 50 largest metro areas (Chetty, 2017).
The circular economy – a new economic system that is regenerative and waste-free by design – can not only eliminate negative environmental impacts and create new sources of value, but also be used to bridge the wealth divide and create new pathways for upward mobility in Charlotte. Within a circular economy, products and materials are circulated at high value for as long as possible, extending the life of products and enabling high-value component and material recovery for reuse or recycling. The systemic transformation required for a circular economy – from the development of new technologies, to the evolution of new forms of collaboration and business models – has also been shown to have great potential in generating new employment and creating opportunities for skills development.
THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
The vast majority of our economic system can currently be defined as linear. We extract resources, which are then transformed to products via the use of labor, energy, and money, and then, soon after their use, these products are thrown away. Every time a product that we have crafted and manufactured with care ends up in landfill, not only do we lose the physical resources it is made up of, but also all of the time and energy that went into its creation. McKinsey estimated that up to 630 billion dollars a year is lost in Europe alone through the loss of materials in the linear economy (EMF & McKinsey, 2011).
In parallel, these material losses translate to unrealized employment potential. The U.S. EPA and the Institute for Local Self Reliance estimate that low-value activities that result in material losses (like incineration and landfilling), only generate 1–6 jobs per 10,000 tons of goods disposed of. Recycling generates an estimated 36 jobs for the same amount of material, while reuse and refurbishment are by far the biggest winners, creating almost 300 jobs for each 10,000 tons of “waste.” To move towards a circular economy, where the value-generating life-cycles of products are extended to the maximum extent possible, we should:
- Design all products for easy repair, disassembly, and full recyclability.
- Create the necessary business structures and incentives to get these materials back into the economy at their highest possible value (preferably as whole products or components).
- Strive to use only responsibly-sourced renewable resources for both energy and material provision.
- Avoid the use of toxic substances that may continue to circulate in our environment.
Successfully achieving this transition is not simply about product reuse and recycling: it means a systems change that requires a new mindset. Preserving the complexity and value of our products should be structurally incentivized, and negative impacts on people and the environment should be eliminated by design. This transition can be supported through alternative business models and purchasing patterns that will support the recovery of materials, such as leasing models and advanced approaches to extended producer responsibility (systems that make manufacturers responsible for what they create and sell, even after the products are sold). Perhaps most importantly, achieving this transition will require a shared vision and strong leadership from both government and civil society.
Jan 01, 2018
Oct 31, 2018
- Pieter van Exter, Eva Gladek, El Mehdi El Hailouch, Justin Hoek, Erin Kennedy, Seadna Quigley, Viktoriya Shirochenkova, Tamara Streefland, Fanny Thibault, Thomas Thorin