Circular Economy Business Tour Makes Stops at Innovation & Inspiration

Bob Zak

When we caught up with Jennifer Gerholdt, Environment and Sustainability Director at U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, she was still buzzing with excitement about the inaugural Business Delegation Tour: The Circular Economy in Action, which took place November 9 and 10 in Seattle.

“Our goal was to take the concept of the circular economy, using waste as a resource, and make it actionable,” said Jennifer. “It was so gratifying to see the figurative ‘light bulbs’ go off and then group’s eagerness to bring what they learned on the tour back to their own companies.”

The tour was a partnership between Ecova and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation to gather companies that are actively pursuing innovative approaches to a circular economy. Presenters shared best practices and tour hosts brought to life their cutting-edge solutions to use waste as a resource.

“Planning for this event took more than six months,” recalled Jennifer, who worked closely with Ecova’s team to build the agenda and convene companies who were leaders in the circular economy or who would find value in the information. Featured presenters included Stuffstr, Interface, Alaska Airlines, HPAccenture, SunPower and repurposedMATERIALS; however, the event became more than just attendees listening to presenters.

“This business tour was different in that everyone had a role,” said Kristin Kinder, Project Lead for Ecova’s Waste Solutions. “During the event, a presenter on one topic joined the audience to become an attendee for another… panelists joined the tours to learn from what other companies are doing. This model created a balanced experience and new networking opportunities for everyone.”

The positive environmental, social and economic impacts for companies by adopting the circular economy—an alternative to the linear take-make-waste model—are causing more to take notice. The event showcased how companies are completely re-imagining the traditional business model—from product design and distribution to emerging technologies and processes—that decouples economic growth from long-term resource constraints. This tour explored the art of the possible, along with real challenges and real successes.

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Both Jennifer and Kristin agreed that the site visits were the most inspiring part of the event. Touring Republic Services, General Biodiesel, Phillips and PCC Markets/WISErg created the “ah-ha” moments as attendees connected the concepts they were hearing from speakers with real-world actions by companies both large and small. Here are a few notable tour highlights:

  • WISErg’s patent-pending Harvester™ collects food scraps and converts them into a nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer while capturing data and images that can help grocers and commercial kitchens understand what is ending up in their waste streams.
  • Philips North America was pioneering the circular economy before it even had a name by repairing and refurbishing old equipment for reuse.
  • Republic Services uses a combination of machines and people to effectively sort residential and commercial recycling.
  • General Biodiesel creates valuable biodiesel from used cooking oil in a Zero Waste facility that reuses many of their byproducts; for example, glycerin is sold to markets for absorption (diapers), soap and other industries.

During the event debrief, many attendees mentioned they were inspired simply by the presence of the event itself, a sign that the circular economy is gaining momentum. Attendees were equally inspired from connecting with like-minded colleagues, learning about opportunities, openly discussing real challenges, and realizing what is possible.

For companies that are willing to learn, share experiences and implement tangible changes, the economic, social and environmental opportunities are enormous. As Jessica Long, Managing Director of Accenture Strategy and Sustainability, stated in her keynote address, Accenture predicts that the circular economy will present “$4.5 trillion in opportunity between now and 2030.”

Jennifer and Kristin agreed that the tour created a passionate, driven network of companies and partners that are now inspired to think more about how to capitalize on the circular economy, and they plan to reconvene at next year’s tour in Arizona. At Ecova, we feel fortunate to work with a robust network of clients with the ability to create a measurable impact utilizing the circular economy. We’re well positioned to further explore the “art of the possible” with them as well as share what we learn with the next client that is ready to capture the advantages offered by the circular economy.

In future blog posts we will continue to share more details about this event, so stay tuned!

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