Circular Economy Toolkit for Small Businesses

Linear vs. Circular Economy Diagram-Plant Chicago.png

Plant Chicago
Circular Economy diagram adapted from PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

As someone who works to support small businesses on both a personal and professional level, I’ve witnessed incredible uncertainty in the small business community in the past two months. Perhaps more importantly, I have also witnessed incredible resilience and creativity from this same small business community. When faced with a crisis, whether it’s the COVID-19 pandemic or global climate change, communities across the world are reminded about the importance of being resourceful, working together to build resilience at a local level, and making sure no resource is wasted. 

I’m lucky that I work for an organization that enacts these values through our programming on a daily basis. Plant Chicago is a small nonprofit organization on Chicago’s southwest side.  We educate, inspire, and support small businesses, schools, and enthusiastic individuals in Chicago and beyond to carry out our mission of cultivating local circular economies.

Plant Chicago defines a “local circular economy” as the local circulation of materials, nutrients, knowledge, and financial resources within a local context. The success of any local circular economy is driven by values of equity, transparency, diversity and inclusion. As circular economy thought leader Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests, a business in a local circular economy should not only design out waste and pollution, keep their products in use, and regenerate natural systems, but also: 

  • Regenerate natural ecosystems,
  • Address the needs and aspirations of local stakeholders, and 
  • Increase local human knowledge and capacity around circular economy practices.

At Plant Chicago, we believe that the local circular economy framework will allow small businesses to work together to solve some of the greatest challenges of our era. To assist small businesses in their journey to implement circular economy practices, Plant Chicago launched our Circular Economy for Small Business Toolkit in early 2020. The toolkit is the result of working with small businesses in Chicago for many years and a process of brainstorming, collaboration, and prototyping with our toolkit working group and a group of small businesses in our network.

At the moment, Plant Chicago is primarily using the toolkit to guide our work with our Local Circular Economy Leaders Network, a group of 14 small food businesses in Chicago committed to implementing local circular economy practices in their operations over the course of the year. These businesses are setting goals to significantly reduce single-use plastic packaging, divert organic waste from landfills, source ingredients from local farms, and track and report their circular economy practices to stakeholders. 

Thanks in part to support from The Coleman Foundation and the Robert and Toni Bader Foundation, this toolkit is a free resource that anyone can access through Plant Chicago’s website. 

In the toolkit, businesses and communities will find information, resources, and interactive worksheets to help them understand, set goals around, implement, measure progress toward, and communicate circular economy concepts. The toolkit covers topics, such as food recovery and organic waste diversion that are specific to the food sector. However, most of the information is applicable to any business, anywhere. These are topics like “Your People”, “Your Networks”, energy & water management, packaging, input and ingredient sourcing, and communication—all explained through a local circular economy lens. 

If you care about regenerating natural ecosystems, treating your people well, and making a lasting contribution to your local community, but aren’t quite sure how to go about doing them, this toolkit was made for you! Plant Chicago believes that using the framework of a local circular economy can help you accomplish these noble aims alongside your financial goals. I encourage you to download the Circular Economy for Small Business toolkit from Plant Chicago’s website, and to send any questions or feedback you have to