Seeing the Circular Economy in Action—in Chicago, IL

On October 10 and 11, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation hosted 25 sustainability and waste management professionals for a Chicago Business Delegation Tour that focused on the circular economy in action. It’s the ultimate circular economy field trip but, in lieu of parental permission forms, there were security clearances, liability waivers, and hard hats.

Over the course of two days, we saw firsthand different types of re-use in the Chicagoland area. From water to food to waste, attendees were able to witness how organizations in manufacturing, waste management, and the built environment have successfully closed the loop and stimulated materials recovery and reuse through innovative business operations. Delegates gained insights into how to make their operations more circular through the tours and asking questions of the site operators and fellow delegates.

In addition to site visits, the bus rides between stops provided a networking opportunity with time for extended personal conversations. We enjoyed getting to know fellow circular economy enthusiasts.

For everyone we engaged in Chicago and for those not able to be with us, below are some takeaways and tour highlights we hope will be relevant to furthering your circular economy agendas and priorities. 

Stickney Water Reclamation Plant and Veolia’s Biosolids Recycling Facility

Stickney Water Reclamation Plant (SWRP) is the largest wastewater treatment facility in the world, with a treatment capacity of 1.4 billion gallons per day. During our tour of this site, we drove past SWRP’s 24 anaerobic digesters, an average of 16 of which run at any given time. We also learned about SWRP’s chemical-free, bio-based bacterial approach to cleaning the water it receives, as well as its cogeneration capabilities from the water treatment bi-products of gas and steam. Finally, we learned about several public-private partnerships SWRP has established with groups well positioned to benefit from the water treatment outputs and to offset its operational costs. Those include partnerships with global companies making fertilizer products out of solid waste, and an interagency partnership with Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation around composting.

One notable partnership is with Veolia (a Corporate Citizenship Center supporter). Veolia produces a waste-to-energy product on site from a third of the total amount of solids removed from SWRP’s water during treatment. With its technology, Veolia is able to achieve in 20 minutes what would otherwise take 18 months through natural composting processes. Delegates toured the five floors of Veolia’s Biosolids Recycling Facility and observed the machinery that creates organic fertilizer for resale as pellitized biosolids.

Plant Chicago

Plant Chicago’s mission is to cultivate local circular economies. After a quick tour of its indoor aquaponics farm and outdoor learning spaces, a group of small business owners that are part of The Plant, a collaborative community of small food businesses, joined delegates for a zero waste-focused workshop and salon discussion over lunch. During and after the TRUE-led workshop, we considered the challenges and progress associated with represented companies’ zero waste to landfill strategies, and related waste reduction-focused solutions. The following themes emerged:

  • Local government needs to incentivize and support zero waste to landfill strategies
  • Consumers need to not only demand sustainable solutions but be willing to pay for them
  • Greater transparency and standards will help level the playing field and encourage coordinated and productive movement.

Lakeshore Recycling SystemsHeartland Recycling Center

We often talk about the education and communications components of recycling, but few of us have the opportunity to see where our recycled products end up before they’re sorted and processed. The visit to Heartland Recycling Center, one of six Chicago facilities owned and operated by Lakeshore Recycling Systems (LRS), Chicago’s leading, privately owned and operated recycling and waste diversion services provider, opened our eyes to the complexity and the potential of state-of-the-art materials recovery facilities—like that of LRS’s Heartland facility. The Heartland materials recovery facility (MRF) sorts over 20 tons per hour with increased revenue generation, greenhouse gas diversion, and job creation capacity after a 2016 upgrade. This upgrade was aided by an investment from Closed Loop Fund. The Heartland facility partners with upstream haulers and downstream processors within a 20 mile radius so it can deliver quality high volume service with competitive, profitable margins. By 2025, the Heartland facility we visited is expected to divert over 1 million tons of materials from landfills.

Gensler Chicago

We ended our first day over a reception with the inspiring team at Gensler, a global architecture and design firm with over 46 locations, more than $1 billion in revenue annually, and a core focus on sustainability and circular design. Gensler employs over 1,200 LEED accredited professionals who have produced over 110 million square feet of LEED certified projects including many of PNC’s regional offices, the Mineta San Jose International Airport, and ExxonMobil’s 10,000 employee Texas corporate headquarters. We learned that in its own operations, Gensler has diverted over 150 million tons of waste and 1.2 billion gallons of water through its design and office recycling infrastructure. 

Method, Amcor, and Gotham Greens

The biggest bang for our “mile” came on day 2 of the program, when we got to experience four sites in one visit.  

Method Soap Factory’s 150,000 square foot state-of-the-art LEED Platinum headquarters houses on-site bottler Amcor and locally-sourced hydroponic greenhouse Gotham Greens in addition to Method manufacturing.

First, the space. This headquarters building is the first of its kind for the manufacturing industry and commissioned by circular design expert and leader William McDonough + Partners. Aspirational elements designed into this facility include using 100% renewable on-site energy via a Rockwind wind turbine, capturing 100% of harvested rainwater through a bioswale capture, and utilizing Cradle to Cradle protocols and certified products.

Second, the bottler. Amcor is a global packaging company that serves industries ranging from food and beverage to healthcare and home. Amcor’s on-site bottle production facility, where it produces the bottles Method uses for its home cleaning products, incorporates many waste reduction innovations including:

  • Using boxes made of recycled plastic instead of cardboard to extend the useful lifespan of the boxes to as many as 12 years
  • Melting and redeveloping Method bottles where possible. By 2025, all of their bottles will be recyclable and/or refillable
  • Tracking delivery mileage and CO2 emissions. This data supported the economic and environmental benefits of co-location of Amcor’s and Method’s operations.

Amcor has six customer co-location partnerships. Its partnership with Method is its biggest in terms of volume. Having Amcor on site makes a significant difference in reducing the environmental impact of Method’s products. Method tracked CO2 emissions early on and logged the miles of all its trucks. It realized that one bottle would take a 1,000 mile journey from production to sale. Now the bottle only travels across the factory, from production to filling with product and then marking for sale.

Third, the greenhouse. Gotham Greens got its start in 2009 in Brooklyn, New York as the first of its kind, commercial scale, hyper-local producer of premium, pesticide-free produce. Of the four greenhouse sites totaling 170,000 square feet, the 75,000 atop Method Soap Factory is its biggest. Indeed, this site represents the largest rooftop industrial greenhouse in the world. And it is powered entirely by clean energy and serves only local retail, restaurant, and institutional customers. This rooftop greenhouse approach enables 60 acres of farming to be accomplished in about 2 acres, and 20x less land and 10x less water than a typical farm would use to grow the same amount.

Last but not least, the company that glues all of these players together: Method. Method founders Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan believed in building a sustainable business from the beginning. In every aspect of Method’s production, sustainability considerations play a role. The social and environmental components that differentiate this company and its south side of Chicago headquarters run the gamut: 75% locally hired talent, employee-led talent shows, and inspiration boards on the workplace side; commissioning bottle designs and sharing sale proceeds with disabled artists on the citizenship side; and the decision to become a certified B Corporation and the 90% waste diversion achievement on the environmental stewardship side.

Rebuilding Exchange

We rounded out the program at the Rebuilding Exchange, a Chicago social enterprise focused on materials diversion and resale with an impressive track record of a million pounds diverted per year and 20 million pounds diverted total since its 2009 inception. They also host 300 workshops per year with about 1,000 community participants. Further, the organization trains and employs local members of the community with a job training program that has graduated 115 to date.

All told, we learned a tremendous amount from the sites we visited, the facilitated and unstructured conversations we had, and from the people we met along the way. We got an inspiring peek at the innovation coming out of the Midwest, and the tremendous opportunity for impact that businesses have toward the pursuit of a circular economy.

Want to learn more about CCC’s Sustainability and Circular Economy Program, our flagship Business Delegation Tour, and/or getting involved next year?  Get in touch with Stephanie Potter or Scott Breen.