Three Examples of the Circular Economy in Action

April 6, 2018

You know you have a good job when someone asks you, “You used to be a summer camp counselor, didn’t you?”

One of the thirty sustainability and circular economy professionals on the Chamber Foundation’s third annual circular economy business delegation tour, this past year in New York City, asked me this while I came around with snacks as we toured some of the best examples in the country of what the circular economy looks like in action.

Being able to see circular economy projects first-hand, asking the operators questions, and sharing ideas with peers in the sustainability space leads to a whole different set of insights that only a delegation tour like this could provide. Also, traveling to each location via bus may seem simple but was extremely valuable. Bus tours naturally facilitate deeper networking and conversations since there is no Wi-Fi, which lends itself to fewer distractions.

Below are some of my favorite spots on the trip along with key takeaways. I enjoyed getting to know all of the attendees along the way; thank you to those who joined us! To see the full agenda from our tour, check it out here.

Freshkills Park

While the name “freshkills” may sound like an allusion to hunting, for Stanton Island residents it evokes memories of a larger than life landfill. It was so large that some reported that aside from the Great Wall of China, it was the only man-made structure that could be seen from outer space.

Today, Freshkills is associated with renewal. When it is fully opened in 2036, Freshkills Park will be three times the size of Central Park. Some parts of the Park are already open including the Owl Hollow Soccer Fields and the New Springville Greenway with a 3.2 mile paved bike path and walkway.

Takeaways

  • Names can be deceptive. The name “Fresh Kills” comes from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning “riverbed” or “water channel.”
  • Landfills need to be monitored after they are closed. Approximately 57 possible emissions points associated with landfill infrastructure and operations are monitored. There is a “landfill cap” between the surface and the garbage. Still, when we had our wonderful lunch made in part with Baldor Food food scraps by local chef Will Horowitz, our partners on the event, the NYC Department of Sanitation, advised that we use sandbags instead of spikes for our tent and also avoid the use of open flames.
  • Doing a major infrastructure project in phases has its benefits. Opening the park in increments makes it easier to design, fund, and construct.
  • Water becomes contaminated as it drains through the landfill. Eloise Hirsh, Freshkills Park Administrator for the City of New York Parks Department, spoke about how perforated pipes were built on the inside of the containment walls in order to capture the leachate--rainwater that percolates through the ground and picks up contaminants from the waste--and transport it to the treatment plant.

Pratt Industries Paper Mill

Pratt Industries is the world’s largest privately-held 100% recycled paper and packaging company. Since the Pratt paper mill began operations in 1997, it has recycled some 6 million tons of paper, saved more than 100 million trees, and prevented 6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere.

Takeaways

  • One barge is more efficient than 80 trucks. Fifty percent of the paper collected by New York City’s residential recycling program is used in its paper-making process, with 25% coming by barge down the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan. It takes many hours to move all the paper via the claw (or as the folks at the mill call it, “the grappler”) to the sorting section of the mill, even though each grab of the claw holds ten tons of paper. I asked if there is a faster way to get the paper moved and it sounds like they’ve tried a number of approaches, but for now, this is the one they are sticking with. They get one barge a day, which is the equivalent of about 80 trucks.

  • Too much paper is wasted. About thirty percent of landfill space is taken up by paper that could have been re-pulped and re-purposed at a paper mill like Pratt.
  • Pulping may not look pretty, but it allows for the re-use of many kinds of paper. Pulping is all about dousing the paper in warm water so that it’s broken down into individual wood fibers. From there, the contents go through a de-watering process to make the repurposed paper.

EILEEN FISHER Learning Lab

In the quaint town of Irvington, NY is one of EILEEN FISHER’s two recycling centers. Every day these recycling centers receive around 800 pieces of clothing. Unfortunately, less than one percent of material used to produce clothing is recycled and turned into new clothing; the material that comes through these two recycling centers is part of that less than one percent. Net proceeds from the sale of all products made through its Renew program go to programs that support positive change for women, girls, and the environment.

Takeaways

  • Machines cannot yet be used to support returned clothes. Unlike the automated sorter at Pratt, a human checks each piece of clothing sent at the recycling center and sorts it by type of material and quality.

  • Recycling all fabrics means getting creative. Roughly 25% of the clothes they take back are damaged beyond repair. Resewing allows them to create new products from the scraps. My favorite was the pillows. Amazingly, they design each pillow individually with the available scraps.

  • Circular products can mean reaching a new customer segment. EILEEN FISHER sees its Renew collection as a pathway to younger consumers than its typical customer. It’s attractive to these consumers because of the price point and the philosophy behind its making. If the throng of young professionals attending the tour that descended upon the store in the recycling center is any indication, it’s working.