Recycling is so yesterday. For nonprofit Envision Charlotte, it’s all about upcycling, defined as taking discarded or unused materials and converting them into something more valuable.
In the sense that Envision Charlotte uses the term, it’s the central ingredient for creating a so-called circular economy: one that keeps used and discarded items out of landfills by helping entrepreneurs figure out ways to start businesses based on converting those items into new products that generate sales and, more importantly, jobs.
Envision’s executive director, Amy Aussieker, and a local delegation saw the upcycling strategy up close during a European Union study tour in the Netherlands, where circular economy initiatives have spawned success stories. With help from Charlotte City Council, Envision will soon renovate a 36,000-square-foot warehouse and former horse barn owned by the city on Seigle Avenue.
City government committed $500,000 to help pay for design and improvements to the site and provide seed money for future circular economy projects. All of the interior upgrades will be paid for by Envision, which plans to relocate its offices there. UNC Charlotte will also have space at the site for students and faculty to help with hands-on upcycling ventures.
Aussieker, drawing on what she saw in the Netherlands, envisions a 5,000-square-foot restaurant using locally sourced food, a bar, coffee shop and 6,000-square-foot event space as well as work spaces for various entrepreneurs. Envision will pay $1 annual rent for five years under lease terms approved by council.
A Netherlands consultant, Metabolic, sent experts here last week to help analyze the most readily available and usable materials for the Charlotte startup. Envision is paying the firm $40,000 for its insight. Aussieker said the prospect for business success improves when the source materials are considered: in many cases, they are free because they’re scraps, waste or unused.
As part of the barn-upcycling incubator, Aussieker sees potential for economic and sustainability gains. Pointing to the planned restaurant — expected to open early in 2019 — she (pardon the pun) envisions building a kitchen larger than would typically be needed in order to make use of nearly-expired food to create meals for sale to the public and for donating to the needy.
By forming a partnership with a local grocery store, she said, the program could lend itself to job training (for prospective restaurant workers) on how such food can be prepared and safely used while also reducing food waste.
Another possibility being considered is recruiting Local Roots, a Los Angeles company that takes shipping containers and uses them to grow hydroponic foods (think lettuce and herbs). Putting some containers around the barn site could provide leafy greens for the adjacent restaurant while also harvesting donations for the school system or other groups.
Aussieker spoke with me about plans for building a circular economy hub and other topics during an interview at WeWork Stonewall Station. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
What led you to this idea?
We took an EU study tour in the fall of 2017 to Amsterdam and Rotterdam and, prior to that, we had been working with the Dutch embassy on this concept of the circular economy. We had dinner at the ambassador’s house in D.C. to talk about this. The vice-mayor of Rotterdam was there and invited us to come over, so we took a group of city leaders to Amsterdam and Rotterdam to look at what they were doing. It was in November.
And it was absolutely amazing what we saw.
We went to a place called BlueCity in Rotterdam. They took this old (indoor water park similar to Great Wolf Lodge) and turned it into (an incubator for the) circular economy.
So, if you’re an entrepreneur and you’re doing something within the circular economy, you can be in there.
One of the companies they had there took all the coffee grinds from the local coffee shops and they grew mushrooms and then they took those mushrooms and they turned them into packaging. It was really cool.
So they made this packaging that, literally, you could ship a wine bottle (in) and then you could take it and throw it in your backyard and just compost it. And, actually, Ikea (has been moving) to mushroom packaging.
It was amazing what they were doing in this innovation center. Because not only were they taking things out of the landfill, but they were creating jobs and doing it in this innovative, circular way.
What are the plans for Charlotte and how did you determine what you wanted?
So when we were over there, we were, like, we need an innovation center to do this here. The city has this barn that’s been sitting empty. It houses bikes right now. It’s a perfect place to do innovation. (Recycling bikes and their parts will be integrated into the upcycling hub.)
We started talking about what Envision has done — that public-private-plus (structure). (We said), let’s bring the university in and bring the city in and let’s create this innovation hub focused on the circular economy.
So, the Netherlands have really led the way. And there is a group called the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that is the leading nonprofit around the circular economy. Europe is doing a lot of this. The U.S. is not.
But because of China not taking as many of our recyclables, a lot of (U.S.) cities are, like, what are we going to do with this? So, this is a great model to look at.
We want to be the leader in the U.S. around this. How do we use it to create jobs, to keep stuff out of the landfill and to create innovation?
This innovation barn came about as (a way of saying): Let’s take what we’ve done, let’s add in the circular economy, let’s add entrepreneurship and let’s create jobs. Start it there (at the barn) but flourish throughout all of Charlotte. Because some of these are too big. We could pilot them (at the barn), but they’re going to have to move out (as they grow).
What’s the potential for this?
There are things going on that keeps things local, that create jobs (and this is another one). We want to create — not only be beneficial for Charlotte — but we want to be the model other cities come and learn from.
(City manager) Marcus Jones, he’s, like, ‘Let’s be a leader.’ Let’s do something locally, but that also helps us attract companies to come here, that also tells millennials, wow, this is a cool, innovative city.
What about your first campaign to reduce energy waste in uptown office towers?
So the buildings, we’re done. We hit our 19% (savings). The next program we’re working on is with the city, their Sustainable Energy Action Plan, which is laying out their long-term goals to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord. So we’ve been working with a group out of the U.K. on setting our emissions baseline and then working with all the departments in the city (on possible changes). Like, if you electrify garbage trucks, how does that change the emissions long-term?
Duke’s been at the table, too.
And what we’ve learned is that it’s not just energy that comes in, but it’s also getting the city prepared by infrastructure. How do you make sure these new buildings have plugs for (electric vehicles)? Because EV cars are coming. There are manufacturers who aren’t going to be building combustible engines any more. So we’re working with the city on those goals.
If you look at the national average, it’s 16 tons per person of CO2 produced per year. That’s average. In Charlotte, it’s 11.7. That’s because of the nuclear (power generated by Duke Energy).
So, we have to go from 11.7 to 2 by 2050. We’ll set more short-term goals and hope the technology (keeps making gains in reducing pollution).
Will the energy efficiency campaign end there?
They’re still working with those buildings. They still have given them all the tools. What was really unique about that program was it was giving 15-minute interval data so the buildings could learn to change setting points or (find out) you’re spiking (in use) at noon — why?
Has the circular economy now become your primary or sole objective?
We have two: It’s this and emissions reduction. We used to have the four pillars: water, energy, air and waste. If you look at it, this takes care of waste and then emissions is the umbrella by which the other three will be under (water, energy and air).
Transportation, for example, falls under our emission reduction. And we’re looking at taking another EU study tour in September. Copenhagen’s having a big transportation conference. And we’re so excited about what came out of the last one we did (involving the circular economy concepts now being brought to life locally), we’re looking at how do we bring the right city leadership to Copenhagen.
I think there’s federal funding available that we haven’t looked at (for transportation). Sen. (Richard) Burr’s office right now has a bill in committee (based) around giving cities $500 million in grants around transportation.
So how do we get ourselves prepared to start getting some of these dollars from the federal government?
One of the things we find is, when you go to an innovative city like Copenhagen, if you can sit down and bring in a facilitator and (ask) what are our challenges, how do we define the goals and opportunities, (it helps). So that when we come back, we have that ready plan to figure out how we can do this.