Charlotte’s Plan to Teach Itself How to Make Green from Being Green

In a state where lawmakers are known to swoop in and overturn city policies at will, one group has a plan focused on the business end of going green. 

One of four bronze statues at the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets, also known as Independence Square, in downtown Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

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Charlotte is a “carrot” city rather than a “stick” city, says Amy Aussieker, executive director of the nonprofit group Envision Charlotte, a public-private partnership with a mission of investing in economic growth and environmental sustainability initiatives.

San Francisco is a “stick” city. While the city has undertaken a range of efforts to reach that goal, some of the most important have been regulatory: It was among the first cities to ban plastic bags, for example; and since 2009, composting and recycling have been mandatory. Largely as a result, 80 percent of the city’s waste is diverted from landfills, a higher rate than any other city in the country, and a key metric that helps land the city consistently atop rankings of the “greenest” in the United States.

According to Aussieker, Charlotte doesn’t pass a lot of environmental regulations because the state lawmakers in Raleigh could swoop in an overturn them at will. That’s left the city looking for other ways to achieve zero-waste goals.

“You can mandate composting in San Francisco,” Aussieker says. “You cannot mandate it here. So it’s a totally different implementation process in a city that doesn’t do policy.”

Within that context, Aussieker’s organization commissioned a report called “Circular Charlotte: Towards a Zero Waste and Inclusive City.” Authored by Amsterdam-based consulting firm Metabolic, the report notes that only 11.5 percent of waste materials are recycled or composted in Charlotte each year. The high rate of landfilling has negative environmental impacts in the form of carbon emissions, but also constricts economic potential, the report suggests.

Charlotte’s wasted materials have around $111 million in pure scrap value, according to the report, and could support around 2,000 jobs if more were recycled. If the 145,000 tons of plastics currently landfilled every year were recycled instead, the city could generate $35 million in revenue and avoid using more than 950,000 barrels of oil annually.

To jumpstart waste-reduction initiatives, the city has to date invested $2.5 million in an “Innovation Barn,” which will serve as an incubator for businesses that fall under the umbrella of the “circular economy.”

“We see this as more than an environmental program,” says Victoria Johnson, director of Solid Waste Services for the City of Charlotte. “We believe this has the ability to brand the City of Charlotte as a place for innovation. We also see it as an opportunity to advance economic opportunity, entrepreneurship and generate revenue. These are all priorities for the project.”

To illustrate the potential for circular economy investments, Metabolic included five “business cases” in the report, including a closed-loop textiles chain for linens at local hospitals and hotels, a circular chain for recycled concrete and glass, recycling food waste for livestock feed, a “Materials Innovation Lab” for upcycling waste products, and an incentive system that would give Charlotte residents discounts on certain local products for meeting recycling goals.

The business cases were based on the city’s “most problematic material flows” and conversations with stakeholders in those supply chains, says Metabolic Founder and CEO Eva Gladek. The firm included proposals that could be executed quickly to demonstrate the potential value of circular economy initiatives, she says.

“A good example is the nearly 150,000 tons of food waste generated by Charlotte households and small businesses,” Gladek says. “One solution is to feed food waste to black soldier fly larvae, which in turn can be pressed into pellets to feed North Carolina’s poultry farms — the strongest agricultural industry in the state.”

Even if just a third of that food waste could be diverted in that way, it would save the city $1.65 million in fees related to landfill dumping, and could save 97,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions a year, the report says.

Envision Charlotte started in 2010 with an effort to reduce energy use in commercial buildings in the city, eventually succeeding in getting target buildings to lower consumption by 19 percent, according to Aussieker. Charlotte is a “banking town,” she says, and environmental initiatives there are focused on the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and economic benefits.

The innovation barn is expected to be up and running next summer. Envision Charlotte will move in its offices, alongside a zero-waste restaurant with a teaching kitchen, and operate alongside the business startups that will be invited into the incubator. The group commissioned the report to get businesses and residents thinking about the potential benefits of more circular economic models.

“How do we take the low-hanging fruit in our waste and do something with it?” Aussieker says. “And then secondly, how do we look at the companies that are already here and get them to be more circular?”

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: sustainable citiesrecyclingcharlotte

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