Phoenix Launches a Hub for the Circular Economy

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The city of Phoenix and nearby Arizona State University are teaming up to launch a public-private incubator focused on finding new uses for waste from textiles, food scraps, batteries and more.

Housed at the university’s Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN), the program, announced Wednesday, officially will be called the RISN Incubator. There, organizers will look to harness momentum around the concept of a circular economy, or business models built on eliminating waste by continually cycling materials back through supply chains.

Ji Mi Choi, an associate vice president at Arizona State University, said in a statement that the incubator’s backers see supporting young waste-reduction ventures as “essential to the development of a strong economy at local, regional and global scales.”

Locally, the concept aligns with a city goal to divert 40 per cent of waste that otherwise would go to landfills by 2020, as well as the university’s various academic programming related to sustainability. The circular economy has gained wide traction thanks to unconventional manufacturing and production efforts from companies such as Adidas, Ford and Dell, plus third-party initiatives such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE100 and Circular Cities Network.

Organizations such as the Closed Loop Fund have pointed out, however, the structural limitations of local infrastructure are often an obstacle for scaling promising waste-reduction efforts – or even more basic recycling systems. Since launching in 2014, the fund, backed by $100m earmarked to improve municipal recycling, has found that many companies looking to access recycled materials still have trouble finding adequate supply.

Setting aside for a moment more nascent advanced materials markets, just look at the long-established recycled paper industry.

“Demand, domestically and overseas, has been strong,” according to a recent article in trade publication Recycling Today. “Supply, on the other hand, has experienced a shortage among various grades. As demand has grown, supply has lessened.”

In Phoenix, the city hopes the incubator ultimately will help create economic opportunity and new jobs in related industries. There are plans, for instance, to eventually locate the incubator and the broader RISN at a $13m city-backed Resource Innovation Campus currently under construction.

Among the types of early-stage companies the Phoenix accelerator program will look to support are “ventures that focus on waste diversion and improvements in processing or utilization of waste as a raw material for new products or energy,” according to a press release.

In addition to common classes of materials such as plastic and textiles, the incubator seeks entrepreneurs working with broken furniture, mattresses, compost and plastic film, among other possibilities.

An initial round of applications will be accepted through July 24, with a design challenge slated to run from August through October. The winner or winners of the challenge, along with applicable later-stage ventures, will be invited to set up shop longer-term at the incubator.

Among the participation perks promised are training from mentors, access to technical experts, assistance with business plan development, use of feedstocks at Phoenix waste transfer system and “pre-qualification” for funding opportunities.

Phoenix is also far from alone when it comes to cities looking for new ways to both reduce waste to landfill and encourage business activity.

In Austin, Texas, the city has supported the US Business Council for Sustainable Development’s efforts to kickstart a business-to-business materials marketplace to sell or swap everything from extra carpet to spent barley from local breweries.

Worldwide, agencies such as the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions are exploring how key tenets of the circular economy can be applied to the built environment in cities. Among the possibilities being explored are using seaweed found in local waterways as a feedstock for 3D printing-based urban manufacturing.

“The rapid growth in global urban populations increases the pressure to find more sustainable ways of producing,” an explainer on the institute’s website noted. “Local and biobased supply chains have the ability to make metropolitan areas more independent.”