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Minn. companies embrace a 'circular economy' to boost recycling, reduce waste

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Imagine yourself in a native prairie. Birds and insects feed on plants.  When they die, they decompose and nourish the soil. The prairie lifecycle forms a circle, where waste from one species is used by another, year after year. 

Now, take a walk on a busy city street. Cars and trucks spit out pollution from their tailpipes. Disposable cups, plastic bags and the occasional broken umbrella fill up garbage cans. In the distance, a coal-fired power plant spews carbon pollution while sending out electrons to keep the economy humming. A sprinkler system keeps grass and petunia plantings hydrated — with drinking water, and any overflow trickles through storm sewers and down the Mississippi.

"Most of the industrial revolution we have essentially extracted raw materials, used them, sold what we can and got rid of what we couldn't sell," said Raj Rajan, the technical lead for sustainability efforts at Ecolab, one of the companies involved in the new Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition. He says the idea behind the coalition is to identify solutions that no individual company could pursue on its own. 

"It's quite exciting, because we're seeing a lot of opportunities to actually move the needle as opposed to do one-off things that might look good on paper but really aren't having as much of an impact," he said.

Besides Ecolab, the coalition includes some of Minnesota's biggest names: 3M, Best Buy, Cargill, General Mills, Medtronic and Target.  Several nonprofits, government agencies and a University of Minnesota institute are also involved.

They're looking to embrace a concept called the circular economy, which is inspired by nature. 

"What we're striving for here is behaving like nature does where there's no such thing as waste," says Dave Rapaport, vice president of Earth and community care for Aveda, which is part of the coalition. 

For his company, it means using natural ingredients and renewable energy to create products that are packaged in materials that have been, and will continue to be, recycled over and over again. Some years ago, Aveda discovered there wasn't enough recycled material available to package its products. So it started a campaign with schools to collect caps made of the high-quality recyclable plastic it needed.

He says there's value to capturing or preventing waste, and he's hopeful the coalition will contribute something significant. 

"I think it's not a foreign business concept to want to not let those resources go, to try to capture all the value you can out of the resources you're using and generate new resources in the process. We're talking about an evolution in business thinking, not really a departure from what we were taught in business school," he said. "People are really committed to making this real."

The circular economy concept isn't new. It's taken off in Europe, and many companies in the U.S. are warming to the idea. Climate change and a growing world population are driving the change in thinking.

"The systems as we have evolved them over time are no longer cutting it," said Helga Vanthournout of the global consulting firm McKinsey and Company. She says efforts to transition to a circular economy are only getting started, but interest is growing fast. 

Vanthournout says companies that have already adopted some circular economy business models include Philips, which makes medical devices, lighting and a variety of consumer goods. She says the company's program that refurbishes medical devices is better for the environment, the company and its customers. 

"You are providing access to top-notch medical equipment at a fraction of the price," she said. "How can you not be excited about that?"

She says another important piece of a circular economy is redesigning products so they last longer or can be fixed easily. "That's where you would say, hey, if I would move that screw a centimeter to the left instead of messing around for a minute to open up that part of the equipment and now it's going to take me 10 seconds because I can actually access it, that's terrific."

The Minnesota Sustainable Growth Coalition plans to initially focus on three areas — energy, water and organic recycling. 

Mike Harley, executive director of the Environmental Initiative, which is facilitating the coalition's work, said the effort is unique in the U.S.  

"The frame that the businesses and their public and nonprofit partners have chosen is a really ambitious one," he said. "Over time we are building all kinds of capital rather than drawing it down, so that the action of the economy is restorative versus destructive."