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North Carolina’s Circular Economy

Increasingly, once is not enough. The goal of a circular economy is to move from linear flows to circular flows of raw materials and finished products, extending the productive life of finished goods, reusing and recycling their components, and reducing or eliminating waste. Examples of this concept, like curbside recycling, are already part of daily life for many North Carolinians.[1] But opportunities abound for improving these systems, since only about a third of recyclable materials are currently being recovered from municipal solid waste in the state, and less than 20% of construction and demolition debris is currently being recycled.[2] Entrepreneurs in the state are also developing new ways to save resources and money by implementing zero-waste solutions.



The Challenge

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)’s Circular Economy Council found North Carolina has a “robust and multifaceted circular economy,” making this an area of economic opportunity for the state. However, developing a circular economy takes cross-sectoral collaboration. North Carolina will need to leverage its academic institutions and its entrepreneurial spirit to work with industry and government in making this transformation. Examples nationwide range from low-tech collections of used textiles for reuse to robots that rapidly sort recyclables using artificial intelligence. Non-profit organizations and local governments can promote environmentally responsible procurement policies. Entrepreneurs can develop innovative start-ups to provide zero-waste solutions. Consumers can patronize businesses that advance the circular economy. Corporations can share data and integrate these principles into their mission statements and their operations. Local governments can build on long-standing programs to take their circular economy efforts to the next level. State government can provide information, technical assistance, and seed funding to help communities of all sizes build a more circular economy and create new jobs.

In addition, the NC DEQ Circular Economy Council highlighted the importance of providing a growing supply of high-quality collected materials. If local government collection programs can recover more recyclables, the supply could help attract new companies using these feedstocks to create new products.

Potential Responses

Short-Term

Medium-Term

  • Identify and launch a pilot materials reuse or recycling initiatives
  • Coordinate with NC DEQ Secretary’s Circular Economy Council to build regional participation and coordination in CE initiatives
  • Promote local government procurement policies favoring companies that engage in CE using resources like Waste Reduction Partners’ NC Recycled Products Purchasing Toolkit
  • Integrate CE with existing plans

Long-Term

  • Scale up pilot programs
  • Develop local or regional CE goals and CE accounting system to track participation, value of materials maintained, and progress toward net zero waste
  • Hold annual showcase of regional and state CE businesses
  • Develop a regional CE recognition program
  • Explore the development of state CE labeling and promotion systems like “Got To Be NC” for the ag sector

Key Stats

  • Lifespan of a plastic bag: up to 1,000 years; average time a bag is used: 12 minutes (Source: Closed Loop Partners 2020)
  • The global economy was 7.2% circular in 2023 (Source: Circular Gap Reporting Initiative, 2023)
  • If all plastics landfilled in Charlotte were recycled instead, it would save 936,329 barrels of oil per year while creating more than 1,300 jobs and $35 million in revenue (Source: Circular Charlotte, 2018).
  • Local government materials recovery through recycling in North Carolina has increased from 128 pounds per capita in 1992 to 284 pounds per capita in 2022 (Source: N.C. Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service).
  • North Carolina hosts 15,700 recycling-related private jobs, with an annual payroll of $759 million (Source: NCDEACS).
  • Food waste is the #1 material entering North Carolina landfills (Source: NCDEACS).

 

Example: New Hanover County Comprehensive Recycling and Waste Management Program[3]

Over the past decade, New Hanover County has been working to develop a comprehensive approach to waste management and materials recovery. To extend the life of its landfill, the County constructed a facility to recycle construction and demolition (C&D) debris, which comprised about 30% of landfilled waste. This operation is keeping about 60,000 tons of C&D material out of the County’s landfill annually, extending the landfill’s life by 20 years. In addition, the County has developed a yard waste recycling program that is diverting another 8% of the waste stream. It also collects food waste in a program that started as a partnership with UNC Wilmington’s Dining Services. The County is also collecting household hazardous waste and recycling electronics to reduce the toxicity of the waste stream. Finally, the County has partnered with private vendor Sunoco Recycling to establish a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that is processing 25,000 tons of recyclables a year. Together, these projects are helping the County save money, improve service, and protect the environment.

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References

Circular CoLab. The State of the Circular Economy in America. 2018.

City of Charlotte, NC. Circular Charlotte: Toward a Zero Waste and Inclusive City. 2018.

Closed Loop Partners. The Circular Shift: Four Key Drivers of Circularity in North America. 2020.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Delivering the Circular Economy: A Toolkit for Policymakers. 2015.

Eva Gladek, Fanny Thibault, and Liz Corbin. The Innovation Barn: Charlotte’s Living Lab for the Circular Economy. Metabolic and Envision Charlotte. 2019.

NC Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service, Recycling Assistance Center. Employment Trends in North Carolina’s Recycling Industry 2020.

New Hanover County, NC. Construction and Demolition Debris Recycling Fact Sheet.

Peter Lacy, Jessica Long, and Wesley Spindler. The Circular Economy Handbook: Realizing the Circular Advantage. Accenture. 2020.

USDN. Sustainable Consumption Toolkit (online).

USEPA. National Recycling Strategy: Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy for All. 2021.

Waste Reduction Partners. North Carolina Purchasing Toolkit: Recycled Content Products.

_____. North Carolina Waste Reduction Assistance Brochure. 2019.

[1] NC DEQ, Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service, Presentation to NC DEQ Secretary’s Circular Economy Council, June 6, 2023 and August 22, 2023.

[2] NC DEQ, Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service analysis using The Recycling Partnership’s State of Curbside Recycling Report 2020.

[3] New Brunswick County webpage https://www.nhcgov.com/347/Environmental-Stewardship, accessed 1/4/24.

Ben Hitchings, David Rouse, Anita Brown-Graham
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