Collaboration for Regional Sustainable Circular Economy Innovation

  • Rajesh BuchEmail author
  • Dan O’Neill
  • Cassandra Lubenow
  • Mara DeFilippis
  • Michael Dalrymple
Living reference work entry


Recognizing the looming, long-term sustainability challenges to the metropolitan Phoenix region’s economy, environment, and community, City of Phoenix leadership shifted attention to a new paradigm that focuses on integrated resource management, the concept of “zero waste,” and the circular economy. Understanding that this effort could not be achieved through current municipal efforts alone, Phoenix turned to Arizona State University, to establish local, regional, and global collaborative networks focused on creating value and economic development opportunities from solid waste streams.

Phoenix, Arizona State University, and our local collaborating partners in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors have developed a strategy to build a regional sustainable circular economy focusing on innovations and solutions that support a socially balanced, environmentally restorative, and resource regenerative economy. This strategy involves solutions development, community education and engagement, and the building of a Resource Innovation Campus and incubator focused on attracting resource innovators and entrepreneurs to Phoenix to build viable, market-driven closed-loop resource business models in the region.


Sustainability Circular economy Stakeholder engagement Systems modeling Innovation Outreach Decision support Sustainable development goals 


The circular economy has emerged as an alternative paradigm for the management of resources to drive sustainable development that contrasts with the linear materials economy model of extract–consume–dispose that has characterized economic activity since the industrial revolution (Senge et al. 2001). As defined in the United Nations’ report, Our Common Future, sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN WCED 1987). While the linear economy stresses the environment and risks the economic and social foundation of the global system, a circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design and which aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times (MacArthur 2012).

A promising approach in the pursuit of sustainable development, the circular economy incorporates concepts and design principles from several schools of thought to encourage the creation of closed-loop resource systems and equitable, healthy, productive societies. While it has been gaining traction as a sustainability strategy, circular economy theory is not always easily translated into tangible systems and sometimes falls short of its societal goals. Examples of circular economy in practice do not always produce broad, socially desirable outcomes and sometimes also diverge from the principles of circular economy theory. A modified approach in circular economy theory and implementation is needed to reconcile the disparity between theory and practice.

The most recent revision of the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) and agenda call for action “in areas of critical importance” for humanity and the planet:
  • People – we are determined to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.

  • Planet – we are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.

  • Prosperity – we are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social, and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.

  • Peace – we are determined to foster peaceful, just, and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.

  • Partnership – we are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this agenda through a revitalized Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders, and all people (United Nations Statistical Commission 2016).

The 17 global goals (and 169 associated targets) emphasize the triple bottom line approach to development that requires the environment, the economy, and society to simultaneously benefit, and also demonstrate the inherently ethical nature of the pursuit of sustainability. Social issues including equity, empowerment, education, health, social protection, and job opportunities are highlighted as top priority areas along with environmental issues. In fact, more than half (8 out of 17) of the SDGs are focused directly on these social issues. Having been developed by the UN, the SDGs are the best representation of where the world needs to prioritize action for creating a prosperous future for all and provide a good framework by which to assess the effectiveness of a circular economy solution as being a desirable sustainable solution.

It is proposed that this modified approach to circular economy reconciles this disparity and works toward achieving the sustainable development goals and can be termed the Sustainable Circular Economy . It incorporates research, methods, and knowledge from social, environmental, and economic dimensions and has the goal of creating an overall benefit to society. The sustainable circular economy approach differs from other circular economy theories and methods by recognizing that current circular economy strategies lack effective integration of social processes and structures that must play an integral role in implementing circular strategies in order to deliver sustainable outcomes. Therefore, in order to achieve the sustainable goals of sustainable development, the social dimension needs to be more explicitly integrated into the development of circular economy solutions. Existing frameworks for circular economy intend to be inclusive of the social dimension in principal, but real-world implementation efforts have by-and-large focused on material and energy synergies in the design phase, rather than also impacting local social conditions and relationships. Many applications of circular economy that have been designed in this way have had limited success, when success is defined as improving overall well-being for today’s generations and future generations.

The sustainable circular economy offers a strategy that allows human and cultural social interactions to drive the transition to circular economies, in addition to restoring environmentally responsible resource flows. When developed and applied in this way, the circular economy concept can be more effectively used to strive toward sustainable and prosperous futures for the world and its inhabitants.

Evolution of the Circular Economy

The circular economy offers a platform for societies to rethink their material and energy use in ways that align with natural cycles. The current materials economy is a “take–make–dispose” system that transforms valuable resources into waste and attempts to impose an unnatural and temporary linear process upon cyclic natural systems. This system is problematic simply because it is unrealistic – the planet and its systems operate in cycles, and the “linear” processes imposed on them by humans are, in reality, producing waste that is destructive and persistent to Earth’s systems as it cycles. As a result, chemicals and materials with valuable properties accumulate in landfills while societies expend energy to extract virgin resources from finite supplies. Energetic and material value from discarded products gets allocated toward degradation instead of utility. A circular economy, in contrast, maximizes utility of valuable materials through closed-loop systems. Energy and resources provide functional utility in multiple or infinite life cycles when used as raw material for something else at the end of its current life. A transition to a circular economy can enable society to practice conscious development in a way that more intelligently couples economic growth with the use and reuse of finite resources. Circular economy supports and, in turn is supported by, frameworks for developing a resilient global human system that thrives in the longer term (MacArthur 2012). When coupled with a sustainable systems perspective, a circular economy can support synergistic growth with the natural systems of the finite planet.

Today’s evolving concept of a circular economy has emerged from the integration of several schools of thought and academic disciplines, each emphasizing the necessity of working cyclically. The original contributions can be drawn back to Walter Stahel’s work in the 1980s, and the development of the closed loop economy, as described in “The Product Life Factor” (MacArthur 2012; Stahel 1982). While the following list is not exhaustive of additional circular economy theory contributors, the most notable and significant contributions have come from the development of the Hannover Principles (McDonough and Braungart 1992), industrial ecology (Allenby and Graedel 1995), Cradle to CradleTM (McDonough and Braungart 2010), biomimicry, and The Natural Step (Robèrt and Anderson 2002; Nattrass and Altomare 2013), each described in more detail below.

The Hannover Principles

While planning for the 2000 World’s Fair, the City of Hannover, Germany, decided to tackle the difficult issue of imagining and encouraging a sustainable future by theming EXPO 2000 as “Humanity, Nature and Technology.” To ensure that all construction and preparation for the fair represented the city’s commitment to sustainable development, the planners commissioned nine design principles to inform international design competitions for constructing the event. Known as “The Hannover Principles, ” these guidelines aimed to provide a platform for designers to adapt their work toward sustainable ends for the environment and for humanity. The principles emphasize the rights of humanity and nature to coexist, recognizing the relationship between spirit and matter, the responsible use of natural resources, and the importance of continuous improvement through sharing of knowledge (McDonough and Braungart 1992).

Industrial Ecology and Symbiosis

Many of the original concepts behind the circular economy first appeared in Industrial Ecology , by Allenby and Graedel (1995). Industrial ecology has been defined as a “systems-based, multidisciplinary discourse that seeks to understand emergent behavior of complex integrated human–natural systems” (Allenby 2006). Essentially, industrial ecology presents a way of looking at industrial systems as man-made versions of natural ecosystems. Industrial symbiosis has been integrated into systems where the waste products of one industry are used as raw materials for others. Just as “waste” products in natural systems are used as food or nutrients for other agents in a food web, industrial ecosystems cooperate in industrial symbiosis through exchange of byproducts, resources, and infrastructures that are able to achieve greater economic and environmental benefits than if they were acting alone (Allenby and Graedel 1995; Allenby 2006).


Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then emulates these forms, processes, systems, and strategies to solve human problems (Benyus 1997). While one of the earliest examples of biomimicry is Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for a flying machine, the scientific discipline was more recently popularized in the 1980s and applied to development of products like replaceable carpet tiles (modeled after forest leaves) and Velcro (modeled after burrs). More recently, biomimicry practitioners have been applying the approach at many scales, “from biota to biosphere,” and positioning biomimicry as a critical tool for realizing the circular economy.

Cradle to CradleTM

Cradle to Cradle TM is a design philosophy (McDonough and Braungart 2010) that considers all material involved in industrial and commercial processes to be nutrients, which can therefore be utilized in a closed-loop system where there is no waste. Cradle to CradleTM (C2C) models typically categorize materials used in manufacturing processes as biological or technical nutrients, where all materials can be returned to the earth as biological nutrients after use or re-enter the industrial system as a technical nutrient (C2CTM product standard). C2CTM emphasizes more than the elimination of waste and the improvement of resource efficiency. One of its three principles is to “celebrate diversity,” which is described as using social fairness, encouraging stakeholder engagement , supporting local biodiversity, and cultivating creativity through technology diversity. C2CTM practitioners place a special emphasis on materials, especially with respect to chemistry, in an effort to eliminate harmful chemicals from buildings and products.

The Natural Step

The Natural Step is an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to education, advisory work, system change initiatives, innovation, and research in pursuit of sustainable development (Robèrt and Anderson 2002; Nattrass and Altomare 2013). The Natural Step works with diverse organizations to apply its Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development. In this framework, a sustainable society is defined as one in which nature is not subject to systematically increasing:
  • Concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust

  • Concentrations of substances produced by society

  • Degradation by physical means, and, in that society

  • Conditions that undermine peoples’ capacity to meet their needs

These system conditions describe The Natural Step’s principles for moving toward a sustainable society.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The United Kingdom-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) , established in 2010, mainstreamed the idea of circular economy with the aim of accelerating the transition to the circular economy. In the context of business and urban development practices, circular economy integrates sustainable product and package design and waste management with a more holistic sustainability approach that is focused on creating closed-loop systems throughout the entirety of supply chains and within geographic regions. EMF has advanced the concept of circular economy to the forefront of global sustainable development agendas and spurred action by many global corporations, other private organizations, and some municipalities to close loops in their materials and energy systems. EMF defines circular economy as one that is restorative and regenerative by design, one that aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.

An important characteristic of circular economy systems is that they couple economic growth and development and the consumption of finite resources in a more intelligent, more sustainable way (Lieder and Rashid 2016). This synergistic approach promises to be mutually beneficial for the economy and the environment when successfully applied. The potential benefits of “going circular” include optimizing the use of materials, realizing new revenue streams, enhancing stakeholder relationships, and mitigating risk from future policy and industry shocks (Crane and Matten 2016). Research suggests that it has immense job creation and innovation potential, and an estimated savings of $1 trillion a year can be realized from global dematerialization (MacArthur 2012).

Circular Economy in Practice

The concept of circular economy has been applied in a variety of contexts as a means of transforming our current systems to be more sustainable. Systems can be circularized on different scales and with different types of boundaries. Two common ways that circular economy is applied is within “spatially dynamic” manufacturing systems, defined by supply chains, and within “spatially static” urban platforms, defined by geographic boundaries. In both cases, the end goal is to gain an economic benefit while simultaneously reducing the impact of production or development on the environment. These systems are often focused on using waste and energy as raw material inputs for other processes, while social impacts, capital, structures, and processes are often excluded. Additionally, these systems interact to create, use, and dispose of resources as humans carry out their daily lives.

In supply chains, circular economy has exploded as a business strategy in recent times. Prominent reports and case studies that promote the potential of the circular economy to deliver win–win situations for the environment and the economy have moved circular economy into the private sector mainstream. Large corporations are embracing the concept as a way to meet their environmental obligations without sacrificing shareholder value. In most examples, circular economy in supply chains is focused heavily on product stewardship and design-for-environment strategies. For instance, circular economy strategies in private industry might consist of take-back programs or leasing programs, in which the manufacturer creates products that are easy to disassemble, and maintain an internal responsibility for reutilizing material through successive life cycles. Because of the material focus of most circular economy strategies in supply chains, very few organizations tie social conditions into their circular economy strategies. The ones that do, however, are able to create higher levels of competitive advantage while creating social benefit, in addition to environmental and economic benefit. By integrating this third dimension, firms are able to use circular economy to create holistically sustainable supply chains and bring greater benefit to their business through increased competitive advantage, reputation, and legitimacy. For example, the mission of Interface is “to be the first company, that, by its deeds, shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is, in all its dimensions: people, process, product, place and profits” (Harel 2013). Wanting to hold true to its commitment, Interface officially adopted a social sustainability program in 2000 focused on the development of programs and processes that promote social interaction and cultural enrichment. Its emphasis is on protecting the vulnerable, respecting social diversity, and ensuring that we all put a priority on social capital (Interface USA 2015), and defined Interface’s core values as: (1) human rights, (2) labor standards, (3) environment, and (4) ethical practices (Interface USA 2015). In including these social components, Interface’s circular economy is enhanced to promote higher standards of living in its manufacturing companies around the world.

In urban platforms, circular economy can be applied at a variety of scales and are accordingly manifested in different forms, such as eco-industrial parks, eco-cities, or more general development guidelines. Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates (Cugurullo 2013) and Songdo International Business District in South Korea are two of the highest profile examples of such smart green cities (Shwayri 2013) that highlight different ways in which ignoring social factors can lead to circular economy failures. Masdar City claims to have officially adopted the triple-bottom-line definition of sustainability, placing equal importance on the well-being of environmental, economic, and social dimensions of the city (Cugurullo 2013). However, Masdar’s sustainability performance has been heavily criticized for being weak in the social dimension. Some fear that it will become a luxury development for the rich and the technology-centric – a secluded metropolis that only furthers the division between wealthy and impoverished communities (Hodson and Simon 2010). If this is the case, Masdar City demonstrates how circular economy in practice can actively contribute to significant sustainability challenges – wealth disparity and social marginalization – rather than working toward an equitable and prosperous society. Similarly, Songdo International Business District, or New Songdo City, is a new smart, “ubiquitous” city being built on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land in Incheon, South Korea. New Songdo City’s commitment to “encourage and foster sustainable design practices by incorporating the latest design standards and technologies that reduce energy consumption, increase energy efficiency, utilize recycled and natural materials and generate clean or renewable energy” reflects circular economy principles of designing out waste and using renewable energy sources (Shwayri 2013). However, New Songdo City’s (Lobo 2015) struggle to attract permanent business tenants and residents highlights a different failing of a circular economy strategy that does not incorporate social factors than the failing found in Masdar City. In the case of New Songdo City, circular economy strategies were a failure because the lack of consideration given to social conditions led to a society that did not meet all of its residents’ needs for a prosperous life.

Unsustainable Trajectory of City of Phoenix

The combination of existing markets, technologies, business models, governance institutions, and culturally embedded practices and policies are creating unsustainable cities, communities, and infrastructure. For the private sector, the linear model of extraction, production, consumption, and disposition is resulting in business risk founded on depleting resources and volatility of commodity prices and availability. For their part, public sector managers in urban regions respond to these dynamics, impacting business and consumption practices with waste management requiring perpetual landfilling.

Additionally, the population in the Sun Corridor, the mega-region in Arizona that includes Phoenix and Tucson and runs between the US–Mexico border in Nogales in the south to Prescott in the center of the state, is expected to double and reach a population of nine million people by 2050.

In 2013, the City of Phoenix ’s recycling rate was 16% (compared to the national average of 34%), and the fleet of Phoenix Public Works Department trucks collected and disposed of more than one million tons of garbage, traveling more than seven million miles to local landfills. This is equal to traveling to the moon and back 14 times – every year.

The likely outcome of this scenario – our current linear economy practices, with the projected increase in population and consumption – is a decrease in the availability of finite resources such as raw materials, water, and energy. That decrease would in turn lead to an increase in the financial, social, and environmental cost of managing those resources, such as increasing costs of resources and raw materials, the potential loss of jobs, the potential for environmental pollution, an increase in the amount of waste produced, and ultimately a reduction in the overall standard of living for all citizens.

The challenge for Phoenix, the largest municipality of the region and fifth largest city in the USA, was how to optimize resources in a way that was economically feasible. The cost of infrastructure and additional employees would have to be offset by opportunities for profit in order to make waste management pay for itself in the long run.

Discovering Sustainable Solutions Through Collaboration

To meet this challenge, the Phoenix Public Works Department, led by then-Director John Trujillo , developed a strategic action plan with a goal of achieving 40% waste diversion by 2020, which was announced by Mayor Greg Stanton in 2013. The plan was branded as “Reimagine Phoenix: Turning Trash into Resources, ” and it set the course for a new sustainable waste management trajectory for Phoenix and the entire Phoenix metropolitan area (Fig. 1). Under this plan, Phoenix established both short- and long-term goals that would improve the diversion rate while allowing sustainable development and economic development to occur simultaneously.
Fig. 1

Representatives from the City of Phoenix, Arizona State University, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Telemundo, Mayo Clinic of Arizona, PetsMart, and other partners announce the launch of the city’s Reimagine Phoenix initiative at Chase Field (Photo courtesy of ASU Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives)

However, Phoenix was quick to realize that they could not accomplish these ambitious goals alone; collaboration with trusted partners was key to the success of the Reimagine Phoenix plan. The city established a partnership with the Global Sustainability Solutions Service, a sustainability consulting service within the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives at Arizona State University (ASU) .

The centerpiece of this partnership became the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network or RISN . Recognizing that the world at large is becoming buried in waste, RISN was established to advance integrated resource management through a global network of public and private partners using collaboration, research, innovation, and application of technologies to create economic value, driving a sustainable circular economy.

Perhaps the greatest strength of RISN is the unique and powerful partnership between Phoenix and ASU. With a population of 1.5 million within a regional population of near 4.5 million, Phoenix is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. The City of Phoenix was also named the Top Performing City overall by Governing and Living Cities in 2017.

ASU is the largest public university in the USA and has a current student enrollment of more than 98,000 students. For 3 years running, ASU was named America’s Most Innovative University by US News and World Report and ASU’s School of Sustainability, founded in 2006, is the first comprehensive degree-granting institution of its kind in the USA. Today, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU is home to more than 425 Sustainability Scientists and Scholars.

Together, Phoenix and ASU have immense resources, knowledge, and the ability to bring global, regional, and local stakeholders together. Each partner has unique resources, abilities, and assets that contribute to success. It is only by working together that such a powerful impact and societal transition can take place.

The first long-term goal for Phoenix and ASU was to develop a Center of Excellence in waste management that would provide support and momentum beyond immediate programs. The center would also serve as a development and research hub focused on creating value and economic opportunity out of waste streams. In July 2014, Phoenix and ASU officially entered into an intergovernmental agreement to develop a strategic plan for the center.

With the agreement in place, a team from ASU facilitated nine collaborative regional stakeholder workshops on a variety of topics relevant to the design of a more sustainable waste management system. The workshops were developed to gain a clear understanding of the current waste system throughout the region, build a collaboratively developed future vision, and develop a strategy to reach that future. The workshops covered the following topics:
  • Regional waste model

  • Technology roadmap

  • Communication and collaboration

  • Sustainable urban metabolism

  • Policy

  • Research and funding

  • Big data

  • Facility design charrette

  • Food scraps

Conversations, insights, and findings from these workshops were integrated into a business plan for evolving the Center of Excellence, including a transformation from a single-entity center to a network model, recognizing that to include all of the best knowledge, ideas, and practices for waste management system design would require collaboration between all experts and stakeholders. The ultimate goal was for the network, which was renamed RISN, to expand beyond the Phoenix metropolitan area and incorporate global information and knowledge from leaders and practitioners around the world. RISN would become a global network, originating and headquartered in Phoenix.

Sustainable Circular Economy in Phoenix

Critical to the evolution of RISN was the change in focus from integrated resource management and intelligence toward the implementation of a sustainable circular economy.

Recognizing the similarity between EMF, other circular economy agendas, the vision for RISN, and the future Phoenix-area waste management system, the RISN partnership refocused its initiative to pursue the realization of a circular economy in the Phoenix metropolitan area, with a focus on waste-to-resources as the ultimate goal.

To meet this goal, RISN has to work with Phoenix and its Reimagine Phoenix initiative to create a systemic, cultural, and behavioral shift among Phoenix residents and businesses. This focus widens the target set to surpass the city’s waste diversion goal of 40% by 2020. In order to enable behavior change and a cultural shift in Phoenix, the city created a media campaign with a primary message that repositions the concept of trash as a valuable resource rather than material to be thrown away – trash is valuable raw material for new products, rather than waste.

Phoenix is motivated to position itself as a national and international leader in innovative and strategic solid waste management. Toward this end, Phoenix is investing in infrastructure for mixed waste and/or solid waste diversion technologies that will help to divert recoverable material in the municipal solid waste stream from the landfill and create a circular system focused on job creation, new revenue for Phoenix, and innovative and sustainable economic development.

Other RISN “hubs,” centers based throughout the world, would have the same objective – to build regional sustainable circular economy platforms in their own locations and regions. RISN would serve as a capacity builder, convening platform and facilitator for realizing the circular economy at all of its hubs.

The Phoenix–ASU partnership is the first city–university partnership focused on sustainable circular economy in the world.

Leadership Buy-In and Funding Strategies

Finding and disseminating funding for such an aspirational goal can be a significant challenge in itself. In July 2014, Phoenix Public Works director John Trujillo successfully gained council approval for the funding of RISN, which included $2 million over a 4-year span to cover both operations and project implementation. ASU would also contribute $1 million over the same 4-year time span in addition to providing its sustainability resources and expertise.

To gain buy-in for such a large initiative, Trujillo and the Public Works Department were very strategic about the positioning of RISN and how it would benefit Phoenix. A strategy to inform and educate city council members and other important stakeholders about circular economy and the related economic opportunities played an important role in gaining acceptance. Information was disseminated over time through the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee and then to full council about the many opportunities that implementing a circular economy could bring to the Phoenix area.

Trujillo used these efforts as a way to position Phoenix as a national and international leader in innovation, solid waste management, and fiscally responsible sustainability. He emphasized the impact that the circular economy would have on future generations, in light of a rapidly increasing population throughout the region. Circular economy provides a way for Phoenix to prepare for a 100% increase in population projected by 2050. Trujillo educated the council on the opportunities for new business development and to attract innovative technologies to the city, which subsequently funded a position dedicated to RISN in the city’s economic development department.

Phoenix’s commitment to innovation for sustainable resource management is evidenced by its investment in the RISN partnership, funding research, and solutions development projects executed by the ASU Global Sustainability Solutions Service that advance the diversion of waste and create economic value through the enhancement and creation of new technologies, systems, and programs. Examples of such projects include development of a Resource Innovation Campus and other projects discussed below.

The Resource Innovation Campus

Because Phoenix had ideally located property and direct access to waste feed streams at one of its waste transfer stations, the city looked to create the Resource Innovation Campus (RIC – Fig. 2). The RIC will sit on a city-owned site that includes operating materials recovery facilities, a recently opened municipal composting facility, a closed landfill, and more than 100 acres of vacant land. This industrial space will be able to house fully developed companies that will build and operate their waste processing technologies on site, creating jobs and bringing new businesses to Phoenix. Businesses based at the RIC will use innovative waste processing technologies to transform the material resources from the municipal solid waste stream available onsite (Fig. 3) to create new products and processes.
Fig. 2

The Phoenix 27th Avenue Waste Transfer Station, home to the Resource Innovation Campus and RISN (Photo courtesy of City of Phoenix Public Works Department)

Fig. 3

Phoenix Public Works workers sorts through paper waste at the 27th Avenue Waste Transfer Station for bundling into recyclables and reusables. Feedstocks like this will be available to companies based at the Resource Innovation Campus and RISN Incubator (Photo courtesy of City of Phoenix Public Works Department)

A “call for innovators” and a series of request for proposals already have been issued by Phoenix to seek out these innovators and populate the campus with companies that will foster job growth and economic development for the Phoenix region through circular economy technologies. The RIC will also be the headquarters for RISN and house an on-site incubator space, where experts in entrepreneurship will assist young companies in developing marketable circular economy technology solutions.

The plan is for this industrial park to become an internationally recognized hub for circular economy technological innovation that will attract similar companies who desire to benefit from being involved in the growing circular economy industry. These activities will accelerate the availability of resources and awareness and foster innovation through spontaneous collaboration.

At the center of the RIC will be a new building that is designed and built in accordance with the Living Building Challenge criteria . Ultimately, the building will house the RISN Operations Center and the RISN Incubator, a niche business accelerator for entrepreneurs in the early stages of waste-to-product innovation with the goal of moving a circular economy in the Phoenix area forward further and faster.

To assist those entrepreneurs, the RISN Incubator will provide dedicated expert mentors to guide advancement, strategic advisement, introductions to industry stakeholders, and access to technical experts in the field of material reuse, technology, and the circular economy. In addition, entrepreneurs will receive business training on topics related to cost and revenue modeling, operations, and more, as well as access to waste from the Phoenix waste stream for use in the development, testing, and activation of their product or service. The RISN Incubator is already accepting applications from interested parties, made possible through a $500,000 grant provided by the US Economic Development Administration’s i6 Challenge.

ASU and City of Phoenix Projects

At the core of the RISN effort in the Valley of the Sun, ASU and Phoenix work together on individual waste system related projects that may involve creating new markets and economic opportunities for waste system diversion, research and development of technologies, education and evaluation of potential solutions. ASU provides the direct support for the projects and pilot projects that serve Phoenix’s needs, including project management by ASU staff. Much of the project task execution and research are completed by faculty experts and graduate student workers, identified on a project-by-project basis by Global Sustainability Solutions Service project managers. Several projects are summarized below to demonstrate the collaborative, holistic, and systematic approaches used to evaluate and develop sustainable circular economy solutions for the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Economic Impact Analysis

A 2014 waste characterization study estimated that approximately 14% of materials were recycled through the city’s residential curbside program, but more than 55% of residential disposed garbage could be diverted through standard recycling and composting programs citywide.

The purpose of this two-phase project was to determine the potential regional economic impact of implementing a circular economy in the Phoenix metropolitan area (PMA).

The first phase estimated the economic impact of existing circular economy activities (limited to recycling activities, repair and maintenance activities, and reuse activities) in the PMA, by reviewing 43 sectors and subsectors of the local economy. In 2014, the maximum gross economic impact of circular economy firms and activities was estimated at $1.9 billion Gross State Product (GSP); 35,454 jobs paying over $1.2 billion in labor income; and $158.5 million in state and local tax revenues. Circular economy activities in the PMA as a whole in 2014 were estimated to contribute a maximum 0.9% of the annual statewide GSP.

The second phase identified and quantified the economic impact of waste diversion options for the currently recycled and additionally recoverable tons of plastic, glass, metals, and paper in the city of Phoenix municipal waste stream, using the 2014 waste characterization study data.

The 2014 waste characterization study estimated that the city of Phoenix already recycles 4,860 tons of post-consumer PET (plastic) and could potentially divert a further 4,245 tons from its municipal waste stream. This is sufficient volume to supply a post-consumer PET processing facility similar to one in Oregon. If a plant similar in size and output to the Oregon facility is established in the city of Phoenix, the construction of this facility and five consecutive operating years could cumulatively increase GSP by $113.5 million, increase real disposable personal income by $57.2 million, and directly employ approximately 50 people during each year of operation.

The 2014 waste characterization study estimated that the city of Phoenix already recycles 9,527 tons of glass and could potentially divert a further 4,591 tons from its municipal waste stream. The city of Phoenix is already home to a recycled glass processor employing 15 people and handling 50,000 tons of recycled glass each year. Seventy-three percent of this glass is currently sourced from within the county. To handle the additionally recoverable glass available in the municipal waste stream, this existing processor estimates that it will need to employ an additional five people in Phoenix and invest $1.5 million in new equipment. The economic impact of processing the additional 4,591 tons of recoverable glass alone during the 5-year study time is an estimated $11.4 million in GSP and $5.7 in million real disposable personal income.

The 2014 waste characterization study estimated that the city of Phoenix already recycles 3,975 tons of metal and could potentially divert a further 6,799 tons from its municipal waste stream. This consists of 1,026 tons of aluminum, 2,328 tons of tin and steel food cans, and 3,444 tons of other recyclable metal. The additionally recoverable metal can be easily handled by the city’s current scrap metal industry, without any additional investment in jobs and equipment. At present, the city’s supply of recycled metal is also greater than the demand from its aluminum can manufacturer and steel rebar mill. To generate additional local economic benefits, the city needs to either encourage existing manufacturers to expand their local operations or attract new recycled metal manufacturers to the PMA.

The 2014 waste characterization study estimated that Phoenix already recycles 53,447 tons of paper (all types) and could potentially divert a further 26,116 tons from its municipal waste stream. However, a recycled pulp plant requires a water-intensive deinking system; and there is insufficient current and additionally recoverable supply within the city’s waste stream to meet the fiber inputs of a recycled corrugated box plant. If 156,000 tons of corrugated box fiber could be sourced throughout the Southwest as part of a multi-state solution, the construction of a Phoenix facility and five consecutive operating years could cumulatively generate $437.4 million in GSP, $219.2 million in real disposable personal income, and directly employ approximately 140 people at the facility during each year of operation.

The total economic impact of a new PET processor, along with additional glass and metal feedstock recycling in the city of Phoenix over 5 years, is estimated to cumulatively generate $123 million in GSP, $61.3 million in real disposable personal income, and directly employ approximately 197–207 people during each year of operation, and increasing the recycling rate to approximately 19.11%, based on the 2014 waste characterization study.

Regional Green Organics System Design

Organic waste represents 30–60% of the residential waste stream in the PMA. In many communities, the majority of this material ends up in the landfill where organics represent both an opportunity cost as a potential market revenue to the municipalities and as a major contributor to landfill-generated methane emissions.

Nationally, a variety of technologies including anaerobic digestion, composting, and gasification have been used to convert the organic feedstock into a valued product and/or to extract energy. While these technologies have shown promise, they still face challenges to becoming economically and environmentally sound. In addition, the economic and political environment in the State of Arizona has made it challenging for municipalities to introduce new waste diversion initiatives. However, municipal leaders understand that in addition to the rising long-term economic costs of landfilling organics, environmental and social costs are also on the rise. Under this changing cost structure, the discussion is shifting from “if” it is viable to invest in an organics diversion initiatives to “when and how” it will become viable.

This project was collaboratively funded by six municipalities, two counties, and a Native American tribe and was initiated to assess the feasibility of a regional approach to building an organics management system (Buch et al. 2017). The purpose of the study was to identify plausible pathways to achieving an envisioned 2050 scenario of a regional, multi-site green organics processing system that diverts green organics in the PMA from landfills (Buch et al. 2017).

In this study, RISN developed the GIS-based Regional Circular Organic Resource System design model (RCORS) to simulate and visualize this complex problem. The model provides the functionality to analyze viable collections alternatives and the financial requirements for the organics processing technology that could support cost-effective collections for the municipalities and financial viability for the facilities (Buch et al. 2017).

Plausible pathways to achieving an envisioned 2050 scenario of a regional, multi-site organics processing system that diverts organic waste in the PMA from landfilling were identified. The scenario presented in Fig. 4 is one of many possible pathways to a PMA-wide organics management system. In the three-phase scenario, 11 organic waste processing facility sites could be implemented by 2050, with a total annual organic diversion across the three phases of 400,000 tons resulting in the diversion of 56% of green organics for the participating municipalities. Eight of the sites in this scenario are municipality-owned, two are tribal-owned, and one facility is privately-owned (Buch et al. 2017).
Fig. 4

Phoenix metropolitan area scenario allocation

The potential for collaborative agreements among the municipalities in the PMA would provide the opportunity to increase efficiency, reduce transportation costs, and achieve economies-of-scale on a regional basis. The RCORS model provides the functionality to help the municipalities evaluate the requirements for the siting of a financially viable organics processing facility and to explore opportunities for municipalities to collaborate in providing feedstock for each facility.

There are some external trends that are key to the success of an organics recovery program. The price and risk volatility of the commodity produced by the processing facility (compost, electricity, or fuel) are driven by the market and can affect financial performance.

Several key conclusions were reached from this study. The first and most important finding was that the regional approach is viable and that collaborations can result in processing facilities that are financially more resilient (Buch et al. 2017). A related finding was that collaborations will be based on location-specific requirements. Finally, the public sector has a longer view of capital investment and resource stewardship and is more likely to implement such organics recovery programs (Buch et al. 2017).

Sustainability Solutions Festival

The Sustainability Solutions Festiva l convenes the planet’s top sustainability events and organizations to discover and explore how we can individually and collectively reimagine our lives and our planet to become sustainable. This unprecedented convening with global impact is fostered by partnerships between ASU, Phoenix, and GreenBiz Group, the leading media, research, and events organization that advances opportunities at the intersection of business, technology, and sustainability. With the additional support of partners from area public, private, and nonprofit organizations, the Festival makes Phoenix the epicenter of the “getting it done” conversation each year.

World-renowned experts in their fields leverage opportunities to collaborate with peers both within their profession and across sectors thanks to an alignment of business, academic, NGO, and local community participants – all committed to solving global challenges related to climate, waste, resources, environmental protection, employment, innovation, and equity.

Throughout the month of February, the 2017 Sustainability Solutions Festival challenged participants to (re)imagine the planet as our home through 17 separate events, focused on diverse audiences. These included GreenBiz 17, Second Nature Presidents Climate Commitment, Global Reporting Initiative, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development conference. Public events included ASU’s Night of the Open Door, City Lights Movie Nights Film Screening, and Family Day at Arizona Science Center. Results by the numbers included:
  • 37,826 People were engaged in 17 events in and around Phoenix

  • 2,500 Sustainability kits were distributed at public events

  • Estimated 3.5 million impressions across traditional and digital media

  • 5,000 Site visits by 4,280 unique users on the Festival web page and

  • 1.1 Million impressions across 24,528 social media interactions on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter

The event helps to raise the profile of Phoenix as a sustainability leader among diverse audiences: the global business community, government entities, thought leaders, and the public.

Parks Turf Compost Study

The premise of the multi-year project was to explore the efficacy of turning food scraps and yard waste that are currently landfilled into compost at a Phoenix-owned facility and then using that compost to improve the turf quality at Phoenix city parks, creating an internal circular economy.

Potential benefits to Phoenix and its citizens are many:
  • Reducing and diverting waste from the landfill and associated methane emissions

  • Exploring opportunities for cost savings

  • Increasing revenue through growing the market for city-made compost

  • Fostering collaboration between multiple City of Phoenix divisions and departments

  • Improving quality of life by beautifying city parks

  • Confirming City of Phoenix sustainability leadership nationwide

Collaboration has been key to the success of the project. The team consists of the City of Phoenix Public Works Department, which is responsible for compost production, delivery, logistics, and funding; the City Parks and Recreation Department, which is responsible for coordination, best turf practices, and application; and ASU researchers from the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology, who are responsible for research, sampling, testing, and third party verification.

During the first year of the study, the City’s Parks Department staff applied 449 cubic yards of compost across 8.21 acres of turf at the nine City parks involved in the study. All of the compost used in the study was produced at the Public Works Department’s Pilot Compost Facility at the 27th Avenue Waste Transfer Station and consisted of residential yard waste clippings, parks and landscaping clippings, large animal manure and food scraps from produce/grocery businesses, and special events. All of the compost generated at the pilot compost facility has maintained US Composting Council’s Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) certification standards. During the first year of the study, Parks and Public Works Department staff received zero concerns or complaints from residents about the program.

Results of the soil and turf data analysis showed that compost does not have any negative impacts on the current turf. In fact, previous compost studies and the nature of compost lead the team to believe that compost application will, over the longer term, be beneficial to multi-use park turf. It is important to keep in mind that the study was modeled to last at least 3 years, as it often takes time for there to be measurable changes in soils. Continuation of the study over the next 3–5 years may yield significant results and enable the City of Phoenix to identify the financial and environmental benefits of compost turf application.

RISN and Regional Partners

Waste systems, material flows, and direct and indirect economic and sustainability impacts are not confined by municipal boundaries, but rather have significant regional consequences. RISN recognizes that all projects done in any of the municipalities within the region will have impacts that spill over into other municipal areas, and this can be leveraged to create more positive outcomes when the cities and towns work together.

To foster regional collaboration and stakeholder buy-in, RISN hosts biannual regional collaborative workshop meetings (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

ASU staff conducted multiple workshops with regional stakeholders to develop strategic plans to implement circular economy practices (Photo courtesy of ASU Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives)

Solid waste and public works officials from all municipalities in the Phoenix metropolitan area are invited to these meetings, which cover various topics that uncover barriers and challenges to create a region-wide circular economy, prioritize areas of concern, and identify opportunities for collaborative projects. The RISN regional collaborative meetings have only involved municipal stakeholders thus far, though there is a plan to include private sector stakeholders, such as private waste haulers, in the near future. An example of a regional RISN project is the Green Organics System Design project , outlined previously.

RISN and Global Partners

The highest vision and mission for RISN is to expand the sustainable circular economy model through global hubs where best practices can be shared at a global scale (Fig. 6). RISN is especially interested in delivering circular economy solutions to developing nations, as they have the highest at-risk population and have the greatest need for sustainable systems, solutions and practices, thus offering the opportunity for the greatest impact.
Fig. 6

The RISN global hub strategy looks to develop multiple regional collaborative partnerships at a worldwide scale to leverage and resource best practices

It is to this effort that RISN is establishing hubs in several regions around the globe. To establish a RISN hub, RISN works with a local partner who has understanding, relationships, and expertise within that specific region. The local partner facilitates and executes the development of a sustainable circular economy in their own region, with the support and expertise of RISN. RISN offers operational and informational education and guidance through the process, both formally and informally. The first RISN hub was established in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2015 and exploratory work continues elsewhere with relationships established in Guatemala and India. RISN staff delivered an on-site sustainable circular economy certification and workshop in Nigeria for Lagos stakeholders, to help them identify barriers and opportunities for development of the circular economy as well as strategies for advancing the initiative.

An example of RISN’s global collaborative effort to advance circular economy is ASU’s partnership with Shashwat Eco Solutions Foundation (an NGO in Pune, India) to collaborate in the development of a toolkit for assessing, planning, and implementing a local circular economy. Our partner is working with local communities at various scales (villages, towns, suburban municipalities, and cities) and collaborating with the ASU RISN team to develop a toolkit for application in other developing country municipalities.

Public–Private–Academic Collaboration

Bringing together public and private entities enables ideas and solutions that develop synergistically when organizations gain access to university solutions, research resources, and expertise. RISN facilitates public-private collaboration through focused circular economy workshops about various waste systems (such as packaging and local food systems), collaborative implementable solutions projects, and entrepreneurial services at the RIC.

RISN regularly holds workshops on various topics that can potentially be solved with circular economy strategies. Bringing together private, public, and nonprofit stakeholders allows for all entities to figure out how they may work together and leverage each other’s strengths to find solutions. An example of this kind of workshop was a complex adaptive food systems workshop held by RISN and including stakeholders from grocery stores, commercial composters, nonprofit local food groups, state agencies, and municipal leaders.

RISN also serves to educate other types of organizations about the potential of the circular economy within their own business model. In the past year, RISN hosted a group of informal science education institution directors to educate them on the incorporation of sustainability and circular economy education in science museums and centers, and also held a circular economy workshop specific to the packaging industry. When packaging designers and manufacturers are educated about the circular economy, they understand how they can improve their package design to make the supply chain more sustainable. For this workshop, large packaging producers and designers were able to interact directly with the director of materials recovery facilities in Phoenix to understand exactly how package design decisions affect stakeholders and sustainability impacts way down the supply chain.

In addition to convening public, private, and nonprofit waste system stakeholders, RISN serves to bridge the public and private sector divide by providing entrepreneurial support to attract private technology companies to the RIC. Through the RISN Incubator program and other financial support provided by Phoenix, RISN seeks to closely align the power of private sector innovation with the goals of Reimagine Phoenix and RISN. The City of Phoenix and the greater metropolitan region stand to gain immensely if private companies with proprietary sustainable waste processing technologies locate to and are supported by the city.

A final component of this collaboration is outreach and engagement through a diverse range of conferences, including those focused on the solid waste industry, municipal public works, and innovation for sustainability. Examples of conferences where staff presented or attended include the American Public Works Association conference, Chamber of Commerce National Conference in Washington, DC, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Disruptive Innovation Festival held annually via the Internet.

Engagement Is Key to a Sustainable Circular Economy

Today, RISN envisions a global network of collaborating partners who create a world of circular resource loops that improve human well-being, generate economic value, and restore the environment for all generations of all species. The mission of RISN is to accelerate the global transition to a sustainable circular economy through a global network of public, private, and NGO partners using collaboration, research, innovation, education, and application of technologies to create economic value through sustainable resource management.

RISN at ASU aims to simultaneously serve the Phoenix metropolitan area to accommodate a rapidly increasing population with a high quality of life and sustainable communities, while being a catalyst for sustainable circular models at regional scales throughout the world.

By creating a network of academic, government, private business, and NGO partners and being inclusive of all stakeholders, RISN can create momentum for a more sustainable future by facilitating the reimagining of materials, energy, and resource systems, and balancing the needs of the community. The unique capabilities of this academic and government partnership can be a model for realizing the sustainable circular economy worldwide and solving the uniquely challenging and “wicked” problems of sustainability.

RISN has developed the following values:
  • Regional Integrated Resource Management

  • Continuous Innovation

  • Collaborative Symbiosis

  • Social and Inter-Generational Value and Justice

  • Economic Development

  • Education

  • Inspiration

RISN is guided by the following principles:
  • Success is defined as fully embracing and implementing the Hannover Principles and the principles of a circular economy, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

  • Decision-making is to favor long-term goals and thinking over short-term goals or opportunities. Continuous innovation includes making choices within existing constraints today that do not inhibit or delay better solutions when they become available.

  • Decision-making is to include thoughtful consideration of all people and species of this, past, and future generations, especially when their interests are not directly represented.

  • Everything is interconnected. Any changes to activities of the network are to be evaluated for their anticipated impacts and potential unintended impacts (beneficial, benign, and adverse) on the rest of the network and the broader community.

  • True integrated resource management and innovation expands beyond waste resources to include the quality, availability, responsible use, and appropriate valuation of all resources (water, air, energy, etc.).

  • The network is to promote the principles of the Living Building Challenge and the Living Community Challenge for their consistency with circular economy and zero waste, water and energy goals.

  • Inspiration is key. As a vanguard to promote behavioral transformation globally, network activities are to include opportunities for human inspiration and education, celebrating their roots in reimagining waste.

  • A primary goal of the network is to create circular economic value and jobs, locally and regionally. Decisions should strengthen the market-based environment and symbiotic relationships, and emphasize regional solutions.

  • Perfect solutions and an imperfect world often collide. Transparency about those collisions and the results and lessons learned provide enormous educational opportunities to devise better solutions for others and for the future. The network is to promote open communication and transparent knowledge sharing.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rajesh Buch
    • 1
    Email author
  • Dan O’Neill
    • 1
  • Cassandra Lubenow
    • 1
  • Mara DeFilippis
    • 1
  • Michael Dalrymple
    • 1
  1. 1.Walton Sustainability Solutions InitiativesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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