Welcome to Part II of a two-part series about Circular Philadelphia leadership’s trip to Pittsburgh and Cleveland as part of several Circular Cities trips to learn more about how different American cities are approaching circularity in an effort to share knowledge and learnings in making the transition to a circular economy. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read Part I of the series about Pittsburgh here.
After an evening arrival in Cleveland on Tuesday, September 19th, Nic and Sam were up bright and early Wednesday morning to meet Cathi Lehn, who serves as Cleveland’s Sustainability Senior Manager for Circular Economy. (Awesome title, right?) From the couple of Zoom calls and incredible itinerary about which you’ll read below, they knew Cathi would be awesome, but their expectations were exceeded exponentially. Cathi reminded Nic of the best of what a city government can offer – employees whose mix of expertise, energy and empathy give you hope for the world.
The Journey Continues
The first stop on the Cleveland tour was the West Side Market, much like Philly’s Reading Terminal, where rows of wholesale and prepared food businesses sell their wares in a beautiful turn of the century building. After a quick tour and having to suppress cravings for every sweet they saw, they went to the West Side Market Cafe for a delicious breakfast and a meeting with Robert Kurtz of Rust Belt Riders. Rust Belt Riders started 10 years ago and even though they’re just slightly younger than Philly composting OG’s Circle Compost and Bennett Compost, the similarities are striking.
Just like their Philly counterparts, they were started by a small group of people who could not accept that food waste was being thrown in the garbage. So they got a few bikes with trailers (hence “riders” in their title) and started collecting compost from residents. Now they serve 3,000 residents and a handful of businesses, including the Cleveland West Side Market where the Circular Cleveland team leveraged grant money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to provide vendors with bins that the Rust Belt Riders service.
The crew met one vendor on our walk out, and he could not speak more highly of the program and how it serves his commitment to composting. Another great innovation provided by the Rust Belt Riders is drop-off locations around Cleveland where residents can access secured bins at strategic locations to drop off compost rather than have it picked up. Cathi is an avid user of these locations. Maybe if Circular Philadelphia is successful in our vacant land activation policy, our local composters can do the same?
A Catalyst for Change in Cleveland
It was at this point that Nic, Sam and Cathi were also joined by Divya Sridhar from Cleveland Neighborhood Progress. Even though she’s technically the organization’s Manager for Climate Resiliency and Sustainability, she’s known throughout Cleveland and nationally as the catalyst for Circular Cleveland. And it shows. Everywhere we went, Divya was greeted by a hug and an update on some type of circular initiative.
After leaving the cafe, the next stop was the Cleveland Central Kitchen to meet the director Eric Diamond. At first glance, the Cleveland Central Kitchen seems like one of the many shared commercial kitchen spaces in Philly, albeit much bigger. But when you dig into the mission, it’s so much more. With Eric’s business acumen and vision, the Cleveland Central Kitchen was a victim of their own success.Two of the hundreds of brands they have incubated over the past decade, Cleveland Kraut and Garden of Flavor, are now national brands with tens of millions of dollars in sales and have basically taken over the whole facility, leaving precious little space for incubating new food ventures.
So as Eric told this story and the success, Nic joked that he thought Eric was going to end the story with, “So, I just made a bunch of money and am about to retire, so thanks for coming.” But instead, Eric is investing the success of Cleveland Central Kitchen into a new facility where they will continue to share resources and space to further grow Cleveland’s regional food system, which is an imperative for a circular economy.
Before lunch in AsiaTown, Nic and Sam were told that they needed to make a pit stop at the Rebuilders Xchange to meet Jessica Davis. At any other place, 15 minutes would not be enough time. But with Jessica’s high energy and fast paced way of talking (Nic and Sam felt at home being from Philly), she explained their innovative business model where the Rebuilders Xchange acts as the consignment space for salvagers throughout the region.
Much like Construction Junction in Pittsburgh, the facility is extremely well-organized and appealing for a shopper. But all items are tagged with info that connects all sales back to the salvager who provided the material. All items come as-is – with certain condition standards for items to qualify for consignment – but they also have space in the back of the shop where staff from the Rebuilders Xchange will further refurbish an item at a client’s request for a fee. This was an incredible example of how to run a physical location salvage marketplace while involving the community to build your stock. There are examples of this throughout Philly, such as Thunderbird Salvage, and it would be great if they were in a space as large as the Rebuilders Xchange space. Perhaps that’s something Circular Philadelphia can help with?
The Next Generation of Circularity
Upon making it back to the restaurant, Cathi and Marina Marquez of the Cleveland Public Library had already gotten everyone a table. Over a lunch of delicious Thai food, Marina described the remarkable things the Cleveland Public Library is doing to promote circularity. A library is one of the original examples of circularity, but Cleveland has extended this concept to incorporate sewing machines and repair fairs at their library branches. Although we love the multi-use nature of our rec centers in Philly, it was eye-opening how much more we could engage in our libraries beyond books. We know many branches have directors who are doing this independently in Philly, but it would be great to see Philly library leadership invest in circularity the way Cleveland’s leadership is doing. Marina is a great example of a leader with strategic vision.
After a big meal, Nic and Sam were happy to be told that they were going to stretch their legs. But they were even happier to learn that they were going to do it at what has been called Cleveland’s Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone by Burton, Bell, Carr – a local Community Development Corporation (CDC). There they met Randy McShepard of the Rid-All Green Partnership. Not only was walking around good for energy levels, but Randy’s infectious enthusiasm for urban gardening and life in general was exhilarating. Right away he launched into the history of the neighborhood, which was once a thriving, majority Black neighborhood that fell on hard times after local industry left the area and became so abandoned that there were literally acres of vacant lots.
In 2009, while working at a think tank, Randy authored a paper on how the subprime mortgage foreclosure crisis would further devastate distressed communities. One way he thought that this could be avoided was using the foreclosed land for urban agriculture. Always wanting to provide a solution to a problem, Randy rounded up two other childhood friends to help. One was a vegan and the other a contractor (we know this sounds like the beginning of a joke) who both connected with urban farming and composting guru Will Allen, took his course and convinced the City to give them the land for an urban agriculture project. Rid-All Green Partnership was born.
Today, Rid-All Green hosts a community composting site, greenhouses of fresh fruits and veggies, a veterans healing garden and an aquaponics operation that yields 70,000 lbs. of tilapia each year that they sell to area grocers to help fund the non-profit. While there, the tour also met a group of young activists building what they call a POD (Prolific Oxygen Dome), which is a geodesic dome that houses sound and plant meditation for healing from trauma in the neighborhood.
A Community Tapestry
With the day fading, Cathi took Nic and Sam to their last stop at Cleveland Sews where they ended the day at what could have been a mini-conference. Cleveland Sews Executive Director Sharie Renee hosted everyone in Cleveland Sews’ beautiful and airy facility. Cleveland Sews is a leader in workforce development training and reusing discarded fabrics, like banners from the 2021 NFL draft held in Cleveland, to make repurposed products for sale. (Check out Nic and Sam with their matching bags!)
Also joining the textile conversation was Paula Coggins, Executive Director of Oh Sew Powerful Inc., which provides intergenerational programming that engages participants in sewing as an activity to find common ground and create friendships between the young and the old. You should have seen how Sam, a sewist herself, lit up as she toured the facilities and heard the stories. Nic could have come back the next day to pick her up and she’d still be hanging out with Sharie and Paula and talking about sewing.
Nic and Sam were also introduced to Kristy Fann who serves as a Circular Cleveland Ambassador in the Stockyards neighborhood of Cleveland. Ambassadors work in their communities to connect people to circularity opportunities in their neighborhoods. This was possibly one of the coolest aspects of Circular Cleveland. Grants of up to $5,000 are available for grassroots projects led by residents and are all made possible through a partnership with the non-profit Neighborhood Connections. Executive Director, Tom O’Brien, joined the conversation and was a good sport, explaining the opportunities while those in attendance playfully peppered him with suggestions of what he could fund next. This mini-grantmaking spurs circularity at the neighborhood level and is definitely something Circular Philadelphia can learn from.
If you made it this far in this blog post, you’re probably as blissfully exhausted as Nic and Sam were. But there was one more stop, which Sam and Nic would never turn down – dinner at Great Lakes Brewing Company to meet Cleveland’s Recycling Director Orensel Brumfield, or as he’s better known, Ren. Right away, Nic felt a certain kinship with Ren as they both connected on the highs and lows of getting a whole City to adopt zero waste and circularity practices.
For Ren and the City of Cleveland, effective messaging is a major part of what they need to get people to make the connections between recycling and zero waste and continue to find opportunities for upstream circularity solutions. But as Nic and Sam can both attest, they have high hopes for Cleveland after seeing just how well Cathi and Ren work together to envision a more circular future for Cleveland.
The End (For Now)
So at the end of this, you may be asking yourself a lot of questions. But there’s one in particular we do hope you’re asking: if this is the Pittsburgh/Cleveland edition, what’s next? Well, glad you asked. Sam and Nic are in the process of planning a trip to visit fellow circularity leaders in Austin, Houston and San Antonio for another Circular Cities tour in January. As Cathi, Divya, Nic and Sam all agreed after the tour of Cleveland was through, it’s remarkable that so many cities are doing meaningful things to build a local circular economy. How powerful would it be if we all self-organized into a network of organizations and city government officials doing this work to share resources and make the connections to strengthen this movement nationally?
Maybe one day we’ll be posting a blog about just such an endeavor. But for now, we hope you enjoyed these tales from the road. And we can’t wait to share what Circular Philadelphia learns deep in the heart of Texas.
Thanks for taking this trip with us. If you missed Part I of this series, you can read all about the Pittsburgh leg of the trip here.