Welcome to Part I 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.
As part of the funding Circular Philadelphia received from the Claneil Foundation, a certain amount was allocated to “staff development and wellness.” So Sam and Nic said to each other, “Should we go to some training sessions? Should we do yoga every week?” Although they both believe in taking care of their mind and body, they were more curious about what’s happening with circularity in other cities. So they pitched the idea of the Circular Cities Road Trip to the board and received a resounding YES!
The Journey Begins
The trip started in Pittsburgh where Nic and Sam have had circular economy and zero waste connections for some time. And what better place to start than with the other major city in the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?
After a lovely drive out I-76, Nic and Sam made it in time to get to Covestro – an industrial company that produces precursors for polyurethane foams and high-performance plastic polycarbonate as well as precursors for coatings, adhesives, sealants, and specialty products, including plastic films. We met Tim Thiel, who works in Sustainability and Public Affairs at Covestro. Tim walked us through Covestro’s partnership with the University of Pittsburgh to develop the Covestro Circular Economy Certificate Program as part of the university’s engineering department. To date, Covestro has funded three PHD’s to attain this certificate and create the next generation of designers who have the incredible opportunity to not just transform the look and feel of products, but how they are holistically designed to ensure reuse and material recovery. These learnings are something Circular Philadelphia looks forward to discussing with our corporate and industrial partners in Philly.
Deconstructing Houses and Building Community
Nic and Sam woke up the next morning and had breakfast at their hotel on the beautiful Monongahela River. Of course, they were delighted to take in Pittsburgh’s beauty as well as its circularity. That theme continued at their first stop that morning when they met up with Terry Wiles of Construction Junction and Andrew Ellsworth of Doors Unhinged. Sam and Nic are no strangers to warehouses for materials recovery. But they were blown away by (and made note of to Terry and Andrew) the organization, presentation and scale of the materials that Construction Junction has received from the Greater Pittsburgh residential and business community either through drop-offs, pick-ups or deconstruction services since opening in 1999.
This compliment prompted Terry and Andrew to jump in the air and high five as they both know how critical it is to present a quality product when it comes to salvaged materials. As a testament to that presentation, Construction Junction did a staggering $1.9 million in retail sales in 2022.
Doors Unhinged is a more focused project that concentrates on collecting doors from large commercial projects and then selling them to other large commercial projects. This concentration creates a consistency and quality that has allowed Doors Unhinged to expand and thrive in the Western PA region and beyond. And talk about organization – you should see how well Andrew organizes the lock sets he removes from the doors!
With the day flying by, they knew they needed to check in with their friends in city government. Nic had worked with the City’s Anti-Litter Specialist Chris Mitchell and Recycling Specialist Omoye Aikhuele for a few years, and was excited to be joined by the Pittsburgh Office of Sustainability Resilience’s Aftyn Giles. What’s so remarkable about public service is that both the challenges and opportunities can be instructive and helpful. In regards to challenges, Pittsburgh recently had a mayoral change that brought in a new set of priorities. As a result, the team in Pittsburgh has worked to adapt their messaging to the new mayor’s focus on fighting poverty and historical racial divides by aligning their sustainability initiatives with the mayor’s mission.
And in regards to opportunities, the City team has many allies such as long-term composting company AgRecycle, Construction Junction (where the City hosts a materials drop-off), Sustainable Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Resources Council that is helping address the lack of glass recycling in the region. The Pittsburgh Environmental Services and Sustainability teams partnership is a great example of addressing immediate needs of residents while setting up a more sustainable and circular future; it reminded Nic of the good old days of the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet.
Glass is Too Good to Waste
And no good visit is complete without donning a hard hat and getting out in the field. Circular Philadelphia has been communicating with the Pennsylvania Resources Council for two years now about their glass drop-off sites, and it was incredible to finally get a tour from Sarah Alessio Shea. As mentioned above, many haulers and recycling processors with contracts in Allegheny County stopped taking glass in single stream recycling in 2018. To fill this huge gap, the PRC created an innovative program where they place glass recycling bins in strategic locations throughout the county to collect glass.
The collection point Circular Philadelphia visited was appropriately placed in a parking lot right next to a PA Fine Wine and Spirits store among other chain stores. During the visit, a person dropped off glass and – without knowing who was there on-site – started talking about how great the program is. The program is made even better by a partnership with Michael Brothers, a single-stream recycling processor that, as of this month, also began processing construction and demolition recycling, thereby filling a major gap as there are no C&D recyclers in western PA.
At Michael Brothers, we met Boyd Jones, who reminded Nic and Sam of CP’s favorite recyclers in Philly. He’s a guy who genuinely loves his job of collecting and sorting materials to keep them out of the landfill. His and Sarah’s passion for the work really shone through with a program that is serving a huge need in the Pittsburgh area. We hope to bring something similar to the Philly region, too, as we face similar glass recycling challenges. Stay tuned!
You’d think Nic and Sam would be spent after a day so action packed. But not those two. They hopped right in the car and drove two and a half hours to Cleveland, getting in with only five minutes to spare before most restaurants closed. (But don’t worry, they managed to sneak in a great meal and a couple of really nice Old Fashioneds).
Continue reading Part II of this two-part series to learn more about the important circularity work happening in Cleveland.