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Thursday, June 20, 2024

NC trend: Charlotte group shows environmental leadership through attainable projects.

Charlotte’s 100 Gardens, which grows kale, lettuce and other leafy greens, was a natural fit to lease space at the Innovation Barn incubator for environmentally conscious enterprises.  The 400-foot space is plenty for the nonprofit vegetable grower, which sells or donates its products to local restaurants.

“It is a perfect match because we can have a public-facing facility that we can use for a variety of different reasons,” says Sam Fleming, 100 Garden’s executive director. “And they (Innovation Barn) can use us as an educational partner.”

Innovation Barn is part of Envision Charlotte, a public-private entity founded in 2011 when Center City Partners, Cisco, the city of Charlotte and Duke Energy wanted to boost awareness of sustainability initiatives. The goal is for the Queen City to be an environmental leader.

The effort has attracted considerable notice. In 2014 and 2020, Envision Charlotte’s projects were selected as finalists at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona. In October, Newsweek named it one of five cities worldwide making waves in sustainability, citing the group’s involvement in what insiders call “the circular economy.” That is shorthand for eliminating waste through creative recycling, rather than just pitching stuff in the trash.

DIVERTING FROM THE LANDFILL

Envision Charlotte’s first project in 2011 was an energy efficiency program for uptown’s largest buildings. Sixty-one buildings with a combined 23 million square feet of office
space signed up, allowing meters to be installed that helped track energy usage. Over five years, the program delivered an average reduction in energy use of 19%, just shy of the project’s 20% goal.

“It was this first project that put us on the international map because we used data and technology to drive efficiency and sustainability,” says Amy Aussieker, Envision Charlotte’s executive director since 2013.

Envision Charlotte’s focus has shifted to promoting “zero waste” by diverting concrete and demolition materials, organics, plastics and textiles from the landfill. By partnering with businesses, nonprofits, universities and utilities, the efforts promote innovation and job creation, says Aussieker, a former business consultant and marketing executive at the Charlotte Chamber.

Among Innovation Barn’s projects, it recently has been collecting can carriers from local breweries. The barn’s plastics lab grinds down the carriers and molds them into bricks, furniture or tiles. It’s among several experiments to see what can be done with plastic.

 “We are trying to look at the items the city of Charlotte already buys that we can produce instead of buying,” Aussieker says. “Like the water meter cover ­— it’s just a molded piece. Why aren’t we doing that with our excess plastic?”

Last year, Envision Charlotte began collecting glass bottles from the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. Three tons of glass were crushed, sifted and broken into five levels of sand and used as an aggregate in concrete. A local company, Resource Flooring, is using the recycled product for construction projects, while making donations to Envision Charlotte. The arena hopes to use the processed glass as a concrete aggregate in upcoming projects.

“We’re thinking about putting this (machinery) into a shipping container and making it mobile in the community,” Aussieker says. “We can have little pods around the community, bringing jobs and taking care of the glass in those areas.”

Envision Charlotte’s team operates the labs and projects, serves as the property manager and provides educational tours and field trips for more than 100 visitors a week. Last year, 3,500 volunteers worked on Innovation Barn projects, including an Earth Week community sanitation program called “Clean
the Queen.”

Envision Charlotte operates with a $900,000 annual budget, aided by a mix of public and private sponsors.  Corporate backers include Coca-Cola Consolidated, Duke Energy, Ikea and Lowe’s. Mecklenburg County budgets $75,000 a year for the Innovation Barn’s educational center, exhibits and kiosks. The U.S. Conference of Mayors made a $250,000 grant last year, while individuals kicked in about $12,000.

The Innovation Barn building is next to the city’s Solid Waste Services Department, and is leased for $1 a year. Six businesses and five nonprofits occupy space at the Innovation Barn, paying $8 to $15 per square foot in monthly rent.

BUILDING A REPUTATION

Aussieker envisions a future in which the circular economy is much more ingrained. In 2015, she invited 10 cities, chosen through an application process, to participate in workshops to learn how to launch a similar program in their own regions.

In 2017, she took a group of city leaders including the city manager, mayor pro tem and solid waste manager, to Amsterdam, Barcelona and Rotterdam, to see how the European cities manage waste. “In the U.S., we have a ton of land, so we dig a big hole and throw it in there,” she says. “But in Europe, they don’t have the land, plus they have more progressive policies.”

In February, Envision Charlotte hosted a two-day conference on the circular economy that attracted 110 representatives from California, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee. The gathering featured the leader of Netherlands-based Metabolic, a consulting business that champions sustainability with a holistic approach and helps clients set zero-waste goals.

Envision Charlotte recognizes it needs long-term partnerships with funding attached to projects, says Jennifer Grabenstetter, an Envision Charlotte board member and a local technology and marketing consultant. If the program is of value, companies will pay for services that include generating jobs and providing training and skills development, she says.

Jobs created through Envision Charlotte support the 2050 Circular Charlotte vision to be a more equitable, sustainable community, says Danielle Frazier, special assistant to the city
manager for workforce development.

 “We were the first city in the United States to make that political commitment to a circular economy as a municipal strategy,” says Frazier, who is a board member of the nonprofit. “We have a number of organizations and municipalities that flock to the city of Charlotte to ask, ‘How did you do it? How can we make it happen in our communities?’ I think that speaks to the leadership and where we are and where we are going.”

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