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Issues of the Environment: Improving our environment with the use of a 'circular economy'

City of Ann Arbor sustainability and innovations manager Missy Stults
City of Ann Arbor
City of Ann Arbor sustainability and innovations manager Missy Stults


  • Ann Arbor wants residents to get used to finding ways to extend the life of household goods such as toys, clothing, vehicles and bikes, furniture, and appliances by sharing, lending, repairing, and reusing them. At present, 67% of Washtenaw County waste ends up in Wayne County! (Source: https://www.a2gov.org/departments/sustainability/Sustainability-Me/Pages/Circular-Economy.aspx) The “circular economy” fights against the “global extractive economy and the continued push toward greater consumption. Put simply, a circular economy is a system designed to reuse materials continuously.”  (Source: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/13/6/3157/htm)
  • The City of Ann Arbor has committed to a just and equitable transition to community-wide carbon neutrality by 2030. One of the seven strategies is “Changing the Way We Use, Reuse, and Dispose of Materials”, including the action: “move toward a circular economy”. Many cities are trying to move towards a circular economy, tailoring policies, actions, and outreach towards their unique circumstances. Regardless of context, becoming circular requires an array of actions including collaboration and partnership, policy setting, program development, and education.  (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/13/6/3157/htm)
  • It’s all part of growing an ethos about how we think about and use “stuff”, which supports Strategy 5 of Ann Arbor’s A2Zero Carbon Neutrality plan. This strategy reduces the amount of single-use items and keeps usable items out of the landfill. To find resources the city has created this map of the locations in our community that support the circular economy and zero waste initiatives, which so far include a number of thrift stores and reuse retail stores, libraries, trade schools, repair shops, and social-environmental access points for community centers and shared spaces. 
  • Ann Arbor is also promoting locals who demonstrate best practices for the circular economy in a series of short videos on CTN (channel 16) called, Stories of Circularity. The first episode in the series features El Harissa, an Ann Arbor restaurant at the cutting edge of a zero-waste take-out system. Ann Arbor’s Reduce, Reuse, Return (A2R3) is a returnable container program, currently in the second pilot phase. It aims to reduce the amount of waste produced by restaurants in our community by providing restaurant patrons with reusable, returnable take-out containers through a network of participating locations across Ann Arbor.
  • Missy Stults, Sustainability and Innovations Manager for the City of Ann Arbor, says that, in the year ahead, the city is going to put together “swap days”, reuse systems, and seek input from the public about how to make the circular economy accessible for daily life. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to Issues of the Environment. Some of us are still weeding through the remnants of the holidays. The kids and grandkids have new clothes and toys, and unfortunately, a lot of what it replaces is going to end up in the waste stream. The City of Ann Arbor is working to create systems that will reduce, reuse, and return those materials to productive use and keep them out of the landfills. It is the basis for what the experts call the "circular economy". Our guest today happens to be one of those experts. Missy Stults is the City of Ann Arbor's Sustainability and Innovations Manager. And welcome back to WEMU, Missy.

Missy Stults: Thanks so much, Dave. Great to be with you.

David Fair: One of the great things about a curbside waste management system is convenience. You set it out, and it's gone. One of the downsides is it leads to kind of an out of sight, out of mind mentality. So, for a little perspective, most all of Ann Arbor's trash goes to landfills in Wayne County, right?

Missy Stults That's right. About 67% of the waste that we generate has over 200,000 wastes in Wayne County.

David Fair: And landfills. They obviously produce a great deal of methane. Much of what is burned off further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. And those emissions, they don't recognize municipal boundaries. What's bad for Wayne County is bad for Washtenaw County. Now that sounds contrary to the A2Zero plan to get Ann Arbor to carbon neutrality by 2030, right?

Missy Stults: That's exactly right. And I would just note that for those who aren't familiar, Ann Arbor actually has a capped landfill within our own boundaries. We don't send any waste there now. But we did for a very long time. And just like most landfills, if you look at where our landfill is located, it's adjacent to primarily low-income BIPOC, Black, indigenous and people of color neighborhood.

David Fair: And the air quality is worse.

Missy Stults: Exactly. That's correct.

David Fair: So, before we get into the role of the circular economy and the Ann Arbor plan, how exactly do you define the circular economy?

Missy Stults: Good question. I think this is often easier to think about in contrast to the linear economy, which is how you led in this section. It's where we buy something, we use something, we enjoy something, and then we discard something. And it goes to that landfill or to an incinerator. It just sort of disappears. But, of course, it never actually disappears right? It's a very linear process. A circular economy, in contrast to that, is about keeping things in circulation--in the circle. We think of that as an economic system that returns to a culture of reclaiming products and materials, rather than sending them out for disposal. And the purpose of that system is really to let no thing, place, or even person be treated as disposable.

David Fair: You are listening to Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking about further development of the circular economy in Ann Arbor with Missy Stults. She is the city's sustainability and innovations manager. And based on how you just described the circular economy, what is required in the next few years in terms of policy and action to better support that economy is one of the seven primary strategies in achieving carbon neutrality?

Missy Stults: There's a lot of work that's going to go into this one. I would just point out that we are starting a community engagement strategy development to really get the expertise, the opinions, the insights from Ann Arborites--our local business owners and others, in terms of what exactly we need to be doing to support people in making this transition. I can also share that we're highlighting many of the entities that work in the circular economy, and we've got a map on our website that's interactive, and we're always adding to it where you can find those who are promoting food and drinks or our libraries, our repair shops, our thrift stores, our trade schools, our retail shops that are part of the circular economy here now. So, one is let's start by highlighting who's already doing this. Second, let's grow that practice. Let's invite more people into the circular economy. Let's support businesses. And we're working with SPARK to do this to help more existing businesses join the circular economy, but also to launch new businesses that will help us reclaim those goods and those materials. Because, after all, I'm looking at a cell phone at this very moment, and when I don't need the cell phone anymore, there's still a lot of useful material in that cell phone. And if we can generate economic revenue, good paying, family sustaining jobs by taking that material and putting it into productive use, well, that's a win. And that also helps A2Zero and our local quality of life.

David Fair: So, how much success has there been in getting by into the behavioral and procedural changes from business owners and managers in the area to expand this idea of reuse?

Missy Stults: A lot. We have incredible local business owners in Ann Arbor, places like BYOC, Bring Your Own Container, where AMA is doing an extraordinary job educating people about the circular economy and how they can engage in it. One individual protest by one individual action instead of buying. So, at the grocery store you come in and use a refillable container, or we're working with El Harissa and Zingerman's Delicatessen and Ginger Deli to try to do away or at least minimize, to the extent we can, your takeaway containers by using reusable containers in the system. So, we're seeing businesses step up in lots of ways, and that's not even talking about those who are using local food, working with local farmers, and really keeping as much of our dollars in the local economy as we can. So, this is a really...we're seeing a lot of momentum. Every person can be a part of it, whether they own a business, they frequent a business, they choose not to frequent the business. All of that is actually part of the circular economy, too.

David Fair: And I do want to talk about the residential side of things and how each individual can contribute. Once again, we're talking with Ann Arbor's Sustainability and Innovations Manager Missy Stults on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. It is often said that real change starts at home. So, as we explore becoming more participatory, what are some of the easy changes we can make in our households to contribute more significantly?

Missy Stults: Good question. So, it could be as simple as repairing something as opposed to discarding it. We have links to repair clinics and videos on our website, where you can learn how to fix even a coffeemaker or something that might break. It's also about maybe not buying something, but renting it or borrowing it from the libraries. I'm not sure how many people are aware that the library has a really fascinating collection of materials, like energy monitors that you can actually check out and use or tools, so you don't have to go buy a tool that you're going to use for a few hours during the course of the year and then have it sit in your garage. Why not just borrow that and then return it, keep it in circulation broadly? And then, of course, folks can frequent local businesses: going to a local farmer's market, composting, you scrap your yard waste, shopping at a bulk or refill store, or even deciding to forgo a purchase because you really maybe don't need that. It's whatever that thing is that you might be thinking about. And then, if you are going to replace something and that material that you're replacing still has a useful life, donate it instead of putting it into a bin.

David Fair: You mentioned earlier there is a long way to go. So, as we look at the longer term, what are some of the more thoughtful changes that we need to start considering now and then implementing relatively quickly to better support the drive to carbon neutrality?

Missy Stults: Well, I think one is we've got to be able to invest in the businesses that are already here working on the circular economy. And then, we need to send up those other industries, those practices, that allow us to actually repair things. So, in this case, I actually want to point out the Sister Lakes Association on the west side of the community. They actually do this thing called a "swap day," which we're trying to figure out how we can scale throughout the whole city. But they take one day at a given time, and all the residents know about it, and they put all of their materials out on their driveway. And everyone is welcome to take anything that they want right? And the thing that always comes to mind when I think about this example, for me personally, is I have a daughter, and she's growing, right? And so, I have a lot of clothes that she can't wear anymore that are still very, very, very, very good quality. Someone else could use those clothes, but I can't use them anymore. So, you could put that out in this neighborhood swap day. People take what they need, and what's left then gets sent to a reuse center. How do we scale those kinds of practices? Now, there's a kind of technical, logistical challenge to that, but that's surmountable. There's also a cultural challenge, and that's probably the longer-term work that we have to do, which is making it okay again and actually desirable to do reuse as opposed to moving to what we are today, which is pretty consumer fast fashion culture. And then we're going have to do a cultural shift.

David Fair: That is the most difficult component, isn't it? To create the awareness, to educate, and, ultimately, change behavior, which is never easy. So, what is the kind of outreach going to look like as you expand further into this circular economy?

Missy Stults: Extensive and to be determined with more input from the public. So, what I can tell you we will keep doing. I mean, honestly, we want to hear from people, right, to respond in a way that's the most effective to how people want to engage in this space. But we have done these zero-waste, weeklong challenges, and they're very informational, super-engaging, and we've had almost 1000 Ann Arborites participate in those challenges, and we're going to keep doing them. They're very fun. They are really engaging. And they're very educational. We also have to make it really easy for people, right? We have to make it easy to do the right thing and a little bit more challenging to do the thing we don't want you to do. So, we have a lot of work to do to figure out the behavioral change techniques that are going to be effective for Ann Arborites. But that's why I would say, "Look for us in 2023!" A series of public engagement meetings are going to be taking place, and we're going to need the public's input to figure out the best way to collectively achieve those goals.

David Fair: And once these goals are achieved, I think we can all clearly see the environmental benefit to it. What do you see as the economic benefit to Ann Arbor and its residents to a more robust and sustainable circular economy?

Missy Stults: And so, investing in a circular economy means that we're investing in our people and our businesses. It's also about environmental justice. If we think about where our waste goals, we identified it goes to Wayne County. And we know that Wayne County has a larger proportion of Black residents than we have here in Ann Arbor. There is an unequivocal environmental justice component to this work. And if we look at the history of the circular economy, circularity has been in practice for a really long time as part of BIPOC communities. We have a lot to learn and elevate their leadership in this work, and, in fact, that's one of the subprojects we're working on right now. It's working with leaders in the BIPOC circular economy community to understand how we elevate them and their work, so that we can all learn and move quickly together in this space.

David Fair: I thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Missy. I will look forward to following along and having the next conversation in the process.

Missy Stults: Thanks, David. I appreciate it. Thanks, everyone.

David Fair: That is Missy Stults, the City of Ann Arbor Sustainability and Innovations Manager, discussing expanding efforts to create a circular economy and greater sustainability in the community. For more information, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. You hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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