Zero Waste Humboldt⁃ The Circular Economy

by Margaret Gainer

As Humboldt County’s Prosperity Network of government, private, and nonprofit economic development agencies begin working together to rebuild Humboldt County’s economy Zero Waste Humboldt logodamaged by the coronavirus, now is the ideal time to integrate the benefits of the Circular Economy.  Previously referred to as Total Loop Recycling and local recycling market development, it has become popularized in recent years by Ellen MacArthur as the Circular Economy. 

More comprehensive than recyclable materials collection, sustainable materials management and the Circular Economy build economic, natural, and social capital. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation presents its three foundation principles:

  1. Design out waste and pollution
  2. Keep products and materials in use within your regional economy
  3. Regenerate natural systems

In the early 1990’s, California led the nation in legislation that funded Recycling Market Development Zones. Since the economic crash of 2008, these RMDZones in Humboldt and around the state have been defunded.  Creating local end-uses for recyclable/reusable materials by integrating materials into manufacturing products or use as export packaging was once identified as a priority in the Humboldt Prosperity Economic Strategy. It is no longer considered.

What does The Circular Economy look like in the Redwood Coast’s regional economy? Here are just a few examples:

Many of Humboldt’s larger and/or mature businesses have helped start-ups with their discarded equipment, by-products, scraps, and packaging for special niche products.

Beth Kabat and her business, Thimbleberry Threads began in 1981 when she noticed large quantities of fiberfill in Moonstone Mountaineering’s dumpster. She quickly began producing and selling pillows with her signature designs stuffed with the discarded fiberfill. As she travels to fairs and festivals from San Francisco to Seattle, she sleuths the secondhand and thrift stores for fabric materials. For example, quantities of duvet covers and T Shirts with production defects. She’s produced thousands of pillows and her popular zip-bags. During the pandemic, Beth has sewn 1113 masks to-date.

Artist Jenifer Sherman-Ruppe began designing and producing a variety of jewelry in 2018 with small #5 resin plastic bottles. Her business, Plastic Uniquely Recycled (PUR) is supplied by Satori Wellness with gold containers returned by customers; Cloney’s Pharmacy’s discarded prescription bottles; Green’s Pharmacy’s discarded green bottles; and the HSU Health Center’s discarded purple bottles. As with all manufacturers, she must rely on a clean supply with caps and labels removed.  Ten percent of her best-selling on-line item is contributed to support Zero Waste Humboldt’s work.

Several regions around the U.S. have breweries and wineries that successfully operate with returnable, refillable systems so that the bottles never leave the area, are returned, sterilized, and refilled. Much better than recycling, this system for local reuse within the region has a measurably smaller carbon footprint than recycling. ZWH is researching this potential with the assistance of HSU faculty and their students. This would expand the returnable growler system used by It’s Alive Kombucha, Redwood Curtain Brewery, and Bittersweet, just to name a few examples.

J&T’s Molded Plastic Enterprises in Redway has for many years produced plant pots and a variety of other plastic products with recycled plastics through injection molded and blow molded processes.

Recently closed, Fire & Light is still an excellent example of using local recyclable material to produce a high value-added product. Started in 1995 and operated for 25 years, Fire & Light made beautiful tableware from clear recycled glass bottles and jars.

Much of Zero Waste Humboldt’s research has been to assist businesses to integrate proactive waste prevention strategies and discarded materials into their business operations. Collection of recyclable materials without developing local markets does not complete the Circular Economy nor reap the economic and environmental benefits for a recycling system. To learn more, contact zerowastehumboldt@gmail.com . We have a lot of work to do.