Community Leaders Seek to Build More Sustainable, Circular Economies

Leaders from the public and private sectors explain how they are partnering with local communities to advance circular economies in the United States.


Air Date: November 17, 2021

Moderator: Julie Gehrki, Vice President of Philanthropy, Walmart

Featured Guests: Gena McKinley, Strategic Initiatives Division Manager, City of Austin, Texas, Emily Yates, Smart City Director, City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, John Kotlarczyk, Senior Director of Corporate Social Responsibility & Waste Reduction, Walgreens

The growing environmental impact of climate change is prompting leaders around the world to address excessive waste production in their communities. In the pursuit of more sustainable modes of production and consumption, leaders from the public and private sectors are partnering together to advance circular economies in the United States.

Several leaders in the movement toward circular economies joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation for a conversation about building more sustainable communities through partnerships and collaboration across the country.

Local Communities Must Drive the Creation of Circular Economies

When it comes to designing new sustainability initiatives, the panelists emphasized the importance of listening to the needs of local communities.

Gena McKinley, strategic initiatives division manager for the City of Austin, Texas, described how the city surveyed community members when implementing its new Universal Recycling Ordinance, which helps Austin toward its "zero waste" goal.

“We took months, really years, having conversations with folks that are impacted by [the] potential requirements,” she said.

For John Kotlarczyk, senior director of corporate social responsibility and waste reduction at Walgreens, strategic planning means, “being able to talk with people that are on the ground there and trying to figure out … where their city wants to go.”

“The community is the center of what we do,” he added.

Collaborative Partnerships Are the Key to Innovation

According to the panelists, collaboration with other leaders and community partners is what drives the innovative strategies required to build circular economies.

“We have a ton of resources in Philadelphia,” said Emily Yates, smart city director for the City of Philadelphia. “So [we have] the ability to really tap into those organizations and universities that we have to drive this innovative thought. ... We want people to be innovative and come up with creative ways to use them and maintain their highest value for as long as possible.”

“We didn't create all the problems we're dealing with on our own ... and we're not going to solve them on our own,” Kotlarczyck added. “So that piece of collaboration is key to us.”

Partnerships Can Improve the Sustainability of Policy Initiatives

Yates emphasized how partnerships also improve the sustainability of policy initiatives by enabling collaborators to combine resources in service of a shared objective.

“Partnerships are critical because it goes beyond the city’s ability to sustain,” said Yates. “A lot of people think that cities have these bottomless buckets of money and [the] capacity to just do anything that the city needs, and it's so far from the truth. So for us, that's going to be a huge way that we tap into partnerships.”

Circular Economies Demand a Data-Driven Approach

For city leaders looking to launch their own circular economies, the panelists agreed that initiatives should be data-driven.

“Start with your data,” McKinley advised. “What’s being generated? How much? By who? Where is it flowing? Look at that.”

Yates agreed, noting that data is critical to circular economy initiatives.

“You can’t go anywhere without knowing what you're trying to fix,” Yates said. “You're going to encounter a lot of people who don't understand the … relevance of it, but somebody will.”


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