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Evergreen State + Emerald City = Circular economy

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell talk up a "waste not, want not" economy that lifts all boats, and they seek support to create it.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, left, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, speaking on separate days at the Circularity 23 event.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, left, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, speaking on separate days at the Circularity 23 event. Photos by Burgundy Visuals for GreenBiz

The circular economy offers a unifying framework that advances climate goals, provides opportunity to businesses and communities and might even save civilization, according to two of the most powerful politicians in Washington state. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell last week lauded visions and policies that reflect how circularity, as a foundation for shaping laws and business practices, is inching gradually into the mainstream. The circular economy is the idea that economic activities can eliminate waste and pollution, circulate goods and materials, and regenerate nature. It was first advanced by nonprofit groups and companies striving to cancel the industrial economy's waste, toxicity and abuse of natural resources and communities.

"This is a meeting to determine how we can save humans in civilization for the next several centuries," said Inslee at the Circularity 23 event in Seattle, a city supportive of policies that advance circular economy goals. "There is no more consequential time in our history on Earth and the kind of work that we're doing together."

'This is everything'

The word "economy" is too small for what's at stake, added the three-term governor, the only presidential candidate leading up to the 2020 election whose campaign centered around tackling climate change. "Because we're trying to build a system that won't destroy the Earth as we know it. This is everything. This is whether we're going to have glaciers on Mount Rainier, whether we have salmon in our rivers … And we need to think of the economy as a tool to preserve the health of our state more than an end itself."

This is everything. This is whether we're going to have glaciers on Mount Rainier, whether we have salmon in our rivers.

In addition, Inslee advocated for applying the lens of circularity beyond the flows of molecules in material goods to services such as energy. For Inslee, that means embracing renewable energy while phasing out fossil fuels, which create pollution and harm communities.

"I think we have to have an equal emphasis on a circular energy economy," he noted. "And I say that because that's the ultimate way we're going to save ourselves from climate change."

In the Emerald City

In a separate speech, Harrell described the city's track record as an international leader in waste management, water stewardship, environmental justice and climate policies. "We clearly are striving for a circular economy, where materials, water and resources are valued, there's nothing ... wasted," he said. Harrell lauded efforts by Iceland, for example, to advance circularity and create jobs.

"This work we're doing in the circular economy is going to be one of our most unifying elements in our country,” he said. “We have the potential to generate billions of dollars in cost savings and economic development, economic benefits, if we do this right."

This a unifying element across all cultures.

The circular economy offers a "path of commonality" for people of different backgrounds, according to the 57th mayor, who grew up in Seattle identifying as "a biracial kid" with African-American and Japanese-American parents. "And I will share with you this desire, this patent to establish a circular economy in everything that we do: waste not, want not, to create a green economy, and save money and create jobs and not hurt business ... This a unifying element across all cultures."

State of circularity

Seattle and Washington state have become hubs that stand out nationally for public policies and private activities that support the circular economy principles of eliminating waste, thinking beyond recycling and embracing environmental equity.

Harrell mentioned the following developments in his city:

  • His One Seattle Climate Justice Agenda centers on a "climate-forward future" that builds a clean energy economy, transitions away from fossil fuels and invests in communities. Central to these efforts is the recognition that past and present social inequities leave underserved communities more vulnerable to climate-change impacts. It "is not just about environmental sustainability but again, supporting jobs, supporting business, supporting entrepreneurship. It's our opportunity to build these equitable green jobs we're all talking about," Harrell said. The One Seattle Climate Portal keeps track of the city’s work toward a "just transition" and provides quarterly updates to Seattleites about emissions from transportation and buildings where they live, as required by the city’s Green New Deal, passed in 2020.
  • Alongside scores of other cities, as a member of the C40 network Seattle espouses the network’s goals of aligning with the Paris Agreement, committing to halve its emissions by 2030 and furthering inclusive, equitable and environmentally sound communities.
  • Harrell also recalled working as an elected Seattle City Council member with businesses toward passing plastics laws in 2021 that include one of the nation’s first bans on polystyrene packing peanuts coming into effect this year. In 2024, disposable coolers and to-go containers will also be banned.

Inslee highlighted the following activities related to a circular economy in the Evergreen State:

  • The NextCycle Washington Circular Accelerator launched in 2022 to give seed funding and developmental support for early-stage companies advancing circular solutions.
  • Washington has passed extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws making businesses responsible for helping to manage waste from the electronics, pharmaceuticals, batteries and paint they sell. Inslee encouraged the audience to revive the "granddaddy" or "grandmother" of an EPR law, the Washington Recycling And Packaging Act (WRAP) Act. The bill, which would have established a 10-cent container deposit and made packaging brands, retailers and manufacturers pay toward residential packaging and paper recycling services across the state, failed to move forward this spring. EPR laws have passed recently in Maine, California, Colorado and Oregon. They are intended to incentivize companies to produce less packaging material while shifting the responsibility for recycling away from consumers.
  • Next year, a new Center for Sustainable Food Management will open to divert excess food from businesses to organizations that distribute it to people in need.
  • The Washington Recycling Development Center kicked off in 2019 to clean up waste streams and boost recycling markets after China began refusing to buy recyclable materials from abroad. The state’s recycling rate has held steady at close to 50 percent for about a decade. (The national average, according to 2018 figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is 32 percent.)
  • A cap-and-invest package, passed in 2021, sets the state on course to net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. It includes a low carbon fuel standard and a central ban on a new introduction of natural gas infrastructure. Inslee urged Circularity 23 attendees to support similar rules in other states. "There's a law in physics — when you're in a hole, stop digging," he said. "We should not be hooking more things up to dirty gas in this state and in this country."

In Inslee's presidential bid, the four pillars of "Jay’s Climate Mission" included powering the economy with clean energy; investing in "good jobs, infrastructure and innovation," "fighting for environmental justice and economic inclusion" and "ending fossil fuel giveaways." He has been acknowledged for early and consistent advocacy around climate action and environmental justice. Inslee’s book, "Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy," came out in 2009.

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