In­no­va­tion lab project plans to ‘look at waste dif­fer­ently’ in city

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Local - BY LEAH ASMELASH las­me­[email protected]­lot­teob­ Leah Asmelash: 704-358-5590; @as­me­leah

Victoria John­son sees the side of Char­lotte most peo­ple pre­fer not to think about – the trash.

As di­rec­tor of Solid Waste Ser­vices, she’s seen the city’s garbage in­crease by 7 per­cent in the last two years. Char­lotte pro­duces 337,211 tons of waste a year – a num­ber that in­cludes garbage, re­cy­cling and yard waste – a record num­ber for the city.

It’s not just the city’s rapid pop­u­la­tion growth, she said. Peo­ple also have more money, and higher in­comes mean more stuff, which means more waste.

But now Char­lotte has an idea to help ease the area’s grow­ing land­fills.

In the city’s 2018-19 bud­get, passed ear­lier last month, the coun­cil al­lot­ted $2 mil­lion for im­prove­ments to a barn in the Bel­mont neigh­bor­hood – a 36,000-square­foot space that the city wants to turn into an in­no­va­tion lab for trash.

It’s called the “cir­cu­lar econ­omy ini­tia­tive,” a push to move the city to­ward zero waste by turn­ing prod­ucts like plas­tic or pa­per into some­thing use­ful.

Coun­cil mem­ber Dim­ple Ajmera, chair of the coun­cil’s en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mit­tee, said the city’s long-term goal is to pro­duce zero car­bon emis­sions by 2030, and be over­all sus­tain­able by 2050.

The City Coun­cil unan­i­mously ap­proved a res­o­lu­tion to move the city in that di­rec­tion on Mon­day. The res­o­lu­tion is broad in its scope, but there isn’t a spe­cific plan in place to meet the goal. The lab ap­pears to be a first step.

“The in­no­va­tion lab, once it’s im­ple­mented, is go­ing to help put this idea into ac­tion,” she said.

Ajmera used the ex­am­ple of turn­ing tires, which can take about 80 years to de­com­pose in a land­fill, into shoes. These are the kinds of projects the in­no­va­tion lab will de­velop, she said.

The barn won’t just be a lab, said Amy Aussieker, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit En­vi­sion Char­lotte, which is lead­ing the project. The build­ing will also fea­ture a 6,000square-foot event space that res­i­dents can rent and a restau­rant spe­cial­iz­ing in cre­at­ing dishes from food that would have been thrown away at gro­cery stores or other places.

The restau­rant and event space are in­tended to bring in rev­enue, Aussieker said, but most of the build­ing will be ded­i­cated to of­fice and en­tre­pre­neur­ial space for busi­nesses or sci­en­tists to use. She said the goal is to have mi­cro-grants to fund some of the projects and help them grow.

“The ma­jor­ity of it will be fo­cused on how do we cre­ate prod­ucts us­ing the waste stream,” she said.

Among the tenants, UNC Char­lotte is al­ready com­mit­ted and will have class­rooms in the new lab.

These are just the first steps. Aussieker said her goal is that the restau­rant would open first at the be­gin­ning of the year, be­fore the lab be­comes fully op­er­a­tional later. UNC Char­lotte is ex­pect- ed to hold its first classes there in the sum­mer or fall of 2019.

The lab will be­gin with only small-scale ex­per­i­ments to dis­cover what prod­ucts in Char­lotte’s waste stream are most valu­able – John­son pre­dicts tex­tiles – and how they can be used.

“The whole point of this in­no­va­tion cen­ter will be hav­ing peo­ple step back in this coun­try, in Char­lotte, North Carolina, and look at waste dif­fer­ently,” John­son said. “There’s so much stuff we throw away that can be reused, up­cy­cled, and not be put in a land­fill.”

Though it’s too early to think about selling the prod­ucts, Ajmera said it’s some­thing they could start de­vel­op­ing for the next 20 years.

Ajmera rec­og­nizes that the lab is a sin­gle step, but she said it’s an im­por­tant one for Char­lotte to be­come a glob­ally com­pet­i­tive city and en­sure that res­i­dents live in an en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able and clean city.

“It is a ques­tion of our ex­is­tence,” she said.

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