A tractor turns yard waste at The Food Project farm in Lincoln. (Photo: Alex Pogany)

After a year of research, an initiative to create a greener economy in Cambridge was presented in June, though it is unclear what concrete plans will come out of the effort and some said they worried that the initiative wouldn’t make it off the drawing board.

The “Circular Economy” project aims to apply a “reduce, reuse, recycle” principle throughout city business. “A circular economy can basically be boiled down to ‘It’s good to reuse things,’” city councillor Patty Nolan said June 15, during a hearing of the council’s Economic Development and University Relations Committee where the report was introduced.

Even short-term actions and pilot programs won’t be identified until the fall, according to the report’s discussion of next steps. Consulting with local businesses and organizations, though advocated for throughout the report, will not begin for several months.

Pardis Saffari, director of economic development in Cambridge, hopes that the recommendations will be transformed into action this fiscal year. “We will continue to review the recommendations from the consultant and the draft report. We will also continue engaging our local businesses and business organizations to understand their priorities,” she said.

The city has already undertaken at least one initiative under the banner of a circular economy: In November 2020, with its yard waste collection contractor Save That Stuff, it partnered with The Food Project – a nonprofit with Lincoln farmland – to send 70 tons of leaves from Cambridge for curing and spreading as compost. A city press release in October called it “a significant [test of] creating a more circular economy while supporting the nonprofit’s mission to build a more sustainable food system and feed those in need.”

That was before the formal launch of the Circular Economy project in early 2021, an initiative of the Community Development Department “to develop a strategy of best-practice policies and programs that will support and enhance the overall health, well-being and environment in Cambridge,” said Lisa Hemmerle, former director of the CDD.

To pinpoint best practices for a more viable local economy, the department hired Metabolic, a Dutch consulting group. Working with two other consulting firms, Pyrexa and Circular Matters, the consultants conducted some community interviews and reviewed Cambridge’s current sustainability efforts.

Andrew McCue, a consultant for Metabolic, led the June meeting. After researching Cambridge’s strengths and weaknesses as a green economy, Metabolic was able to home in on opportunities for growth, he said.

Ideas in five areas

Suggestions fall across five main themes: investing in green infrastructure, reusing materials, supporting sustainable businesses, raising public and professional awareness of a circular economy and collaborating with local organizations and stakeholders.

In terms of infrastructure, the project recommends a regional approach, while acknowledging “there is very little space or land available in the region for expanding organic waste processing and for reusing and repairing materials.” Still, the report says, the city could have a larger “reuse” section at its recycling center and encourage creation of “Repair Cafés” and fix-it clinics.

Increasing the value of materials involves food and material-waste reduction: Metabolic has connected Cambridge with a Food Matters Toolkit from the National Resource Defense Council to help cities develop food-waste-prevention policies.

Supporting sustainable businesses helps dollars spent on green materials and green jobs stay local: “When you think about stimulating local and community cooperatives, you want to be celebrating the folks who are doing this really good work. This can be pawnshops, retailers, shoe repairs,” McCue said.=

Speakers at the hearing recommended adapting parts of a Circular Economy Program used in Austin, Texas, that encourages green business practices with competitions, meetups and in-person advice sessions. McCue pointed city leaders toward collaborating with independent local businesses and providing circular-training programs for local organizations and residents; Metabolic suggested using Insight, a curriculum and training program funded by the European Union.

Circular-economy models can reduce global emissions by 45 percent, McCue said, citing a MacArthur Foundation study.

Doubts around next steps

A part of the Dutch consultant group’s stakeholder engagement included interviews with Cambridge community groups such as the Small Business Advisory Committee, which includes members from the small-business organization Cambridge Local First, several of Cambridge’s neighborhood business associations and the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Apart from a meeting in July 2021 that Cambridge Local First was unable to attend, there has been little collaboration with the groups, according to Metabolic.

“I hope future efforts will make a point to leverage local partnerships, capture our unique context, and make a point to take into account those businesses and universities already doing circular economy work right in our backyard,” said Pooja Paode, a director at CLF. “It’s a bit ironic that the firms brought in to do this study are based in the Netherlands, D.C. – with a global focus – and Florida, when there are local or at least regional firms with the same expertise. This fact was hard to ignore given that parts of the presentation came across as overly conceptual or general.”

The idea of a “circular economy” is not new – there have been forms of it in Cambridge for 30 years, but it has never been able to take off, and it wasn’t immediately clear how this effort would be different, Nolan said. “I just want all of us to remember that we need to be pretty clear-eyed about how it is that we can ensure that we have implementable plans.”

The consultants were asked to include broad, “blue sky” suggestions that might include some that weren’t a good fit for Cambridge, said Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development – but the city wanted “a universe of possible actions” to work from.

Councillor Quinton Zondervan seemed skeptical. “What can we actually do?” Zondervan said. “I appreciate the blue sky approach so we can really look at everything that’s possible. But most of them just don’t make sense for us. We are pretty hemmed in.”

“In terms of practical, on-the-ground stuff, it’s really frustrating,” Zondervan said.


This post was updated July 27, 2022, with expanded comments from Pooja Paode.

This article was written in partnership with Cambridge Local First.