How a Washington initiative is creating a just circular economy

by John Stapel

In the Pacific Northwest, there’s collaboration brewing between private companies, public government agencies and community-based organizations that want to build a circular economy.

About a year and a half into its efforts of co-designing its programs (and launching one), NextCycle Washington, a statewide circular economy initiative, is recruiting for its inaugural Renew Seed Grant. Through this program early-stage projects can be granted up to $10,000, technical support and growth planning, and facilitated networking and matchmaking.

The initiative’s mission is to develop local economies that reduce waste, keep materials in use longer and regenerate natural systems. It’s doing that through an accelerator and this seed grant, aimed at a wide range of entities. If a Washington-based business, nonprofit, university, trade organization or tribal government has a project idea with the potential to contribute toward zero-waste goals and greenhouse gas reductions, they are welcome to apply. And it’s a plus if projects have a focus on equity and environmental justice.

The program’s design team has laid out its evaluation criteria for applicants to use as clear guidelines. That’s one way the program has infused equity into its application process. It also hosts virtual office hours and application parties, during which people who are interested can ask questions and work through the application itself. The next one is Nov. 10.

NCWA Priorities diagram

NextCycle started with a research project based on a question posed by Kamal Patel, civic designer and co-founder of consultancy Traversal Design: "How do we bring equable circular economies to Washington state?" Patel has been doing circular economy work in Seattle for about five years and trying to elevate awareness about it with a specific angle.

"We don't just need to transition to a circular economy," Patel said. "We need a just transition to a circular economy."

The NextCycle program is funded by the King County Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Commerce and Seattle Public Utilities. It’s a model developed by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), a sustainability and recycling consulting firm headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has been deployed in two other states — Colorado and Michigan.

"Each version of NextCycle is a little bit different depending on where it's located," said Bryce Hesterman, a senior consultant at RRS who is project manager for the Washington initiative. "Washington is kind of its own style of NextCycle. And it's different based on the local partners."

In the Colorado and Michigan versions of the program, the focus was on public-private partnerships and bringing together people in the recycling and circular economy industries with government agencies. But in the Washington iteration, community-based organizations — such as the Africatown Community Land Trust, People’s Economy Lab and the Refugee Artisan Initiative — are also key partners in the process and have been from the beginning.

Patel noted that everyone invited to the co-design process was asked to come in as an individual first and organization second, so that the group could focus on personal lived experiences to inform how NextCycle Washington would work.

NCWA Process diagram

Many community members involved have been based in King County, the most populous in the state, and over time more people from rural communities in the state have joined.

In an ideal world, a fraction of the seed grantees — NextCycle expects to select about 40 for the grant — would use the support they receive to grow and funnel into its accelerator.

"The accelerator helps them take it to the next step and commercialize, [reach] a larger scale and operate kind of independently at that point," Hesterman said.

Next Cycle Washington already has its first accelerator, which did not have a grant program as a precursor, up and running. It had two tracks for companies focused on upstream solutions that prevent waste or improve reuse and repair of materials; and downstream solutions that are geared toward a product or material's end-of-life.

The deadline for the Renew Seed Grant is Nov. 16.