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Sustainable Missoula: Enriching the city’s circular economy

Seagulls fly above a landfill as a bulldozer levels large piles of waste.

Gulls flew above the sea of waste in front of me—trash as far as I could see. My job was to plant trees around a landfill in south Houston. The trees would line the perimeter of the dump so that it was hidden from eight lanes of highway, filled with cars, each holding a single passenger stuck in traffic on their daily commute to work.

Much like the cars stuck on the highway, the waste rolling through the landfill had gone on a linear journey. So, what does that mean?

The way our relationship to consumption currently exists, it moves forward through a straight path from extraction and manufacturing to use and disposal. This is what we call a linear economy. We do not design or consume goods with longevity or re-use in mind. When we do, we call that a circular economy, one which reflects the ecological processes of nature.

Our aim is to move from a linear “take, make, waste” model to a circular “make, consume, enrich” model. After all, economy and ecology share the same root word, eco, from oikos, which is Greek for house. I think we all want our house (and Missoula and planet Earth) to be stable both economically and ecologically.

There are a number of simple ways that we can start to build a circular economy today. These include reducing, reusing, repairing, sharing, and recycling among others. And though recycling is often the buzzword for many waste-focused sustainability campaigns, it is actually the least effective of these methods for building a circular economy.

This is largely due to the amount of energy required for the recycling process, uncertainty about where our recycling goes, and if it is in fact recycled. Reuse is always going to be the better option for reducing demand on natural resources and energy. That being said, we should still recycle as much as we can, and support infrastructure that makes recycling accessible and equitable across the city of Missoula.

Both ecosystems and the larger Earth system are closed-loop systems. Discards from one process are inputs for another process, so there is no waste. As we strive to achieve a closed-loop system, communities will become closer-knit, more sustainable, and more autonomous.

On a larger scale, we’ve all seen the photos and videos of animals caught in garbage patches and holding bellies full of plastics. When we keep plastics out of the world, we protect wildlife that has been threatened and harmed by development. As much as we want to change the world, the best place to start is right here in our own community where we can affect the most change.

Luckily for us, Missoula has a number of services and businesses built on the principle of a circular economy. The other day, I needed a tile cutter to retile the bathroom. I didn’t need to buy one, as it would spend most of its life in my garage collecting dust, so I popped into Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) to borrow a tile cutter. Not only did it save me money, but I was participating in one of the methods for achieving a circular economy: reusing through leasing.

Now, let’s take a look at composting. If your food waste is picked up by one of our local composting services, you can get compost in return and use it to grow more food. Though composting is technically a form of recycling, it reduces toxic greenhouse gases and takes very little energy input to achieve: it doesn’t get much more circular than that!

Repair and reuse are also important ways to build a circular economy. Home ReSource is helping to cultivate a culture of reuse through their Fixit Clinics, in which experts teach you how to repair household items and clothing. The benefits are plenty: you can use the items again, save money, it is sustainable, and you pick up a new skill!

It is important to look at the linear economy through a lens of environmental justice as well. Many of the communities most impacted by pollution, contamination, and extraction are marginalized. Examples range from rare earth mineral mining to communities that get saddled with toxic plastics recycling and siting landfills in poorer neighborhoods. Choosing to go zero waste as a culture and develop a circular economy is not only environmentally sustainable, but it is also socially just.

Though the benefits of waste reduction are often obvious — smaller landfills, less trash in wild places, economic savings, and self-sustainability, it is also inextricably linked to the planet’s climate future. Climate is an issue of how much we consume and how we consume it.

Massive amounts of energy are used to extract, manufacture and transport goods and many of those goods are thrown out after a single-use. No matter how many trees we plant around a landfill, the issues of unchecked waste will inevitably spill over.

That’s what makes zero waste a unifying issue—it impacts all of us, and the solutions are tangible and do-able. That’s why waste reduction is a great issue to bring us together and build upon as a community. Not only does it unify us, but it generates wide-reaching and much-needed change on a systemic level!

Mason Parker is the Zero Waste Systems Manager at Home ReSource. He can be contacted at mason@homeresource.org.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. For more, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

Nov 19-20. Northern Plains Resource Council’s annual meeting (online). Celebrating 50 years of action. Info/register here. Keynote speakers on Community Climate Action; Impact of Corporate Ag on Communities, and more.

Nov 20 (Sat). Bird walk at Lee Metcalf Refuge. 10am to 1 pm. Meet at visitor center.

Nov 20. Missoula’s WINTER Farmers Market continues in Southgate Mall. Saturdays 9am to 2pm. Until April 23. Also on Wednesdays 4:30- 7pm until Dec 22. See also info on Bozeman winter market and Butte’s winter market.

Nov 29-Dec 3. Montana Organic Association Conference will be virtual and on these new dates. It is Free — but you are encouraged to join MOA to help offset some of the costs of having to change plans. Register here.

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month breakdown of world day campaigns.