There were moments of reflection at the tenth and perhaps final Cleveland Sustainability Summit, an idea that was hatched to draw together, inspire change and, in Mayor Frank Jackson’s view, grow green jobs over a decade.
The Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative has yielded social, environmental and economic dividends, including jobs, like the youth who will be trained and hired to plant thousands of trees that Jackson announced the city will fund $1 million for restoring part of the lost canopy. And the solar power companies who will hire installers to help the city reach its goal of 80% renewable energy by 2050. The city has grown from 3% to 13% of its power generated from the wind and sun, said Cleveland Chief of Sustainability, Matt Gray.
Powering the city on wind and sunlight is part of the circular economy, an idea that speaker Nik Engineer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said Cleveland is showing bench strength in. (Gray cited the Ohio Materials Marketplace, a sort of eBay for industrial commodities). It will take broad buy in to move away from the “take - make - waste” economic model, but the pay off is there.
“If we eliminate the concept of waste, we will add $4.5 trillion back into the economy,” said Engineer. “Think of a forest. There’s no waste. Everything goes through its lifecycle and its energy is reused. We need to transfer that idea to buildings. Buildings that absorb CO2 and rain water and return it to the local environment cleaner.”
Closing the loop is the idea behind Loop, a pilot project in New York City where durable and reusable containers replace single-use plastic. So, ice cream in metal tins and toothpaste gel paks in jars that can be rinsed and returned to the manufacturers for reuse. One of the partners is TerraCycle, Inc. which has built its brand around consumers shipping them hard to recycle stuff. Their Global Vice President Michael Waas spoke to the failure of the consumer goods market to “design trash out of the equation.” To that point, the carbon footprint of shipping reusable containers back to the manufacturer is only marginally smaller than using single-use plastics. Waas admitted that stores centered completely around bulk goods where people bring their own containers would be better, but, the inconvenience of it all makes it a niche market. TerraCycle thinks that Loop is scalable, but can it disrupt the dominant model of convenience shopping?
The bulk of the Summit happens in the break out sessions where the 600 attendees select a topic among the dozen or more, from how to engage neighborhoods in planting trees to how to engage businesses to offer incentives for their employees to use sustainable modes of transportation. The best moments were the unplanned comments that people shared. For example, the resident who talked about the Solar Garden in Hough that is community owned and going in on a parcel of vacant property. Or, the high school student who said that Cleveland could offer free transit passes for picking up trash and recycling like she witnessed in another town.
The idea of making 2019—the 50th anniversary of the last fire on the Cuyahoga River—a milestone year worked. Having an annual summit inspired many business start ups and budding careers in sustainability. Back in 2009, what the first attendees held out was a dream, with the luxury of time to figure out who would be standing here in 2019 marking progress. The Sustainability Summits have inspired thousands of people who have attended the summits and undoubtedly came away champions or had a spark go off leading to a life change or even career choice. Like the Youth Climate Strike break out group this year who, like the global climate strikers, want their own summit next year.
It speaks volumes that the urgency to act on climate change is probably the most immediate legacy of the sustainability summits. There’s no time for nostalgia, as there are just too many warning signals going off at the same time around the planet. While there is strength in convening so large a group each year, perhaps one path forward is to figure out how to grow the movement, which, in the estimation of Office of Sustainability communications consultant Michael Shank, needs all of us to get into campaign mode for the climate and stay there, every day, until it isn’t a planetary crisis anymore.