19. Dr. Weslynne Ashton on industrial ecology and connecting people

Associate Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology

Welcome to The Multi-usiverse. Alongside your guide, Garr Punnett, explore worlds of opportunity within the use of physical resources across companies and organizations. Consider this a field guide in scaling reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recirculation. We’ll learn from guests who have ventured down this path and carved their way. Our aim is to discuss the successes, opportunities, and challenges of scaling a connected, circular economy. On this episode we’re joined by Dr. Weslynne Ashton, Associate Professor at the Illinois Institute for Technology.

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Audio Transcript:

[00:00:07.390] – Garr Punnett

Welcome back to the Multiusiverse Podcast. My name is Gar Punnett, chief strategy officer here at Rheaply. We are joined today by Dr. Weslynne Ashton, a researcher, practitioner, academic here based in Chicago, that actually started studying industrial ecology and has now also been focusing on its evolution into our common knowledge of circular economy. Today we got to talk a lot about that transition, how we can learn from industrial ecology, how we can grow more into telling the stories of circular economy, to grow circular economy principles within business and governments and our constituencies, and what does that all mean for the future in really building in resilience and equity into our communities? It’s a good one. She again, could not be more gracious with how she’s able to explain and really dive into these topics while also educating all of us on the importance. Enjoy. Well, Dr. Weslynne Ashton, thank you so much for joining us here today. This is kind of a distinct honor and I’m so glad you’re here. As I was speaking to you earlier, it’s rare that we get such both a practitioner, a researcher, and again academic of the topics that we get to talk about here with Circular Economy on the show.

[00:01:32.250] – Garr Punnett

Could you please introduce yourself to the audience and give a little bit more about how you got sucked into this circular world and how it’s become sort of, again, a great passion and obsession and something you write so eloquently and again, such thoughtful topics about.

[00:01:49.410] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

It’s an honor to be here. So thinking about the types of speakers that you have for the folks who are doing a lot of pioneering work in this area, it’s an honor to be a part of this group. My journey starts off in Trinidad and Tobago, where I was born and grew up. And what most folks don’t know about Trinidad is that it is one of the most industrialized islands on the world, right? Our number one export is oil and gas. And so growing up in a place where there was Rheaply a lot of heavy pollution, I saw the structure position of industry with environment. And I went to college, studied environmental engineering, found my way to industrial ecology, which as its premise, thinks about how do we design our industrial systems to be more in harmony with nature from the beginning, rather than cleaning up pollution after the fact. And so that’s what I did my PhD in industrial ecology and thinking about eco industrial development, particularly on small islands in different parts of the world. And industrial ecology is very focused on materials and energy and measuring the flows and the impacts of these flows on the environment.

[00:03:15.690] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

And in the course of my study, I came to a point and came across one of the scholarly practitioners in the field who had this saying that materials don’t flow, people make a decision to move them. So you have to understand the human side of industrial ecology? What are the managerial decisions going into the cost benefit of making a particular change from disposition to circularity? And also, what are those motivations of people? And so I pulled in both management and sociology into my research, and I moved to Chicago in 2010 to join the Illinois Institute of Technology in the Stewart School of Business and teach in their Environmental Management and Sustainability program. And that’s where I’ve been for the last few years. And think where our path across a.

[00:04:24.340] – Garr Punnett

Few years ago, it is where our paths crossed. And again, for whatever reason, again, almost serendipitously, I found myself here in Chicago. And it’s been such a joy to have Chicago be such a nexus for so many of these conversations and researchers and practitioners. And so it is it’s amazing. We’ve got this growing community here in Chicago. A question about islands and industrial ecology and circular economy, as it also evolved into, I think of as islands as such an interesting case for industrial ecology because some of these decisions are kind of forced upon island thinking of like, we are on this together. We need to figure out our resources, where things go, where things land, what do we cultivate and why is that incorrect in thinking that way? I mean, I’ve never lived on an island. I’ve never participated in an island culture. But how does that sort of form? What might be more closed loop thinking, or our resources can remain this way, or this is how we need to treat our community? Am I on to something there? Is that something that you all that is common? Please help unpack that for me a little bit.

[00:05:42.450] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

Yeah. In industrial ecology, islands come up a lot in studies, precisely for the reasons you define. They have a very neat, close boundary. We are able to measure everything that comes onto the island and comes off of the island for that reason. It’s a really good unit of study. One of the tricky things about islands and we can probably make a distinction between islands that have a strong colonial history, whether that is formally or inadvertently by location, that they’re heavily dependent on the metropolitan region that they’re tied to. Thinking about the Anglo Caribbean, we were very heavily tied to the Ukraine. And so the relationship that island economies have is typically one of importing a lot of materials from their colonial home and shipping materials that are typically not finished buds to those locations where value is added to them. And so you have this really heavily dependent situation being created on many island economies around the world. There are some ones that have largely been untouched by colonial situations where there is a lot of independence. And I would say that in the last, probably one to two decades has been a push to really embed more of that independent and thinking about, okay, what are the things that we need to be self sufficient to be resilient, right?

[00:08:02.820] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

So if we think about the Chinese band on recycled materials that can go to be recycled there, we have countries recognizing now that, okay, I can’t just send all of my waste to someplace. What can be done to process that waste hair? And if we go even earlier kind of in the supply chain, what are we importing and what are the things that we can substitute so that we’re not depending so much on those resources and having to deal with a large amount of waste that cannot be assimilated into the local environment. And I think of Hawaii as a place that has been dealing with this and has really graveled. So I did my PhD at Yale and we had a number of projects in Puerto Rico and in Hawaii over the years that I was there. And so we really grappled with some of these issues a lot in those places. Just a challenge.

[00:09:10.990] – Garr Punnett

It is a challenge and it’s so fascinating. I hope I can actually then take this maybe this concept and I’d love better professional language for what I’m going to try to do here. It’s kind of a raw thought of what then do we see if we talk about resiliency equality when it comes to economies. We probably have then some sort of island economy set up even in communities that might be in South Side Chicago or might be in other sorts of cities that again are set up for that import of dependent type of materials. But then a heavy amount of extraction of value out of those communities or in some cases having them be where materials land and that is the value. And that you’ve got waste products that land that also aren’t necessarily beneficial to the community. What do we call those types of communities in which maybe that is the relationship that’s set up in those regions.

[00:10:17.850] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

There are islands. I think that’s a nice analogy that you make and often said to folks. In my time at Yale, I worked a lot internationally and then coming to Chicago and working on the South Side of Chicago. In many ways, the South Side of Chicago is a developing economy. There is value that’s being extracted. There are significant environmental burdens that are being placed on these communities. And so we have significant environmental justice concerns within communities, primarily communities of color, communities that are on the lower end of the income spectrum, who have less political representation, for whom it’s been easier to push the less desirable industries, the more polluting industries in those places. I think that there is recognition that the strictly economy discourse and a lot of the practice has really built on our current economic paradigm. Totally. We are growth oriented. Yes, we want to be circular, but we’re still going to need to extract a lot of resources. And maybe this is more of the academic literature in the last three to five years beginning to challenge the utopian picture painted by the circular economy that we can create an economy that is completely circular, where we can recycle materials.

[00:12:08.530] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

Well, there are thermodynamic limits to our ability to recycle materials. There’s so many times you can recycle plastic fibers before they become unusable. And so this recognition of the limits of the circular economy, I think, both from a physical perspective, but also from a justice and sort of social equity perspective, is something that we’re now seeing more folks grappling with. Right. So if we think about how can we create a circular economy that’s really impacting inclusive, which delivers benefits, right. Creates opportunities for people in different communities in our cities, in our cities that are heavily segregated in countries across the world, right. So we see a global movement of waste from the global north to many countries in the global south, particularly in Western Africa, Southeast Asia, China, where there’s a heavy environmental burden associated with those waste flows. And within those regions, it’s typically people who are at the lower economic end of the spectrum, ethnic minorities who are at the front lines of dealing with those waste because there aren’t better jobs available to them. And so I think there’s a real grappling now with how can we create a circular economy that is more equitable.

[00:13:50.790] – Garr Punnett

When we’re speaking about jobs from a circular economy standpoint? And that is one obviously very enticing topic to keep, including in circular economy because it really does fundamentally probably trigger economic development from a city perspective, where they’re like, oh yes, excellent jobs, jobs, jobs. But jobs can’t be the only inclusive potential for a circular economy. Yes, it’s providing or there might be a labor force that is eager to participate and want to be a part of maybe a more green economy. Is that a double edged sword? A little bit? I mean, is it a little bit too harsh for us to say and maybe in practice say, hey, the circular economy only means jobs, and therefore these communities are now going to have new access to jobs. What should we be actually thinking about? What are the next steps for inclusion that isn’t just about providing opportunities to make money?

[00:14:59.650] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

Right. People need money to survive.

[00:15:01.930] – Garr Punnett

Exactly. Yes.

[00:15:05.870] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

So in the work that I’m doing, and I see this being articulated in other places, as well as a recognition that there are diverse values that are created by human activity and part of that might fall within the formal economy. So things that we might get paid for, but there’s also things like care. Right. And some care can be monetized. But should it be? I think that’s an important question. So one of the projects that I’m involved with right now here in Chicago looks at the sustainability of our food system. How can we transform our food system to create more opportunities for black, brown and indigenous people who are growers, who are food manufacturers as well as consumers, the people who are eating. And so part of the work that we’ve done is to say there are multiple types of value that we might think about, right? So there’s financial value, there is natural capital and the value of the relationships that we have with each other, political capital. So our decision making processes and our relationship to those in power and how power is distributed in networks, there’s digital capital, right? Our data is extremely valuable, and who owns that data has important implications for how that data can be or should be monetized.

[00:17:07.320] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

So if we think more broadly about the type of value that can be created, then we can see that there’s a whole lot of value that might be created in this circular economy that is not only jobs than what can be monetized.

[00:17:25.010] – Garr Punnett

Love that. Exactly. When we’re thinking about these communities, I love the terminology that you provided in a recent publication called Sets social, Ecological, Technical Systems. If I’m remembering correctly. Am I correct in what I was understanding of your team’s writing was this is what a set is. The infrastructure that’s created that might be local communities all the way down to a neighborhood in which most of those have been constructed around technical systems, man made systems, human made systems in which, as you said earlier, materials are chosen to flow in and out of. What would it take? I mean. As we’re starting to build those value streams that you mentioned earlier. Those capitals. What does it take to sort of start to set up the technical systems so that we can start to realize both. Yes. The financial. The monetized value. But also all of those other values that are so critical to the health of these communities or these sets.

[00:18:48.410] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

As a researcher and a scientist. Right? So data and metrics, I think we have a good handle on financial performance, return, on investment, trying to do time, value of money, like our net present value, right? So we know if we invest a certain amount of money in a particular activity, what the financial return will be. Now, there’s been a rise in thinking about ESG metrics, right? Environment, social governance. How can we get companies to think about not only their financial reporting, but also integrate their environmental, their social performance, their governance into a similar framework so that we can have them on the same page? So when an investor looks at your profile, we see not only your financial performance, but your ESG performance. And that gives a more holistic picture of what you’re doing and the value that you’re creating. So I think we have a good handle on many of the environmental metrics, right? So we’re great on carbon footprint. In my field, we use lifecycle sustainability assessments so we can think about, okay, what is the ozone contribution? What is the water contribution like, what is the Eutrification potential? So if you offload a certain amount of chemicals of nutrients, what is the potential to create an algal bloom downstream?

[00:20:33.570] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

But LCS are incredibly complex and a lot of the answers that you might get depends on the assumptions that you make going into the models. And so there’s a degree of complexity with our environmental calculations that’s not as simple to boil down to a dollar NPV amount. And the social factors I would say, are even more complex because it is so value striped up. So what I find important might not be the same thing that you find important value of a job. Now, what’s the nature of that job? Right? Is that a job that’s at the end of the pipe and being exposed to a lot of air pollution? And so there are health impacts that aren’t being accounted for, but it’s a job that’s producing like a $15 per hour job, but it’s not accounting for the health implications. So we need metrics that can better encapsulate the E and the S and the G into to give really a more accurate holistic picture about both the requirements, the impacts associated with any activity. And so I feel like this field is really developing, right? So we are getting better at developing these metrics.

[00:22:15.010] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

But I think it’s really hard to think that we might be able to boil this down to a single number. What we might have to deal with is a more complex panel dashboard and there will be some subjective evaluation of, okay, well, what is important to our community and that’s community defined geographically, socially, right? We’re a city. What’s the value that different stakeholders have to weigh in on a particular decision for designing some new infrastructure? How much weight are we going to give to what the community wants versus what the financial investors want versus what the political representatives want? And so I think that’s something that we haven’t figured out and needs to be grappled with. But more data, better metrics, certainly an important piece of that equation.

[00:23:22.370] – Garr Punnett

I love all of that, even in the choices that need to be made either by our governing officials, financial stakeholders and communities, even our residents and our constituency. The complex decision framework is there where we need to balance all those out. How do we even start communicating the complexity? So I don’t want to reduce this to what sort of tricks do you have to communicate that complexity? But it is a little bit of like there are things that we’ve picked up in our company of where we’ve had to say, all right, maybe we don’t necessarily lead with the social and then the environmental. We lead with financial and then we kind of sneak it in and we’re like, hey, but look at all the benefits that come with sort of acting in this way that we are promoting. How have you found is the best way to communicate the complexity? Either to community organizations, governing officials, even constituencies of residents and citizens. What have you found in your practice and in your research?

[00:24:31.330] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

I now sit in a giant appointment between the business school and the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech, and I’ve learned a lot by working with design colleagues. And I would say one of the important lessons is the value of stories and narratives, particularly for engaging the public, but also a diverse group of stakeholders. Right. So historian narrative. And I would also say code design. So thinking about I’m not bringing a solution to you, but I want to work with you to develop a solution that works for you. Right. And so the stories that we tell about circularity. The stories that we tell about how individual people have a role to play in that. I think it’s really important as an environmental client. I think one of the things that we maybe get bogged down a bit on is making sure that we have the best science. The best data to prove our case when we see that the best science and the best data is not what changes hearts and minds. I think I have recognized in my work the need for communication that is really about connecting with people on a very personal level and crafting stories, as you say, like sneaking in the data in there to support the work or the message that you’re trying to do.

[00:26:29.320] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

But it is about creating stories that connect directly with people.

[00:26:33.810] – Garr Punnett

I love that as we tell those stories, I think this kind of segues into the evolution of industrial ecology, into circular economy, into some other tracks that have started to be sustainability, even just as a general term, I’m kind of fascinated. This is coming from someone who largely, when I graduated, after studying circular economy and sustainability for my grad program, couldn’t really find a job. This was five years ago. At this point, about four years ago, and largely there wasn’t an industry. But what we’ve seen is a quick acceleration of priorities that are sort of focused on, okay, sustainability focused solutions, circular economy focused solutions. My question here is what I’m very interested this will be the first term for me, I think, very personally, of which I am starting to see being used a lot, potentially starting to see it be used incorrectly. What is that evolution look like for you as well, to be a part of these different tracks that are very research focused, are very dedicated to the science and the data and to the cause, but then have started to see bleed into other marketing terms or other types of stories and narratives that we tell to consumers that maybe don’t tell the whole picture?

[00:28:03.370] – Garr Punnett

How do we start to balance that overstorification for a made up word, but, like, how do we start to balance that out where we’re like, no, we can keep this, because we really saw this with sustainability, which is or even actually even green, was a great example of something where that was really grabbed and held onto, probably in the green priority. But we’re starting to see that a little bit again. How do we handle this? What sort of warnings can you give inspiration do you have for how we can tackle this? Embrace it. Just embrace the storytelling nature of it. Any thoughts there?

[00:28:48.730] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

I think the storytelling has to be grounded in the fact that these issues are complex and there has to be research and analytics to support the stories that we’re telling. Yes, I absolutely see circular washing.

[00:29:19.950] – Garr Punnett

Circular washing, exactly. Yes.

[00:29:24.270] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

Starting to have fun in the same way that right, that we had green washing. As someone who’s been in the field of industrial ecology for about 20 years now, it was amazing to see circular economy and just jump up in the 2010 and just completely overshadow these related concepts like industrial ecology, even sustainability to some extent. And it being very much I hesitate to say, but I will say co opted by business because it presented a more tangible means to approach sustainability. Right? Because if we think about sustainability, it’s very amorphous. There’s the social side and people and the justice issues. And so if we just focus on circular economy, then that framing helps a business to think about, okay, I’ve done eco efficiency. I’ve figured out how to be more efficient in my use of energy, of materials. I’ve minimized my waste as much as possible, but I still have these materials and I need to think about my largest supply chain. So circularity provides a way for companies to kind of get a better handle by focusing on materials and energy. So we, as a field, I think, have been really grappling with, okay, what do we do with respect to the economy because it’s become so much more popular in a way that really more techy engineering.

[00:31:18.710] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

Industrial ecology never did it right. So right now we are having conversations about developing positioning paper that really makes the linkages and talks about what are the lessons for circular economy from industrial ecology, recognizing there are going to be trade offs. If we do a life cycle assessment and look at what’s happening across the life of a product or service, from extraction through use, through this puzzle, there are going to be opportunities for reducing your impact. But those will involve trade offs. Right. There are limits on how much circularity that we can have. And so I think field like industrial ecology really provides the science that we need to guide the circular economy discourse so that it can really be grounded in well tested methods for analyzing the impact and assessing the trade offs that we know will need to happen. I think the other part of that question about how do we make a balance between, okay, the way that we reach a broad audience is by storytelling is by engaging people with their heart, is recognizing that we now have more data at our disposal than at any time before. I’m just thinking about the work that you guys do.

[00:33:03.740] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

It weekly, right? I mean, you guys have tremendous data and that data is really kind of the power behind the platform that you have. And so I think as far as we can make data more easily accessible and transparent and easier to digest for a broader audience, then that helps to validate the stories that we’re telling. Right. So I’m not just telling you, oh yeah, we’re circular, but I can actually back that up and say that, well, 90% of the materials that we are consuming is reused somehow and this is how it’s being reused. And I can track that. And I think with the advance of things like blockchain technology that we have a means for better tracking what exactly is happening with those materials, where is that waste ending up and who is dealing with it at the end of life? So I feel like there are a lot of tools and so I see tremendous promise for using the tools that are now at our disposal to balance this need for storytelling with kind of the data truthing.

[00:34:27.480] – Garr Punnett

Yeah, absolutely. The proof, the chain, whether that’s the stakeholders are really identifying who’s touching what and why and who’s making to round this all out, who is making those decisions of where those things go. Materials flow, but they flow by someone else’s choice. They’re moved. And so I love that thought of this. We can prove this and with technology we can start to prove this further and really back up circularity in ways that we maybe have not been able to do before. Are there any parting thoughts that you would like to have on our audience? We did a little bit of a dive into some couple of topics here, but any sort of broader questions or topics that either you can suggest for them to follow up on or things that you’re super passionate about and would like to share.

[00:35:21.450] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

Sure. One thing that we really haven’t touched is the importance of policy, of course, because I think there’s tremendous leads that have been taken in the business sector when we look across the world where the big advances in circular economy have been made. When you think about circular economy as a term, the Chinese are the ones who had a circular economy promotion law in the early two thousand s. And that really was one of the nexuses for circular economy being used as a popular term. Right. So the Chinese circular economy promotion law set in motion a set of rules, a set of practices that companies began having to follow.

[00:36:14.840] – Garr Punnett

I never knew this. Please keep going.

[00:36:21.070] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

It came from Europe, right. Mexico economy. But even the Chinese circular economy promotion law was based on laws coming out of Germany and Japan. Around zero waste. But that term circular economy, chinese, at least in kind of like the modern the modern idea. If we go back far enough, we’ll find stickle economy somewhere else in different.

[00:36:51.510] – Garr Punnett

Places, probably ancient to some degree, again, because it’s inherent in who we are as cultures, as being able to circulate resources. So it’s always been there.

[00:37:01.320] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

Yeah, right. So we see a lot of attraction in Europe, but much of that attraction happens because of circular economy being advanced in policy. So that’s driving the behavior of companies in the US. We don’t have this in any context. The closest we might say is that some states have extended producer responsibility laws, which we might think of as a start promoting circularity, at least for specific materials, but we don’t have a holistic policy framing. And so I think that’s an area where we are behind in the US. And that we need to adopt more policies that are circular friendly in order to encourage businesses to implement practices that are more circular. I think I’ll end with that.

[00:38:07.570] – Garr Punnett

I love that. Yes. And those can be ranging from the very simple to the very complex. I mean, even just when we think of policies, I love cities that are starting to think about how do they support growth of circular, sort of whatever it is, maybe it’s water or maybe it’s compost, whatever it might be, where they can start to support it through their own purchasing habits, procurement, law, procurement, even officials sort of making these decisions. So it can start that simple and then grow more and more complex into tax credits or wherever you want to go from there.

[00:38:46.410] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton


[00:38:47.550] – Garr Punnett

Well, excellent. Thank you so much for taking the time. I knew this would be illuminating. Thank you so much. I think it’s going to be very fun for everyone to listen to this and watch this. And I look forward to the next one because we’ve got probably more to dive into and we can get you on at some point soon.

[00:39:04.410] – Dr. Weslynne Ashton

Sounds good.

[00:39:05.510] – Garr Punnett

Thank you.

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