Reaching new heights

Features - Municipal Recycling

With NextCycle Michigan, that state seeks to increase its recycling rate by leveraging public and private sector investments.

August 31, 2021

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NextCycle Michigan is an incubator that seeks to leverage public and private sector assistance along with investment to accelerate Michigan’s recycling and waste recovery system. Boosting recycling and developing innovative solutions for waste management can reduce greenhouse gases and help Michigan triple its recycling rate and reach carbon neutrality by 2050, according to the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

This EGLE initiative uses idea incubation, technical support, subject matter expert mentoring, funding, gap analysis and resource leveraging to achieve its goals. Developed and facilitated by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), the NextCycle Michigan team includes the Centrepolis Accelerator at Lawrence Technological University and the Michigan Recycling Coalition. NextCycle Michigan enlists its combined strengths, networks and expertise to recruit teams, match potential partners with material streams and funders, foster innovation to reuse end-of-life materials and provide the tools and resources to facilitate growth of successful projects.

The details

NextCycle Michigan is based on Colorado NextCycle, which was announced in late 2018. That initiative was introduced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to provide funding, expertise and economic data to Colorado businesses, communities, universities and startups interested in turning recovered materials into marketable products.

The Colorado NextCycle program provided grants to selected teams to incubate their business ideas while receiving technical support, mentoring and industry and economic data. The goal was to nurture viable ideas to fundable, shovel-ready status for submission to the 2019 department grant cycle, according to the CDPHE. Nine teams were selected to participate in the accelerator program, which included a boot camp, consulting and mentoring and an investor pitch session.

EGLE says NextCycle Michigan is using Colorado’s framework, with several additions, such as an increased number of Innovation Challenges and the opportunity to leverage state funds with public and private sector partnerships.

“We recognized that to truly achieve our goals of tripling Michigan’s recycling rate and attracting that investment to grow markets [and] to have clean, accessible materials … [we] needed to grow a process that attracted partners—partners to fund, to invest in and to expand Michigan’s recycling infrastructure,” says Matt Fletcher, the recycling market development specialist with EGLE. “NextCycle Michigan has two main components: The partnership platform, where we are leveraging state dollars to move projects forward that are ready to invest in by national partners, … and [then] the Innovation Challenges come in.”

The program includes six core Innovation Challenges related to gaps in Michigan’s recycled materials supply chain and end markets.

Each Innovation Challenge aligns with opportunities to fill gaps in prioritized sectors and commodities across the supply chain. Teams that receive a spot in the Innovation Challenge gain access to curated industry and economic data, make connections across the state, find partners, develop business plans and work toward implementing shovel-ready projects with the support of mentors and subject-matter experts under the guidance of a technical advisory council, according to the NextCycle Michigan website.

The Innovation Challenges are:

  • Foods, Liquids and Organic Waste Systems, which targets converting organic materials into viable end markets and sustainable alternatives;
  • Roads & Pathways, which prioritizes using more recycled material in the construction of roads;
  • Recycling Supply Chains, which focuses on projects that develop physical recycling supply chain infrastructure through hub-and-spoke systems, logistics, processing or material end market innovations with plastics, textiles, glass, fibers and C&D debris being materials of particular interest;
  • Recycling Innovation & Technology, which focuses on creating novel material recovery or sorting technologies, recycled content products, waste minimization techniques, new uses for recycled or organic materials or other innovations in sustainable materials management;
  • Micro Scale 3Rs Solutions, which uses smaller innovation projects to test different products and technologies before their application; and
  • Intergovernmental Initiatives & Public-Private Partnerships, which seeks teams to form public-private partnerships and regional collaborations to grow regional circular economies.

This way, not only one sustainability goal is being achieved, but many.

Entry criteria, timelines, level of grant support and activities vary by challenge.

Ann Arbor, Michigan-based RRS, a sustainability consulting firm founded in 1986, took part in setting up and running Colorado NextCycle, studying how it helped the state achieve its sustainability goals. RRS is playing the same role in Michigan and has helped identify the “gaps” Michigan should seek to address with its program.

“That was where we initially brought this concept forward that you can drive innovation in the recycling space to help fill gaps,” Elisa Seltzer, a senior consultant with RRS, says of Colorado NextCycle.

She says when Michigan was looking for ways to help drive change and innovation in recycling and bring jobs and economic development, RRS helped by applying the lessons from Colorado NextCycle.

With NextCycle Michigan’s Innovation Challenge “we are creating a pipeline of projects that then are fundable by EGLE and leveraged by other partners,” Seltzer says. “Those two things work really well together in creating the conditions where there are investable projects, as well as funders meeting up, with the ultimate goal of tripling Michigan’s recycling rate, growing jobs and creating a circular economy in Michigan,” she adds.

EGLE and NextCycle Michigan’s contributing partners are seeking to use partnerships to achieve recycling goals.

Power in partnerships

EGLE contracted with RRS to develop and implement NextCycle Michigan, and RRS brought in Centrepolis Accelerator at Lawrence Technological University (Lawrence Tech) and the Michigan Recycling Coalition, to round out the team. This team has been active since the start of NextCycle Michigan, which officially launched in April of this year, though Seltzer says RRS’ contract to develop and implement NextCycle Michigan began in March 2020 but was put on hold because of the pandemic. “Development work resumed in late summer 2020, and virtual outreach events were held throughout fall of 2020,” she says.

Lawrence Tech, a private university based in Southfield, Michigan, is well-known for its expertise in engineering. The university is home to the Centrepolis Accelerator, a “reverse incubator” that is solely focused on the testing of physical products, advanced materials and manufacturing technology as Centrepolis Accelerator Executive Director Daniel Radomski explains.

“We look for technologies that are compelling from industry players, and then we try to bring it into the university [and] just support its growth through proof-of-concept work or testing and validation programs,” Radomski says of the university’s role in NextCycle Michigan. Lawrence Tech helps support industry partners by testing and demonstrating their recycling and circular economy technologies.

Radomski and Lawrence Tech, with the Centrepolis Accelerator through the use of this reverse incubator practice, where ideas are introduced to promising markets rather than produced within an incubator group, help support and work with NextCycle Michigan and its partners.

“We find those that would like to use recycled materials … and we match them with technology companies,” Radomski says. “To put the marriages together that ultimately make for really good NextCycle Michigan projects, that’s our core initiative,” he adds.

Lawrence Tech uses its industry connections to identify and match material streams with innovative technologies. Food processing plants, breweries, distilleries and pop companies are just some examples of businesses that have channeled material to more sustainable uses, Radomski says.

Similarly, RRS is using its expertise in waste and recovery systems planning, sustainable materials management and forward-thinking recycling and organics programs to grow NextCycle Michigan.

Seltzer says RRS’ job is to bring “technical expertise [and] project partners to help build the investment towards meeting the goal of a 45 percent recycling rate.” She adds, “We manage the data collection and analysis [and] are doing all the communications and outreach around team and partner recruitment. We are maintaining the NextCycle Michigan website. We are designing [and] running the challenges along with Centrepolis Accelerator. Once the teams are selected, we are facilitating all of that with our partners.”

RRS is designing the curriculum, networking events, boot camps and pitch sessions, Seltzer says.

She adds that NextCycle Michigan is “innovative” and “not your typical grant-making that’s very formulaic.”

It leverages state funding in addition to partnerships. “It’s bringing partners investments that otherwise might not [come]. There are lots of different ways people can engage and achieve their next level of recovery and entrepreneurship within this project, including a focus on equity and climate,” Seltzer says.

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Concentrated effort

NextCycle Michigan has several sustainability goals and projects it is working to achieve, along with help from its various partners and funding provided in part by the Renew Michigan fund. Renew Michigan was created within the state’s treasury to finance sustainability projects throughout Michigan.

“The biggest tip that I would give is everybody has a story they want to tell,” Fletcher says. “Finding that story, getting in and making those connections through the supply chain are vitally important.”

He adds, “The other thing is if you don’t have the numbers, if you don’t know where you want to go, if you don’t know how, what your gaps are and what your infrastructure looks like ... then you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Radomski at Lawrence Tech looks at NextCycle Michigan as a template for other states. “Every state really needs this level of concentration to really move the needle,” he says.

Seltzer says the NextCycle approach “can easily be customized and adapted to your state’s goals and priorities.”

Broadened reach

The varied goals of NextCycle Michigan are a direct reflection of what the state hopes to achieve with its partners, funding, technology and the companies it aims to assist. The uniqueness of the initiative is what draws in trade associations and other businesses to invest, Seltzer says.

Radomski at the Lawrence Tech Centrepolis Accelerator says he sees Michigan’s effort to expand recycling as an opportunity to spread the initiative beyond the state’s borders while also addressing goals within.

“Some of the best technologies in the world are not always in our backyard,” he says. “We scoured the landscape of best-in-class circular economy technologies. We also reached out to all companies that have received venture capital investment that have circular economy technologies, recycling technologies, upcycling technologies [and] sustainable materials. We have a lot of companies from outside the state now partnered with Michigan entities to solve recycling issues,” Radomski adds.

Through NextCycle Michigan, the possible improvements to the state’s recycling and sustainability landscape stand to benefit not only the companies involved but also the state’s citizens.

“Michigan has a real opportunity to change,” Fletcher says. “Michigan has a long history of being a leader in recycling, and NextCycle is providing that opportunity where we can look at this complex system, make connections, create partnerships that ultimately are going to result in a stronger economy and environment. At the same time, we’re going to do that in a way that protects our climate and creates equitable opportunities for all residents and businesses.”

The author is a summer intern with the Recycling Today Media Group.