It's been more than 30 years since the Cuyahoga River burned, and the environmental movement is changing. Environmentalists are now as likely to be entrepreneurs as watchdogs. Instead of focusing on stopping pollution, the emphasis is increasingly on creating innovative alternatives to polluting ways of doing business ways that recognize that pollution is not just unhealthy, but wasteful and unprofitable.
Some of the world's leading experts have been helping Greater Cleveland along this new path of ecological innovation. Last spring, the Cleveland Green Building Coalition's sustainability speakers series hosted Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). Lovins spoke to an audience of over 300 at the Cleveland Public Library, as well as with local business leaders. His message, rooted in concepts of "natural capitalism," encouraged companies to shift from selling products (such as carpeting, which gets used once and is then dumped in a landfill) to selling services that produce little or no wastes (such as floor covering services which provide fresh carpeting, take back the old carpeting, and remanufacture it).
In November, Gunter Pauli came to Cleveland to talk about his Zero-Emissions Resource Initiative (ZERI), which promotes business methods that replace the concept of waste with a regenerating loop of resources and products. ZERI has turned abandoned concrete plants into composting facilities, created local enterprises growing mushrooms from coffee waste, and developed houses designed from the easily renewable resources like bamboo. While in town, Pauli met with a variety of local groups, including the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste Management District and the Great Lakes Brewery. He challenged the region to focus on creating new businesses that will bring in money, jobs, and resources while improving the environment.
Inspired by these speakers, a local group of eco-entrepreneurs began to form. Holly Harlan, then at WIRE-Net (the West-Side Industrial Retention and Expansion Network), spent a summer at RMI studying ways to make small businesses more sustainable. After returning to Cleveland, she began to facilitate meetings of people who had begun to see the potential in the zero-waste, service-centered economy for Cleveland. The first meeting attracted 24 people under the name of the Entrepreneurs for Sustainability. It resulted in an initial project to assist the Great Lakes Brewery in furthering its goals of zero-emissions and has progressed to include a top-notch speaker and networking series that usually attracts 50-100 people at the brewery every month.
Great Lakes Brewery owners Pat and Dan Conway had already been pursuing various small ventures to make their operations more ecological. But with the help of the entrepreneur group and Lisa Hong from eQuest Inc., a local energy consulting firm, they began a comprehensive study of the raw materials used in their brewery and restaurant - everything from an energy audit of their plant to research on what can be grown from the spent grain and yeast that are the end result of the brewing process. The team has also worked with the University of Michigan's Industrial Assessment Center, food technologists, and local mushroom growers.
Brewer's yeast, for example, has potential as a nutritional supplement. Spent grain is being studied as substrate for growing mushrooms. Eventually, the Conways hope to work with urban gardens to grow specialty mushrooms from spent grains mushrooms that they will then buy back to serve in their restaurant. In addition, the Stone Oven, the Cleveland Heights bakery that currently supplies bread to the restaurant, is working to use some of the spent grain in a signature Great Lakes Brewery bread and hot pretzels.
To use larger volumes of spent grain, the Conways are working to create a partnership with Oberlin College's Clark Farm. Spent grain will help restore the soil on the farm. And it will be used to grow many of the organic vegetables for the restaurant.
Food waste from the restaurant is the impetus for yet another waste-reduction project. The brewery is working with the Cuyahoga Solid Waste Management District to create a food-waste composting facility. And it operates a shuttle bus that runs on locally produced bio-diesel fuel made from the brewery/restaurant's used fryer oil.
The next industrial revolution
The sustainable entrepreneur group is hoping to encourage other such successes in the Cleveland area. The group has business ideas for a car-sharing facility, deconstruction services, re-used glass tile manufacturing, a sustainable food network and a textile recycling center. To get innovative practices off the ground, the group is promoting speakers, networking opportunities, mentoring and the encouragement to develop business plans for sustainable businesses.
"We want to create an environment to help the entrepreneur take the next step," Harlan says.
Despite the legacy of a burning river, this group believes that Cleveland can lead the next industrial revolution one that builds our natural capital rather than depleting it.