Bringing Circularity to the Great Lakes Region and Beyond

As we consider the path to a more sustainable future for our region and world, we are faced with the challenge of navigating the way forward. One thing is certain: the process must be inclusive and empower everyone to be part of the solution. The way to make that happen? Build a circular economy. 

Circular economy is a model that emphasizes three principles, as laid out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. In a circular economy, organizations become more efficient and products flow more freely through the economy instead of to their end of life in a landfill or worse. At the same time, a circular economy produces new economic capital via regeneration of surplus items, which might otherwise have gone to waste in our current, linear economy model of make, use, and dispose.

The circular economy represents a massive economic opportunity on all levels — global, national, local, organizational, and individual. For the Great Lakes economic region, it represents a major opportunity not only within the cities in the region, but between the cities of the region. By creating connectivity within and between the cities of the Great Lakes region, we can share information about available resources and share the resources themselves, bringing about a more prosperous and equitable future for its citizens.

States and provinces that make up the Great Lakes region

Our company, Rheaply, for example, a Great Lakes region company that is working towards the transition to a circular economy by providing resource exchange technology. Co-founder and CEO Garry Cooper Jr. was working in a lab while completing his graduate studies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine when he started noticing that laboratory resources were siloed. Some labs didn’t have the resources they needed; others were throwing out usable resources. Garry began pushing a cart full of lab supplies from one lab to the next so fellow researchers could see what was available and use it. Without realizing it, he had created a circular system. Thus, Rheaply was born.

 Since then, Rheaply has been scaling its technology to help other universities, Fortune 500 companies, and government entities visualize and transact surplus items within and between each other. As these groups have embraced the platform, the individuals within have begun embracing a circular mindset — an understanding of how to use things more efficiently and incorporate reuse in daily life. The next step? Bringing this circular mindset to the general public to increase sustainable impact on larger scales.

One of these larger scales is cities. In a circular city, different circles within different industry sectors could exist and connect to create a constant flow of resources and a closed loop system. Because circular cities are collaborative by nature, more equitable societies will be achieved, because resources would be more accessible to everyone living there. Institutions of higher education have long been the cornerstones of innovation in cities. Barnard College, MIT, and University of Chicago are just a few examples of the higher education leaders helping to connect city ecosystems and economies. 

Cooperation among city governments, industry, and civil society is imperative for transitioning cities to circularity. One early example of this is the Chicago PPE Market, an online marketplace we built at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to give Chicago’s small businesses and nonprofits access to affordable PPE from local suppliers. 

Bird's eye view of Chicago cityscape, photo by Becky Phan on Unsplash

Collaboration between the City of Chicago, World Business Chicago, and Rheaply allowed for the combining of public and private sector resources, and resulted in a successful endeavor. The Chicago PPE Market fostered local business-to-business communication around available reopening resources, including face coverings, protective shields, and sanitation products. 4,604 transactions from 2,245 verified Chicago-based SMBs and NFPs occurred between the months of May and August 2020.

Now imagine what more we could achieve if we expanded to sharing other resources among and between our cities? Starting next year, more progress will be made on that front; a partnership between Rheaply and EKI-Digital has been formed to create a new workforce that will help operationalize scaled reuse and diversion of waste from landfills within the underserved South and West Side communities of Chicago.

Concurrently, Rheaply will be working to establish an online exchange for the San Francisco Department of the Environment to help the city recirculate building products and furniture, part of a broader reuse effort to enable commercial tenant improvements in order to drive down embodied carbon and accelerate the commercial sector towards a circular economy. Going forward, we aim to continue driving similar projects in the Great Lakes region, with the goal of bringing circularity’s dual environmental and economic benefits to residents.

These early efforts towards building circular cities show how much we can achieve when we collectively adopt circular practices. Collaborations like those mentioned above are prime examples of the power and potential of a circular economy in the Great Lakes region. To get inspired and start taking steps to help make your city circular, check out Rheaply’s handy reuse action plan. Let’s all work together to build a circular future for our region.

About the Author: 

Garr Punnett, Chief of Staff & Circular Economist, Rheaply 

With a B.A. in Economics, Garr began his career helping produce inspirational programming such as Super Soul Sunday and special interviews for the Oprah Winfrey Network. Post his stint in the entertainment industry, Garr decided to pursue a passion for environmentally friendly and financially viable commercial solutions and graduated with a Master of Sustainability Solutions from Arizona State University.

 As Chief of Staff, Garr has led Rheaply by leveraging his unique experience in production, sales and climate tech to assist large academic, government and Fortune 100 enterprise partners in building technology that empowers zero waste and circular solutions.

About Rheaply: 

Rheaply is the technology for connecting professionals with resources and catalyzing the circular economy. As the only market solution that combines an asset management system with an online marketplace, Rheaply’s Asset Exchange Manager (AxM)™ enables organizations to manage and transact physical assets more effectively, eliminating unnecessary waste and spend. To learn more about Rheaply, visit or follow @RheaplyInc. 

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