The Just Transition and Circular Economy movements have a lot in common, but they’re also both missing key pieces of the puzzle. That’s why Kamal Patel–a civic and service designer creating systems-based solutions–is committed to uniting them. These movements are much stronger when they work together.
Kamal says that most people understand Circular Economy much more easily than Just Transition. While our current extractive economy is linear, the endpoint of goods being the dump, the Circular Economy creates cycles of reuse, aiming for zero waste. However, the Circular Economy movement leaves out the importance of how money and power move.
The Just Transition movement is well aware of how money and power move. Just Transition centers the communities who have the least money and power in our existing economic system and aims to advance their prosperity in the transition to a regenerative economy. But, according to Kamal, in focusing on how money and power move, the Just Transition movement often doesn’t fully see the importance of how materials move.
Through NextCycle Washington and other efforts, Kamal seeks to bridge the Circular Economy and Just Transition movements.
The Origins of NextCycle Washington
Until 2018, the U.S. had been shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of supposedly recyclable materials to China, including plastic, metal, glass, and more. Then, China passed the “National Sword” policy and announced that it would stop accepting certain types of waste from other countries. For good reason. Much of what we were sending over wasn’t really recyclable and was polluting their land, water, and air.
It turns out no one else wants our waste either, so now municipalities throughout the U.S. have been forced to reckon with their own “recycling.” Waste management departments are suddenly motivated to work with the Circular Economy movement.
That’s where NextCycle comes in. NextCycle programs have been implemented in Colorado, Michigan, and now Washington. NextCycle Washington is a circular economy project accelerator for businesses and communities.
What is NextCycle Washington?
NextCycle Washington, originally funded by King County’s Solid Waste Division, is now collaboratively supported by King County, the Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington Recycling Development Center, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Washington State Department of Commerce. It includes a six-month program to help Circular Economy projects advance their ventures, $10,000 seed grants, and a pitch competition.
Co-Designing NextCycle Washington
As a consultant, Kamal has been a critical player in supporting the equitable design and development of NextCycle Washington. Since the beginning, NextCycle Washington has centered frontline communities–the communities who are most impacted by pollution and other environmental harms and who have historically had the least economic power.
NextCycle Washington brought public entities, private companies, and community-based organizations together for a co-design process, building in inclusion and equity from the start. (PEL Lab Leaders Njuguna Gishuru and Shiho Fuyuki were both part of the co-design process!)
Through the co-design process, NextCycle Washington determined that 50% or more of governance must be community members. In addition, equity measures were added to the rubric for the selection of NextCycle Washington teams. And NextCycle Washington created stipends for community-based mentors throughout the state to help spread the word about the program and provide support with submitting applications.
Thanks to these efforts, teams applied from across the state, the majority of NextCycle Washington teams were led by women and/or BIPOC, and, at the March 2023 pitch competition, BIPOC women-led projects Restaurant 2 Garden won the Community Impact Award and Refugee Artisan Initiative won the Upstream Award and the People’s Prize.
Audience members and pitch competition participants alike ended the evening feeling inspired and hopeful for Washington’s ability to advance a Just Transition to a Circular Economy.
Kamal Patel of Kamal Designs and Traversal Design, and Joycelyn Chui and Elizabeth Baskerville of Restaurant 2 Garden, were all participants in the first New Economy Washington Frontline Community Fellows cohort in 2021.