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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Short

Alexa Smith: Circular Economy

Alexa Smith is a junior at the University of Illinois majoring in natural resources and environmental science. After graduating, she hopes to be a sustainability director at an international company and eventually become an entrepreneur. Her book, Economic Eclipse: Unlocking a Circular World Through the Assets of Trash, will be published by New Degree Press sometime around the last week of April. You will be able to order it on Amazon.

It’s a common misconception that environmentalists are anti-business and that businesses don’t care about the environment. In her upcoming book, Economic Eclipse: Unlocking a Circular World Through the Assets of Trash, college student Alexa Smith explores how entrepreneurs can help lead the fight against waste by using the concepts of the circular economy movement.

“What initially sparked my interest for nature was my traveling experiences,” said Smith. “When I was in fifth grade I went to Bali, Indonesia and I (visited a remote forest.) Just being a part of nature in such a secluded area that wasn’t at all impacted by industry or consumerism was really impactful for me… Seeing how these different cultures live with a consciousness to the environment was really inspiring.”

Throughout her life, Smith’s travels have helped her interest in sustainability to grow. While recently studying abroad in Greece, she saw some graduate students giving presentations on sustainable business. “That was something that I never really crossed paths with in my own educational experience,” said Smith. “I got really intrigued by sustainable business, and then coinciding with that interest was a program I came across with Georgetown University called the Creator Institute.”

At the Creator Institute, Professor Eric Koester teaches students how to write books and sets them up with the resources to succeed, including weekly Zoom calls with other student authors. Smith had planned to create an online course for sustainable living in college dorms, but after meeting with Koester she decided to write a book instead.

Smith then came across the concept of a circular economy while researching sustainable business. “Now I’m super passionate about it,” she explained.

“A circular economy is a system where zero waste is created and resources are seen as something that can be used over and over again. It really promotes regeneration, reuse, recycling,” said Smith.

“The thing that I’m most passionate about with the circular economy is that there’s no waste,” she continued. “In some of my environmental law classes that I’ve taken, it’s become clear to me that waste in the next few years is going to be a major problem with our political systems, and just in general, because landfills are not a bottomless pit.”

One example of a circular economy in action is Excess Materials Exchange (EME), a company based in the Netherlands. Smith interviewed founder Maayke Damen for her book. EME connects companies so that one company’s waste can become another company’s resource.

“Let’s say you have a restaurant that makes coffee,” Smith said, giving an example Damen had given to her. “The coffee grounds from that restaurant can be posted through Excess Materials Exchange, and then those coffee grounds can be used by another company in another industry, so let’s say in the fashion industry (coffee grounds) can be used for natural alternatives to synthetic textile dyes.”

At the University of Illinois, Smith works with the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, which works to create and implement a climate action plan at the university with the goal of reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

Through the Institute, Smith is currently working on creating sustainability education requirements and programs that directly reduce carbon emissions.

Climate education is “something that I'm very passionate about,” said Smith. “I didn't really have any formal education on sustainability in high school, until I decided to take AP Environmental Science. And that wasn't even required, it just came by happenstance.”

Smith has also worked with global organization Enactus by turning used wine bottles into glasses, which is a perfect example of circular economy in action.

“Circular economy needs interconnections and togetherness of consumers and businesses and government,” said Smith. “It really does require us to put individual attention, and the attention of business, towards this issue of waste.”

As for what individuals can do, Smith says, “The most important thing is to vote with your dollar. I think that purchasing habits are so ingrained in our society and they’re not something a lot of people choose to analyze… By changing your own daily habits, I think it goes to the core of what circular economy is.”

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