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Forests and Carbon: Creating a Circular Economy with Kathryn Fernholz of Dovetail Partners Inc.

KAXE's Tuesday Morning Show strives to take an in-depth look at some natural resource-based issues important to our region. Producer Mark Jacobs and hosts Heidi Holtan and John Latimer hope to discuss not only the problems but also highlight some creative solutions.

The current focus, Forests and Carbon, is an issue receiving a lot of attention in recent years. In the first segment of the series, Todd Ontl chatted with John and Heidi about how forests sequester and store atmospheric carbon. Stephen Handler described potential changes in Minnesota's forests due to a changing climate in the second segment. In January, Eli Sagor from the U of M.N. discussed their information exchange efforts regarding forests and carbon. In February's episode, Meredith Cornett from The Nature Conservancy described their Natural Climate Solutions initiative. Sawyer Scherer from UPM-Blandin discussed diversity-centered forestry. Then, we covered biofuels in Minnesota's future with David Pelikan from Conservation Minnesota. In June, we discussed carbon stored in forest products with Edie Sonne Hall. In July, Scott (covering for Heidi) and John cover carbon storage in bogs and peatlands with Paul Hanson, the principal investigator on the SPRUCE project in Northern Minnesota. Award-winner Mark Jacobs is the Forest and Carbon series producer and joined the conversation.

This week, Scott and John discuss the concept of a circular economy with Katie Fernholz, President and CEO of Dovetail Partners, Inc.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Scott: Katie, tell us about Dovetail Partners.

Katie: Thank you. Dovetail Partners is a nonprofit based here in Minnesota. We were formed in 2003, so we've been around for a little while. We work throughout the state on environmental considerations. The shorthand for Dovetail is that we are an environmental think tank. So, if it's environmental and somebody needs to think about it, we're on the job!

Scott: Good! Well, John Latimer is a very good woodworker, and I've seen some of his dovetail joints. So I think it's a great title for your group.

Mark: The circular economy is a concept that's applicable to a lot of different things in society. Katie recently wrote a paper on it, so I think she'd be a perfect person to explain it to us.

Katie: What is a circular economy? Well, it's a new term for something we've been doing for a long time. That's the short answer. It really is about changing our production and consumption patterns to reduce environmental impacts. In a linear economy, materials are extracted, products are made, we consume them, we use them, and we throw them away. It's a linear thing from production to waste. We're trying to go from linear to circular. Like I said, we've done this for a long time. Fundamental within a circular economy is recycling and reuse. There's the idea that waste products can be gathered, collected, and that becomes raw material for new products for remanufacturing. That's fundamental within a circular economy. But, the current conversation about circular economy wants to go even further so that we design materials for reuse. We design materials for repair. We change the relationship between production and consumption so that we really can optimize, maximize, and expand the way that materials flow through our economy and create additional opportunities while we're reducing environmental impact.

Scott: You know, every time I go to the dump, I think about what you're talking about. In Itasca County, there are multiple big bins of stuff we throw away. What are the obstacles to getting products made so that they're easily recycled and reused? I'm thinking of precious metals and the need for them in the future. Can products be made so that when my old phone is useless, the precious metals in there can be extracted? Are we getting anywhere near that?

Katie: The short answer is yes. Cell phones are a perfect example. There are some very innovative cell phone companies that have basically changed the relationship with consumers. What those cell phone companies have done is designed their phones for complete dismantling and recovery of materials at the end of life. They've also designed their phones to be much more easily repaired, should something go wrong, where the parts are interchangeable, and you don't have obsolescence so quickly. Most fundamentally, they've changed the relationship with the consumers, where they don't sell the consumer a phone. They sell the consumer a cellular service. The hardware is interchangeable, but the company is in the business of the services that come through that hardware. Perhaps I'm not explaining it very clearly, but the bottom line is that cellphones are a great example of some really innovative work to design for circularity.

You also asked about the big barriers to circularity. There are a bunch of them, but two big ones come to mind. One is the way that products and materials are designed; you actually have to design and engineer things in anticipation of that end of life and that recovery/recycling/repair cycle. The other part of it is, frankly, our waste handling systems. We have some pretty generalized ways of handling waste in this country and around the world. To really reduce our waste and change that system, you fundamentally have to look at waste collection, waste handling, and everything about what happens at the end of life with materials. So, those are two big things. There are many more. It does come down to individual companies really looking at their business models as well.

Scott: I want to get back to that, but how do forests and forest products figure into this?

Katie: A fundamental part of our circular economy is using bio-based products: products that are non-toxic, renewable, and biodegradable. They offer all kinds of different options at end of life, even options of generating energy, but also options of being recycled, reused, and cycled back. So bio-based materials (wood, fiber, forest products) are fundamental to circular economy goals. Many people even use the term 'bio-circular economy' or 'bio-based circular economy' to really emphasize the fact that to reach our circularity goals, we have to move toward more bio-based forest and farm-based materials.

Scott: How do we change the waste handling system? Are you optimistic that it can be done?

Katie, laughing: YES. Haven't you gotten that theme yet? I tell you to try to be optimistic about it because I am optimistic. We need to do more of what we know how to do. There are some interesting innovations around the world and here in the United States looking at opening up landfills and mining them for recoverable materials. There's some innovative technology looking at intercepting mixed municipal waste streams and optimizing recovery from those streams. So, you look at 90% recovery and getting down to less than 10% of the original waste having to go to a landfill. Part of what is changing things is, of course, our economics. We've gone through this in the past, where waste disposal or landfilling becomes cost prohibitive. Whether it's the hauling distances or other factors, the economics of our current waste disposal systems can change. So policies, economics, and incentives are absolutely essential to changing our waste system and incentivizing entrepreneurial innovations around recovering waste materials. And we are seeing that happening: we need more of it, but we know what to do. We just need more of it.

Mark: How does the forest products industry currently rate on the scale of companies that have adopted this kind of approach?

Katie: The forest industry and production of wood products are already a great model of a circular economy. We've been this way since after World War II. Within the forest products industry, we already have circularity (another term that's used is "a cascading use of wood"). So, when you have a log and you saw it up for lumber, the sawdust, the chips, the bark, and the other byproducts from that lumber manufacturing go into other products (particleboard, composite materials, biomass energy, paper, etc.). Most forest industries have this full utilization and this circularity of how material is used within forest product manufacturing. That goes back many decades to innovation and research within the forest services and within private companies to figure out how to fully utilize those materials and reduce the waste. There is additional work going on in the forest sector to design for end-of-life recovery so that buildings can be deconstructed and that material can be reused. You know, paper, packaging, and cardboard boxes are already one of the most recycled materials in our economy. So, the forest industry provides all kinds of models, and the pathways they've used to get there through incentives, policy, innovation, and research. So, it's a great model for what we're trying to accomplish in other industries.

Scott: When I was a kid, I collected bottles and turned them in for two cents. In a week, I'd have a buck, and it would buy me my bubble gum for the week or some baseball cards. The whole plastic container thing seems pretty fraught with waste and trouble. What are economic obstacles to getting more materials into a circular economy?

Katie: You're absolutely right. The rate of recycling in plastics is very low because there are all kinds of different plastics. They don't play well together, and there are a bunch of barriers to plastic recycling. To be very candid, we've seen great success in paper recycling and in the forest industry because paper and packaging manufacturers invested in recycling mills as well. So, there are lots of paper companies in this country that will use new wood from the forest to make some of their paper or mix it in. But they've also invested in collecting recycled material. So, the industry itself created a pathway to recycling, and we haven't seen that in other industries. We haven't seen the producers of some materials invest as heavily as the forest industry has in becoming utilizers of that waste material. So, again, the forest industry is a pretty impressive model of not just innovating within technology but actually becoming a collector of the recycling products themselves. We are having the same conversation around solid wood manufacturers because part of the logic is: You make the stuff, you know how it works, you should be the ones that know how to reuse it. There's a logic there for the industry to step into that space and design for recyclability and circularity, but then to step up to take their materials back.

Scott: Is recycling energy intensive? In other words, it's great to recycle, but is it not necessarily cutting down on greenhouse gases?

Katie: Yeah, you're absolutely right. Recycling can be water-intensive and energy intensive. So, there's a balancing act there. Dovetail investigated optimization in paper recycling. We found that office paper that's about 30% recycled content is an optimization between the energy intensiveness of recycling and the opportunity to incentivize for stewardship and care of our natural resources. So yes, there's a limit to recycling, and that's part of why circularity also emphasizes the design for reducing waste. You can't just produce lots of stuff and rely on recycling to reduce the impact. You also have to look at that whole design manufacturing process so that at the end of life, things are reused or repaired and not just ending up in recycling.

Scott: What is Dovetail Partners? What are you going to be working on today?

Katie: Wow, I gotta check my calendar!

Scott: Oh, I was thinking in terms of how you decide what to research or do.

Katie: There are two things there at least that keep us in our lane. One is that we work on things we have knowledge and expertise around. A lot of our team has natural resource forest-related expertise. So, we stick to our knitting- I'm a big knitter. We stick to the expertise within our team, but we add members to our team over time as we see opportunities to collaborate. The other thing is that Dovetail is a nonprofit: we believe in going into risky or unknown territory, being at the front edge. We often describe it as trying to look around corners, take the long view and see what's coming on the horizon. So, we try not to just be in the middle of the bell curve on the things we're working on. We try to look out ahead and apply our expertise. Those are the two things that help us pick and choose what we work on.

Scott: Mark, I think that when you were Aitkin County land commissioner, you first called our attention to Dovetail Partners when they started up. What's happening in Aitkin County that you think is part of this big picture?

Mark: We collaborated with Dovetail Partners on certification, on bat research, on bird research, and right now I'm an associate with Dovetail Partners. We just did a survey on foresters' opinions of loggers: how they view loggers and their importance to the economy and forest stewardship and things like that. Katie, Climate change and these kinds of topics aren't uplifting: can we turn things around? Is there anything an individual can do to promote this circular economy concept?

Katie: Yeah. Climate change can be overwhelming. This might sound a little silly or oversimplified, but I think at the end of the day, if we created the problem, we should be able to fix it. Right? It's that simple in some ways: if you mess up your room, you can clean it. So, I think we know what we need to do, and we just need to do more of it. I mean, we all know as consumers and individuals, we can make choices every day. I think that's really important. We all do what we can to reduce our environmental footprint and impact.

But I think we also have to look further than that. We have to look at our voice with policy and ensure we are supporting local, state, regional, and federal policies that will create these larger-scale changes. Because yes, there are things we can do individually, but when the economy doesn't incentivize the things we want to see at a larger scale, it's hard to see that large-scale change. I think watching for the policies that affect our waste handling and all of those things we've talked about [are important things we can do]. So, I think it's important for people to take individual action in our own homes in every way we can, but also look for those collective action opportunities.

Scott: I know my family tries to buy things in bottles and boxes, not plastic, but is glass recycling working?

Katie: Yes, very much like paper, the glass industry manufacturers are very good at reusing their own materials.

Scott: Yeah. So, that was one little thing we tried to adapt to, but it's hard not to buy stuff in plastic! It's an amazing substance: it's so versatile and flexible, but it's everywhere now. Even in terms of ditches; it's discouraging to see where it ends up. Mark, thank you again for producing this segment on Forests and Carbon and Katie from Dovetail Partners, thank you for bringing us your message about the circular economy. You guys have a good week!

Mark and Katie: Thank you!

Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, she enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).