Victoria Johnson sees the side of Charlotte most people prefer not to think about — the trash.
As director of Solid Waste Services, she’s seen the city’s garbage increase by 7 percent in the last two years. Charlotte produces 337,211 tons of waste a year — a number that includes garbage, recycling and yard waste — a record number for the city.
It’s not just the city’s rapid population growth, she said. People also have more money, and higher incomes mean more stuff, which means more waste.
But now Charlotte has an idea to help ease the area's growing landfills.
In the city's 2018-19 budget, passed earlier this month, the council allotted $2 million for improvements to a barn in the Belmont neighborhood — a 36,000-square-foot space that the city wants to turn into an innovation lab for trash.
It’s called the "circular economy initiative," a push to move the city toward zero waste by turning products like plastic or paper into something useful.
Council member Dimple Ajmera, chair of the council's environmental committee, said the city’s long-term goal is to produce zero carbon emissions by 2030, and be overall sustainable by 2050.
The City Council unanimously approved a resolution to move the city in that direction on Monday. The resolution is broad in its scope, but there isn’t a specific plan in place to meet the goal. The lab appears to be a first step.
“The innovation lab, once it’s implemented, is going to help put this idea into action,” she said.
Ajmera used the example of turning tires, which can take about 80 years to decompose in a landfill, into shoes. These are the kind of projects the innovation lab will develop, she said.
The barn won’t just be a lab, said Amy Aussieker, executive director of the nonprofit Envision Charlotte, which is leading the project. The building will also feature a 6,000-square-foot event space that residents can rent and a restaurant specializing in creating dishes from food that would have been thrown away at grocery stores or other places.
The restaurant and event space are intended to bring in revenue, Aussieker said, but most of the building will be dedicated to office and entrepreneurial space for businesses or scientists to use. She said the goal is to have micro-grants to fund some of the projects and help them grow.
“The majority of it will be focused on how do we create products using the waste stream,” she said.
Among the tenants, UNC Charlotte is already committed and will have classrooms in the new lab.
These are just the first steps. Aussieker said her goal is that the restaurant would open first at the beginning of the year, before the lab becomes fully operational later. UNC Charlotte is expected to hold its first classes there in the summer or fall of 2019.
The lab will begin with only small-scale experiments to discover what products in Charlotte’s waste stream are most valuable — Johnson predicts textiles — and how they can be used.
“The whole point of this innovation center will be having people step back in this country, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and look at waste differently,” Johnson said. “There’s so much stuff we throw away that can be reused, upcycled, and not be put in a landfill.”
Though it’s too early to think about selling the products, Ajmera said it’s something they could start developing for the next 20 years.
Ajmera recognizes that the lab is a single step, but she said it’s an important one for Charlotte to become a globally competitive city and ensure that residents live in an environmentally sustainable and clean city.
“It is a question of our existence,” she said.