American Ingenuity Begins in the Mitten: A Look at Forward-Thinking Initiatives for a Greener Economy and a Greener Future

American Ingenuity Begins in the Mitten: A Look at Forward-Thinking Initiatives for a Greener Economy and a Greener Future

Monica Plawecki, SMSBF Staff Writer

As the end of 2020 quickly approaches, many of us are looking forward to the New Year and the potential for a “fresh start,” politically speaking. With a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, a new Presidential administration assuming office–and with it, an expected shift toward more progressive, socially just, and environmentally-friendly policymaking–we have a unique opportunity to turn over a new leaf, so to speak, in the coming year.

With climate change at the forefront of President-elect Biden’s agenda after four years of being constantly under-resourced, the prospect of making inroads against the worst effects of climate change and propelling our “green economy” forward finally seems both possible and probable. In fact, the incoming administration has referred to tackling climate change as the “next great test of American ingenuity,” signaling that our country is at the precipice of a major environmental and economic policy shift. (New York Times)

Where does Michigan fit into all of this? In some ways, Michigan is already ahead of the curve in terms of this “ingenuity.” Our state has begun investing in green infrastructure and initiatives and has enacted forward-thinking executive directives, including one recent move to aggressively reduce state carbon emissions. Yet our state has room to improve: our lack of reliable mass transportation all but guarantees that our dependence on individual automobile transportation, which contributes heavily to carbon emissions, will continue. We’ll take a closer look at a few of the ways Michigan has already embraced green innovation and where opportunities to strengthen our economy for the future remain.


NextCycle, an initiative of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), stands out as a particularly innovative way to promote economic growth throughout the state via our recycling supply chain. With the cooperation of Recycling Resources Systems, Centrepolis Accelerator at Lawrence Technological University, and the Michigan Recycling Coalition, NextCycle hopes to create a “robust recycled materials supply chain” and spark job creation in recycling end-use markets. (NextCycle Michigan, WEMU) In essence, rather than sending materials to a landfill, which is both costly and harmful for the environment, recycled materials could increasingly be used and sought after by businesses as end-use materials. The process would promote a “circular economy,” namely, an economic framework focused on restoration of goods and materials for additional use and which “entails decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.” (Ellen Macarthur Foundation)

Through increasing rates of recycling–one of the initiative’s goals–NextCycle would have the greatest economic impact in Michigan’s Recycling, Reuse, and Recovery Industry. One study found that a 45% rate of recycling, triple the current rate, would support the creation of 138,000 jobs in this industry, “providing $9 billion in annual labor income and $33.8 billion in economic output.” (WEMU) And our environment would benefit from the increased rates of recycling as well: experts estimate a carbon dioxide emissions reduction of 7 million metric tons, “equivalent to taking nearly 1.5 million passenger cars off the road for one year.” (WEMU)

Building a Carbon-Neutral Michigan

At the state level, Governor Whitmer has also undertaken forward-thinking measures to reduce our state’s carbon emissions and ensure our state’s economy is increasingly less dependent on out-of-state fossil fuels. Executive Directive 2020-10 commits Michigan to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050; this is even more ambitious than a 2019 directive that entered Michigan into the United States Climate Alliance, wherein the state would commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26-28% by 2025. Under the 2020 directive, EGLE is tasked with creating the MI Healthy Climate Plan, which will serve as the state’s action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition toward economy-wide carbon neutrality, and is working closely with the Office of Environmental Justice Public Advocate to ensure underserved communities are fairly and adequately represented in developing and implementing the plan. (“Executive Directive 2020-10”)

Under the directive, in order to aid workers in energy facilities displaced by the shift, the Department of Treasury will implement the Energy Transition Impact Project (ETIP) to identify those communities most impacted by the changes and “minimize those impacts and dislocation” through securing high-quality employment for workers. (“Executive Directive 2020-10”) The state’s aggressive stance on becoming carbon-neutral ensures Michigan is strongly positioned to attract clean energy jobs and develop our state’s clean energy industry.

Green Infrastructure in Detroit

Our state has also continued to support green infrastructure projects, which incorporate plant or soil systems, stormwater reuse, or permeable pavement or other permeable surfaces “to manage water and create healthier urban environments.” (Michigan Economic Development Corporation) In Detroit, the historic El Moore building was converted last year for multi-use development, including a hotel that aims to use 80% less waste and 80% less energy than an average hotel, a community garden, and park space, and affordable living spaces. Incorporating a triple-bottom line approach, El Moore is committed to sustainability and environmental stewardship, community wellbeing, and economic resilience, pledging to provide living wages and prioritize hiring local Detroiters. (El Moore – Sustainability)

The City of Detroit has also embraced green stormwater projects, which use “natural solutions to capture and filter excess rainwater” to prevent flooding and reduce water pollution. (Detroit Stormwater Hub – GSI in Detroit) Under the management of The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), the city has implemented green solutions including bioswales, green roofs, permeable pavement, rain barrels, rain gardens, and water harvesting to prevent stormwater runoff from overloading the city’s sewage system, which can flood basements and occasionally lead to sewage overflow into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. (Detroit Stormwater Hub – GSI in Detroit) To date, 206 green stormwater projects have been implemented all across Detroit, investments which the city believes will ultimately create new employment opportunities for Detroit residents, promote workforce training, and revitalize neighborhoods. (ICIC – “Detroit revitalizes neighborhoods with green infrastructure and workforce training”)

Pursuing a Greener Future: What Comes Next?

While our efforts thus far are encouraging, there are certainly additional steps we can take to be on the cutting edge of “ingenuity,” and specific factors that continue to hold us back in the development of our green economy. For one example, our failure to implement regional transit in Southeast Michigan’s automobile-dependent landscape remains an obstacle to reducing carbon emissions from vehicles. Given that voters rejected a 2016 Regional Transit Authority proposal to create a network of mass transit in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw County, we certainly have work to do to influence current public opinion and help Michiganders access greener methods of transportation. (Michigan Environmental Council)

In another blow to the future of Michigan’s “green” transportation, the Michigan House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would undermine electrical vehicle manufacturers in Michigan by blocking them from selling cars directly to customers without a dealer as an intermediary. Such legislation would hamper the efforts of startups like Rivian and Lucid Motors, who produce electric vehicles and plan to engage in direct sales to consumers without a franchised dealer network, making it more difficult for Michigan consumers to access climate-friendly products. (Bloomberg)

Though it’s evident that Michigan has room to improve, the progress we’ve made thus far is nevertheless a promising start. And, with the flourishing of sustainable, green projects and initiatives in Detroit and throughout the state, as well as the continued leadership of Governor Whitmer and her aggressive approach to fighting climate change, Michigan appears well-positioned to become a hub for green innovation.

As for the “next great test of ingenuity,” so long as we carry the current momentum into President-elect Biden’s first term and we continue championing green, sustainable initiatives right here in the Mitten State, we appear to be up to the challenge.


New York Times

NextCycle Michigan


Ellen Macarthur Foundation

“Executive Directive 2020-10”

Michigan Economic Development Corporation

El Moore – Sustainability

Detroit Stormwater Hub – GSI in Detroit

ICIC – “Detroit revitalizes neighborhoods with green infrastructure and workforce training”

Michigan Environmental Council


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