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PA OPINION

Sustainability – A waste(d) effort

If only we had a carbon credit for every time we’ve read that sustainability has moved from a nice to have to an opportunity or differentiator. Yes, it’s true, but building a plan to reduce and reimagine waste is now considered effective contingency planning. Neglecting sustainability has serious business impacts, including turning off customers and investors, limiting available resources, and curbing your company’s future in what’s been coined the “decisive decade for climate change.

To have a deeper impact, organisations must do more than institute a new recycling program, switch to renewables or invest in smart lighting systems. Leaders are being compelled to do the hard work and take a holistic view of sustainability, using a portfolio approach to go beyond doing no harm, and instead providing a beneficial impact. Waste is a good place to start.

First, look for new opportunities to minimise waste

Most companies have communicated 2025 and 2030 commitments that include waste reduction. But do leaders understand their business’ waste streams enough to meet and exceed those commitments? The process of reducing waste often involves tracing each form of waste from its source, down to its point of disposal and beyond. Only by first identifying each waste stream, can leaders then look for ways to design out excess materials and consider ways to reduce waste.

Food waste in particular has come under appropriate scrutiny. All players in the value chain are re-assessing their roles and grocers, farmers, and consumers are listening. New technology entrants are bringing innovation to bear. Apeel Sciences delivers plant-based protection that extends the shelf-life of produce to reduce spoilage. Named a 2019 World Changing Idea by Fast Company, Treasure8 uses technology to redirect food waste and make quality nutrition accessible for all through a unique dehydration technology.

Each industry and organisation has its own opportunities for thoughtful recovery and extension, but the first step is tracking where waste is coming from and going.

Rethink the very concept of waste

A growing school of thought is the eradication of the concept of waste itself. All waste is a product of something else. What if it were not a thing to be disposed of, but an underutilized asset to be realised? Are there ways to use materials, emissions, and even technology left over from processing? Can someone else’s waste become an input for you?

TerraCycle, Plastic Bank, and Closed Loop Partners are leaders in material recycling, along with PulPac, which works with Tensei to reuse waste plant fibres. Excess water and heat are relatively straightforward as far as recycling for different processes. Even greenhouse gas emissions are now being captured and refined for different uses. Carbon capture, for example, takes a common waste output and repurposes it as a production input. Beauty brand Coty is using carbon capture to produce new fragrances with sustainable ethanol.

There are a number of methods to consider – mechanical recycling, chemical recycling, alternative materials, offset models, waste valorisation, and more – and this is just the material aspect. There’s also novel business models and partnerships to consider. Each method will have different inputs and outputs, depending on the industries they serve. Choosing which methods fit best in your portfolio requires an intimate understanding of how each aligns with your business.

And now the hard work, sustainability’s next great act

Sustainability’s next great act means moving past optimisation or damage mitigation to regeneration. While waste reduction of all kinds is essential, it's not enough. All signs indicate that a reversal of global climate change will require going beyond net-zero. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that the world would need to cut carbon emissions by 7.6 per cent per year over the next decade to prevent the globe from warming more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels — a goal set in 2015’s Paris Agreement at COP21. Even with the limited travel and lockdowns during COVID-19, it is estimated that we’ve only reduced emissions by 6.4 per cent during the pandemic. That means we could live through 10 more global shutdowns and still fall short of our goal! What actions can be taken to create a beneficial or restorative impact, rather than a less negative one?

A regenerative model requires not only a diversity of methods, but a diversity of thought, expertise, and technology. Few organisations have the necessary resources and expertise in-house to deliver a truly innovative, regenerative process. Those that find and partner with experienced, mission-aligned collaborators are best positioned to succeed in this arena.

Organisations should look for partners with demonstrated innovation experience. It’s not just about meeting stated sustainability objectives, but about reimagining what’s possible. Partners, suppliers, and firms that have delivered ingenious solutions in the past are likely to be critical in the future.

Our own Dark Matter tool is a combination of self-learning artificial intelligence and natural language processing that scans the reaches of emergent technologies and opportunities. Based on its findings, Dark Matter generates novel and unexpected ways to turn waste into assets. This approach is helping clients find tangible, real-world solutions to meet sustainability targets.

Building a cohesive, scalable sustainability portfolio

Building a diverse portfolio to minimise, valorise, and incentivise waste management requires a team equipped with a range of skills and specialties. They must understand different waste streams, their relation to the industry and organisation, and how they can be transformed for the benefit of all. The stark reality is that it’s rare to find this blend of skills in a single internal working group. Nor should it be expected. While key stakeholders must be involved, leaders need to acknowledge limitations and recognize when it makes sense to find partners to fill in the gaps.

By pursuing a diverse portfolio of solutions centred on innovation, organisations can safeguard their future and help achieve our vision for a sustainable world. Bringing the right minds and tools together is the key to building a truly sustainable and regenerative portfolio.

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Consumer and sustainability