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PA OPINION

Waste not, want not - finding new value from the world's waste

Consumers throw away about 30 per cent of the world’s food. That waste costs the global economy $1 trillion dollars, is a major contributor to CO2 emissions and is unconscionable as people still go hungry. Globally, countries generate 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually (including 54 million tonnes of e-waste), more than a third of which is not managed in an environmentally safe manner. The world also generates more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, only nine per cent of which is recycled and 12 per cent incinerated.

What’s driving excessive waste creation?

There are so many trends driving waste creation, that it’s hard to name them all. Population growth, urbanisation and rising incomes have turned many of the world’s residents into consumers, rather than producers. Trends such as fast fashion, constant technology innovation, eCommerce product abundance and availability, and single-use plastics have made products more convenient, but inherently disposable. Regulations generally tackle waste issues in silos at the local level. As a result, they focus on the types of waste that are generated, rather than the causes creating them or the volumes being produced.

These issues result in an enormous loss of value. In Europe, only five per cent of product material value is ever recovered, while 95 per cent is lost. What could improving that ratio do for business today?

Five ways to address waste strategically in your business

The good news is that manufacturers, governments, recyclers and waste treatment facilities are highly motivated to create sustainable solutions to the world’s waste problems. Many leading brands have already adopted and achieved zero-waste goals. What’s new is that they’re extending responsibility both upstream and downstream of their value chain to scale results. Here’s how your organisation can follow suit.

  1. Think creatively about waste: Most waste can be recovered and reused as a valuable input for another industry or organisation and therefore serve as a revenue stream for you. There are many ways to recycle and upcycle waste – you could convert its by-products into new materials, packaging, ingredients, products, energy and more. Recycled and repurposed plastic can for example become bricks, plastic lumber, lawn furniture, decking, roof tiles, and even roads.

    UBQ Materials Ltd. is a B-Corp start-up headquartered in Israel that has found a way to transform residential municipal solid waste into a pelletised biomass-based thermoplastic material. For every tonne used and produced, approximately 1.3 tonnes of landfilled waste are diverted and up to 15 tonnes of CO2 are saved. How might another industry’s waste output be your feedstock input? Could you secure a consistent stream of material and take control of your supply chain?

    Through modern technology including artificial intelligence, and industry partnerships, we can explore potential futures, develop sustainable products and business models, and create the technology roadmap to achieve zero-waste ambitions. 

  2. Partner smartly on waste issues: Team with supply chain partners, industry competitors, cross-sector organisations, recyclers and processors to approach waste from a circular economy perspective and to capture the most value from waste. That may mean coordinating the use of raw material inputs, waste collection and recovery; sharing best practices and new technologies; co-funding start-ups; and more.

    AkzoNobel has teamed with resource management experts Veolia to launch recycled paint. After collecting used white paint from AkzoNobel and other paint manufacturers, Veolia sorts, filters and refines the new product, testing it to make sure that it meets the high standards of the paint manufacturer’s Dulux Trade. The final product, Evolve Matt emulsion, contains 35 per cent recycled paint and has a lower carbon footprint of 10 per cent compared to standard products.

  3. Track waste flows: Do you know how much waste your business is generating? Label, track and monitor waste by using Internet of Things platforms, powered by sensors, cloud-based monitoring dashboards and analytics. This gives you transparency and helps create a baseline of waste production. You can then set goals, create new processes, and track progress, enabling you to report to regulators, shareholders and the media alike.

    Gaining these insights can help you identify different waste flows and plan for them: which ones can be recycled, recovered and reused; and which ones should be significantly reduced to decrease environmental harm. Even challenging products can be recycled, like paint, batteries, engines and insulin pens, among others.

    Solutions such as Waste Harmonics in the United States, help organisations optimise waste management, while reducing liability, cost and environmental concerns. Globally, Rubicon enables worldwide traceability of waste flows, with software as a service and data and analytics, enabling businesses, communities and haulers to partner on creating scalable solutions.

  4. Design waste out: Did you know that over 80 per cent of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product? When creating new products or services, design waste out from the start. One option is to design products for reuse and/or repair, implementing closed-loop programs to recover, recycle and refurbish goods for their own use or to sell again via recommerce programs. Recommerce is big business, growing 20-times faster than the broader retail market. That means consumer-facing businesses can reengage buyers with second-hand goods, while extending their lifecycles and creating new revenue streams. This approach is likely to require material substitution; converting plastic waste into feeds for new products; and decomposing waste using biological technologies. You’ll also need to rethink your production processes and chemicals you use and supply chain and partnerships to deliver, for example, on low carbon logistics.

    Unilever and Subaru are among the big brands who have tackled and achieved zero-waste goals. Unilever has attacked the problem of plastic packaging head-on, reducing the use of virgin plastic in new packaging, recovering and recycling used material and increasing its use of recycled plastic materials. Subaru tracks its waste production using barcodes and recycles and reuses materials internally. In addition, the manufacturer has designed its cars so that 96 per cent of materials can be reused and recycled.

    Google repairs and reuses equipment wherever possible and resells it or recycles when not possible, keeping technology out of landfills. Stuffstr is a start-up that collects, recycles, refurbishes and resells used clothing on behalf of brands. Brands benefit by being able to offer this service, while Stuffstr handles all backend processes for them

  5. Explore new technologies and processes: New technologies will be key to helping brands and consumers drive carbon, heat, water and product waste out of their processes. Some unconventional examples include using excess wind energy to mine cryptocurrency, breaking down food waste with fly larvae and empowering consumers to use food waste to create their own biofuel.

    Waste reduction isn’t just about optimising front-end processes, it’s also about transforming operations. Recently, the vast waste of COVID-19 vaccines has risen to the fore. This is a global, humanitarian problem that will need the best minds to rethink logistics and cold chain operations and align supply with local demand.

    ENSO Tyres aimed to solve the issue of air pollution and other environmental impacts from tyres. We worked with them to develop a new market strategy that involves leasing tyres and paying for miles covered, rather than the standard process of buying tyres and throwing them away at end-of-life.

    Treasure8 is a San Francisco-based food technology company that has joined forces with us to scale its revolutionary SAUNA™ dehydration technology. Treasure8 takes surplus produce and food that would otherwise be disposed of and dehydrates it. The solution significantly reduces food waste, while also combatting issues like food insecurity and malnutrition. We have commercialised the technology and introduced the start-up leaders to our extensive network of global consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers, food companies and more.

Tap the potential of waste

By considering waste holistically, brands can create a desired future world for how to reduce, recycle and reuse waste. They can also use partnerships to drive results, track waste flows across the supply chain and redesign products and processes to decrease waste. Start-ups offer new technologies and processes to tackle waste issues in new ways and reuse or upcycle waste in new products.

It’s clear that there’s untapped gold in the materials and products businesses throw away today. The only question is: Are you ready to recover it?

Contact the authors

Contact the sustainability and climate response team