Insight

Waste: the commodity of the future

By Kim McCann, Bethan Murphy, Peter de Vries, James Breakes

Dec 09, 2022

Sustainability is key to organisational success, driven by increased consumer, regulatory, and government awareness of our impact on the natural environment. Our prosperity depends on the health of the planet and the ecosystem we are part of.

Every organisation creates waste, and lots of it. This includes production waste like water, energy, and chemicals, as well as material product waste, including e-waste. These are highly valuable materials, but the benefits are often lost because the organisations are unaware of how to generate value from it. Waste is a ‘flaw’ within traditional linear business models of produce and consume. By thinking differently about how we use resources, waste, materials, and human effort, we can reimagine production to maximise value.

As global costs rise and concerns around climate, biodiversity, and resource availability grow, increasing value from underutilised assets is vital. The World Economic Forum estimates that just 20 percent of waste created by humans is recycled. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, when it comes to plastic waste alone, 95 percent of the value remains untapped.

Rather than disposing of waste, a circular economy approach designs waste out of production and resurrects used resources to give them a new life. To achieve circularity at scale, organisations of all sizes and sectors are finding new ways to turn waste into value – in other words, waste valorisation. This goes beyond the bottom line, delivering social and environmental benefits too.

Where there is waste, there is value

Despite a willingness to act, organisations are held back by unawareness of options, legacy systems, entrenched attitudes, and a linear approach – producing, using, and ultimately losing resources at end of life.

To start your waste-to-value journey, understand what waste your organisation produces, where, and how. First, reduce materials consumption and the volume of by-products. Then, find further uses for by-products or waste streams – but these might seem limited at first. The most exciting opportunity comes from looking at how waste can be treated and repurposed into feedstocks for other processes or products, often in other industries.

Think in circles, not lines. Identify the most impactful waste-to-value options – these are your Holy Grails. You’ll need help on your quest – partnerships can provide the insights, resources, access to technology, and skills to create large-scale change. For example, we led a series of workshops with an ecosystem of health and pharmaceutical organisations to explore the digitalisation of patient information leaflets, reducing paper waste, saving nine million trees each year, and improving patient accessibility. For another client we identified new ways to fractionate a liquid waste stream into separate valuable components that could be used for a variety of high value uses in the health and beauty industry; an increase in value over using the liquid as fertilizer.

Our new guide, Waste: The New Commodity, launching in early 2023, draws on surprising insights from subject matter experts across industries and showcases inspiring waste-to-value journeys from our global client portfolio and beyond.

Register here to be the first to gain access to the report

While there are nuances for each sector, three core strategies underpin the waste-to-value opportunity and deliver economic, environmental, and social value – reduce, recycle, and repurpose.

Reduce: increase profitability at pace

At the top of the waste hierarchy, and the best first step towards sustainability, is waste reduction. Less waste also means more productivity, ultimately increasing return from input materials.

Waste reduction can be easily achieved through small changes. To reduce effectively, engage with suppliers and on-the-ground manufacturing teams to understand the upstream and downstream supply chain. Find where waste is created, and alter processes, systems, and materials as required.

Even before COVID-19, the NHS generated around 600,000 tonnes of waste annually, with plastic contributing up to 40 percent. Only around five percent was recovered. Recognising the opportunity to reduce waste and drive value, we built a team of 40 organisations across the value chain to identify and analyse the product journeys of the top 200 items of plastic waste, finding that alternative materials could help divert 85,000 tonnes of material from landfill, cut carbon emissions by 235,000 tonnes, and avoid £45 million in costs.

Recycle: smarter actions deliver higher value

Recycling cuts raw materials costs while demonstrating sustainability to customers, investors, and partners. With the right mindset, technologies, and all-important regulatory awareness, waste resources can be recaptured and recycled within the same product. Start at the design stage – 80 percent of environmental impacts are determined by design, so make sure outputs can be reused, repaired, and remanufactured from the outset.

Recycling offers short and long-term opportunities to avoid waste and improve efficiency. Be led by what makes sense, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. For example, we’re working with a premium tequila brand to recapture organic by-products, optimising waste redirection to create a zero-waste product that can be made using just three key ingredients.

Be pragmatic when changing product properties or design. Adding a coloured dye to recycled plastic, for instance, could ruin future recyclability. With the appropriate design and cleaning treatments, it can be recycled over and over again.

Collaborate with recyclers to understand what happens to products at point of recycling. To stop items ending up in the wrong recycling stream – or worse, landfill – look to understand current processes and new technology. Consider novel design tweaks like digital watermarking to identify ownership and direct waste to the right place.

Repurpose: revolutionise resource potential through imagination

If reducing and recycling waste are evolutionary, then repurposing waste is revolutionary. Reduction is the first point of call, followed by a robust recycling strategy to maximise resource value. But at some stage, you’ll need to start thinking outside the box as the product will reach end-of-life or you may be faced with unavoidable by-products. This type of waste may in fact not be waste at all.

Repurposing breaks the mould, stepping into unchartered territory to investigate unconventional ways to give products a new lease of life. Repurposing sits at the heart of the circular economy, leveraging the power of technology and partnerships to unlock brand-new revenue streams through novel use cases and business models.

We’re working with UBQ Materials, a start-up that converts residential municipal solid waste into biomass-based thermoplastic to replace polypropylene, PVC, or polyethylene in products. Each tonne saves up to 15 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, making it climate positive. Using our circular economy lifecycle assessment framework, we reviewed UBQ’s technology and marketability, supporting global scalability.

In the construction industry, our manufacturing experts and chemical engineers are helping a Puerto Rican company to repurpose plastic waste into a robust concrete alternative, creating a high value commodity product that supports carbon sequestration. The new material is twice as efficient as the original concrete, halving the volume required to deliver additional efficiency and environmental value.

Take advantage of your untapped resources

Reducing, recycling, and repurposing waste can increase productivity, maximise resource potential, and drive decarbonisation. Reducing and recycling are part of a natural evolution towards improved efficiency, and best in class for environmental change. The real revolution for gaining value from waste comes with repurposing what cannot be reduced or recycled – radically changing from linear to circular across operations, strategy, and culture.

One organisation’s waste is another’s input, so partnerships are paramount. Collaboration can solve shared challenges and identify new use cases, helping to see waste through a new lens. In addition, embracing technology is key. Many manufacturing processes are antiquated or incrementally updated. Turning waste into value requires a deep dive into emerging technology and adapting existing processes accordingly. By combining effective partnerships with new technology, organisations can champion the circular economy and capture the commodity of the future.

Has your organisation has adopted a pioneering waste-to-value strategy? We want to hear from you. To contribute to our research and accelerate your waste-to-value journey, contact one of our experts.

About the authors

Kim McCann PA sustainable aviation expert
Bethan Murphy PA Circular Economy expert
Peter de Vries PA product design & engineering expert
James Breakes PA waste valorisation expert

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