More than 4 trillion kilos of waste are produced in OECD nations every year. This colossal ocean of waste could be a large part of solving the problem of increasing demand versus supply bottlenecks forming in the Global economy. Waste, via reprocessing and re-purposing, is potentially a powerful new economic driver as resources become more scarce and valuable as more and more of the world enters the consumer market.
In 2014, the US alone produced over 270 million tonnes of garbage or almost 300 Golden gate bridges worth of trash. Most of which was incinerated or rolled into landfill. But increasingly this tidal wave of annual waste is being seen as a potential revenue stream via re-purposing of the waste.
Waste re-purposing is the more efficient sibling of industrial recycling which uses huge amounts of energy to convert waste material into another life cycle. In recent years firms called ‘waste brokers’ are creating networks between companies to re-purpose waste products which can be of use to someone in the network. This process reaps measurable benefits beyond waste reduction, including cost savings, energy conservation, and reduced virgin-material demand. And its only cost is the expense of a little extra communication and the brokers fee of course.
An example of how waste management is inspiring both economic growth and lateral thinking is the big American brewer, Storm Brewing. Storm brewing had an enormous bulk of grain waste left over as part of the brewing process and they were looking to re-purpose this waste profitably. After several years of looking into it, they discovered that their grain waste was perfect for growing Shitake mushrooms on. Traditionally grown in forests, modern Shitake farmers grow the valuable mushrooms on logs or sawdust blocks at significant cost for the relatively slow growing mushrooms. Storm brewing by using their waste grain, became not just a beer company but a profitable Shitake mushroom company further capitalising on their infrastructure by re-purposing their grain waste.
Serendipity kicked in here in that the Shitake mushrooms while growing changed the used grain waste so it could be also used after growing the mushrooms for fish food. So Storm brewing expanded its revenue stream significantly by becoming both a Shitake mushroom grower and fish food producer as well as a Brewer. All because it saw the value potential in its huge waste production.
Biogas, as an example, is a perhaps the most commonly known waste re-purposing industry. It is a mixture of biomethane CH4 (65-70%) and CO2 (30-35%) and small amounts of other gases. It is created by anaerobic digestion of organic wastes such as sewage, manure, food wastes, landfill, etc. Anaerobic Digestion technology is well established, hence biogas is often categorised as a ‘first generation’ biofuel. However, biogas derived from organic wastes does not compete with food production, and is thus considered to be sustainable. In 2013, there were over 14,500 biogas plants in Europe with an installed capacity of 7857 MW. This is waste re-purposing on a huge scale as Europe’s organic waste is processed directly into very large amounts of electrical energy.
Another less known market in waste re-purposing is in old Christmas lights. The unwanted and damaged Christmas lights from the US, Canada and Europe are shipped for reprocessing in China where they find their ways into a myriad of products from sneakers to casings and electronics as the plastics and copper and metals are stripped down for secondary use. Huge amounts of metals and plastics are saved from landfill and sent to China and other second and third world nations where the waste sorting is the worlds biggest employer after agriculture and is worth in total over 500 billion US dollars per year.
The most recent angle on waste re-purposing is not simply in direct recycling or industrial scale re-purposing but in something called ‘Collaborative consumption’. This is where residential folk can easily share the goods they no longer need with those who do. A company in Sydney Australia called “TuShare” has driven the idea of capitalising on the many idle assets sitting around our homes. This plethora of forgotten clutter in our homes fall’s into several categories. They are either life stage items like childrens clothes, no longer needed medical equipment like crutches, media like books and CD’s, upgradeable items like phones laptops and tablets, sporting equipment, kitchen ware and fashion.
TuShare found that there are at least 100 billion items annually which will not likely see out their lifespan of use before they are discarded. These goods are kept until they are eventually grudgingly discarded and do not see out the useful lifespan they were designed for. Often people, do not want to throw these unwanted items away but often lack the time or interest in selling them as they are often worth very little on the market. And sadly 95 % of these billions of item’s are eventually dumped into landfill, which is both a tragic waste and further increases the pressure on Earth’s finite resources.
Two Share is a website set up by engineer James Bradfield Moody. James is a former director at the CSIRO and co-author of the book Welcome to The Sixth Wave where he wrote about coping in a resource hungry world. His company TuShare transports shared items in Australian metropolitan cities for only a ten dollar courier fee paid by the recipient of the free item/s for delivery to them. This mass sharing of idle assets is part of the growth in the global sustainability movement in a practical and even profitable way. One which benefits all concerned and takes some of the pressure away from our planetary resources.
Collaborative consumption as a practice is also making its way into the sharing not only of household assets but also sharing rooms with Airbnb and cars with companies like Go Get and Lift share. Perhaps most impressively this sharing economy does more than utilise assets more efficiently, limit environmental overuse and saves the users money. It also helps build community and social networks that might otherwise have never existed.
All in all, the management of our waste and how we use the assets we have before they become waste is only going to become a greater issue. Certainly as more and more of the world’s population claw their way into the surplus economy and consumerism it will very likely become an ever more vital factor of a sustainable Global economy.