Waste not…

My Dad had a compost heap.  We grew up seeing all sorts of extraordinary plants grow out of old tea bags, meal scraps and decaying flower cuttings.  The miracle of a perfect dahlia springing out of last week’s coffee grindings always surprised us and the somewhat smelly obsession in the back garden was largely tolerated by the family and neighbours.

My first business operated on a similar principle.  We offered a disposal service for excess horse manure to a number of stables in the town.  We then repackaged this manure and on-sold it as fertiliser to various keen suburban gardeners.  This was not very glamorous business and a bit of a passion killer to handle, but a double financial score.

We are starting to see this lucrative miracle repeated across a range of industries.  Waste is being redefined as an important input into the creation of new products. Savvy entrepreneurs are accessing waste as a cheap input into creating new products.

Some examples we like (which are far more glam than horse manure):

Beyond these consumer products, businesses are also looking within their processes to re-use outputs.  An example here is the review of ‘waste’ heat and water as re-usable resources. The Carbon Trust offers advice for business on how to capture and use waste heat (www.carbontrust.co.uk).

Of course there is a great business model underlying this – waste is becoming more expensive as landfill costs increase and consumer awareness rises.  Un-utilised heat or water is an opportunity foregone. Seeing waste as an opportunity and potentially even a revenue generating resource useful to others – is a new way of thinking.

This leads to the killer idea of the ‘circular economy’ where, similar to natural systems, nothing is wasted, all industry is linked and one entities waste is another entities valuable input.  Whilst we are a long way away from this on a global level, there are small pockets where this is successful. The most well-known is the Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Park in Denmark. For the last 20 years, a group of industries, including a power company, a pharmaceutical plant, a wallboard producer, and an oil refinery, have shared and circulated resources. Excess heat is used by the community and other by-products not usable within the park are sold to companies in the vicinity.

As individuals we can take part in a circular economy by:

  • Separating out our waste to ensure more is recycled and less is land-fill
  • Buying recycled or second-hand products (e.g. you could try ‘schwopping’ clothes with friends or visit an Oxfam bookshop)
  • Re-using where we can or even re-inventing waste as new useful product (e.g. Innocent has some great ideas on how to use their tubs…)
  • Upcycling items e.g. ‘renewing’ clothes or repairing broken equipment (e.g. Start UK run ‘thrifty couture workshops)
  • Seeing leftovers as interesting ingredients rather than something to throw out (e.g. left over new potatoes make a great Spanish tortilla)

And, of course, composting…

Of course, no waste is far better than recycled waste.  My next blog will look at companies that have leapfrogged others by inventing ‘waste-free’ models.

In the meantime, on this sunny Sunday, I’m off to empty my coffee grinds onto the flower beds.


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