There's no time to waste when it comes to the global trash crisis. Some corporate efforts such as the Climate Pledge and government regulations such as the European Green Deal are being enforced to transform the linear economy of “make, use, dispose'' into a circular, regenerative one. However, we’re still not quite there in making a regenerative economy the mainstream. In the U.S, only recently have states like Maine and Oregon instated laws that make manufacturers of consumer packaging (cardboard cartons, plastic wrap, food containers) responsible for the proper disposal of those products. In good news, these new legislations are optimistic - they signal a larger shift in transferring the recycling responsibility from the consumer to the manufacturer itself. Think: the average consumer won’t have to go to recycling bins anymore, making the process much more efficient. In Europe, this shift has already been in the works on a wider scale, with regulations holding manufacturers accountable for waste and encouraging a mindset change that sees ‘waste as a resource’ rather than ‘waste as a problem’.
It is becoming ever more clear for manufacturers and producers that the spotlight is starting to shine on them to make a change. It’s coming from consumers, governments, and even insurers who have announced they will stop offering coverage to carbon-heavy manufacturers.
"Consider this: throwing away large amounts of industrial waste is not only detrimental to our health and environment (and increasingly more difficult with new regulations) but stands as a missed business opportunity."
Consider this: throwing away large amounts of industrial waste is not only detrimental to our health and environment (and increasingly more difficult with new regulations) but stands as a missed business opportunity. While we're incentivized by wanting the world to be a cleaner place for future generations, the incentive to find solutions for proper waste management and conversion must be financial if we want to create a significant impact, now.
A shift in consumer priorities.
Today’s conscious consumer may know the detrimental effects of fast fashion and that it takes 2,900 gallons of water (equivalent to 10,977 1L water bottles) to make a pair of jeans - but the real shift in conversation should be about what happens to these gallons of water. Where does the waste go, and how can it be reused and repurposed?
For consumers, a solution for this would provide the satisfaction of buying a zero-waste product and contributing to a circular economy. As for manufacturers, this provides another source of income and a way to position one's brand as a global leader in sustainability innovation. Here at SOSA (cue shameless plug), scouting and validating precisely the startups that can help manufacturers find these new revenue streams is just one of the challenges we take on. Most recently, we supported one of our manufacturing clients in creating a new revenue stream by using technology to convert their raw material into an entirely new product.
So with all this innovation, what stands in the way of making waste regenerability commonplace?
Many of the sustainability innovations are developed in an academic setting. Cornell University, for instance, launched a new research project aimed at turning waste into valuable materials with a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. While there is existing support in academic institutions, the reality is that many of the solutions created in this setting have a harder time seeing the light of day. Ph.D. students working on groundbreaking solutions may not have the business development mindset and know-how tools to approach the markets.
On the other end of the supply and demand side are large corporations, manufacturers, and governments seeking tech solutions geared towards more sustainable practices. To add fuel to our flaming earth, tech solutions created in the academic setting often solve a very specific (yet impactful) problem. Since their solution is so niche, they may not be inclined to put their product out there in the traditional startup form. However, it may be *precisely* what a corporation needs to reach its sustainability goals and monetize its waste stream. Therefore it's imperative for solutions and scientists to have direct dialogue with corporations, also known as open innovation (that’s where SOSA comes in again, hint hint ;).
The good news is that governmental and corporate efforts are on the green side, making it easier for many innovations to be realized.
Here are a few of the innovations leading the way in turning mountains of trash into cash:
Many innovations are being created to tackle the plastic problem, but one of the main issues is the technical challenges related to recycling plastic. That’s where we see innovations such as AI-powered robots that can sort through the garbage and optimize the recycling process, but even those only solve part of the problem (the recycling bit). There is one company that has been able to not only overcome the recycling challenge but turn household waste - anything from food, soiled cardboard, paper, even diapers into bio-based patented material that can even substitute plastic, minerals, and woods in thousands of different applications.
In the EU, the construction sector is responsible for over 35% of total waste generation. That’s why innovations such as bricks made from 90% recycled construction and demolition waste, with even better insulation than their traditional counterpart, are being welcomed with enthusiasm in the industry. This particular brick also has no heating involved in the production of the brick, drastically reducing the production carbon footprint of green buildings.
Converting food waste into energy biofertilizers may not be the most obvious solution, but one such tech company has harnessed this creative innovation. They’ve developed a high-solids organic-waste system with an electrical output that can be placed on-site. This means that restaurants and cafeterias can not only generate new energy but offset the carbon emissions of trucks that would otherwise carry waste to a distant facility.
Splashy headlines and collaborations for sustainable materials are increasing in the fashion industry. For example, “leather-like” innovations that use agroindustrial food waste, byproducts, and living organisms or biomaterials to replace toxic styrofoam are starting to become more mainstream in consciousness, and the ability to scale is slowly following suit.
Cost-efficiency will prevail.
While there is a global effort to push sustainability forward, real change will occur when the sustainable alternative is also the most financially sound alternative. Startups and tech companies working in this sphere will succeed only if they are able to offer cost-effective, proven, ready-to-deploy technologies and open up new business revenue streams, verticals, and opportunities for corporations with high stakes when it comes to global impact. This symbiosis is what will ultimately lead to a green future that will benefit all players and profits.