When it comes to the global trash crisis, there’s no time to waste. Although corporate and governmental measures are being taken to transform our linear economy of “make, use, dispose'' towards a circular economy where processes are maximized in a regenerative way - we’re still not quite there yet. As of 2018, we produce 4.9 pounds of waste per person in the U.S. per day, an amount of trash that isn’t going anywhere but landfills.
"Even with Elon Musk paving the way to space, there is no substitute for planet earth - there simply is no planet B."
Consider this: throwing away large amounts of industrial waste is not only detrimental to our health and environment, but stands 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 significant impact, now.
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.
Many of the sustainability innovations are developed in an academic setting. Cornell University, for instance, just 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 ground breaking 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 *just* what a corporation needs to reach their sustainability goals and monetize their 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, cue our shameless plug.).
The good news is that governmental and corporate efforts are on the green side, making it easier for many innovations to be realized.
UBQ turns household waste - meaning 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. Most recently, McDonald’s started using UBQ™ trays instead of food trays made from virgin plastic.
Kenoteq has developed “K-briq” modules, a brick alternative made from 90% recycled construction and demolition waste, that even has better insulation than its traditional counterpart. There is also no heating involved in the production of the brick, drastically reducing the production carbon footprint of green buildings.
Impact Bio Energy converts food waste into energy biofertilizer with zero waste. They’ve developed a high-solids organic-waste system with electrical output that can be placed on-site. This means that restaurants and cafeterias can not only generate new energy, but off-set the carbon emissions of trucks that would otherwise carry waste to a distant facility.
Polybion is another example in the fashion world and uses agroindustrial food waste and living organisms to create their “leather” material - known as Celium®. To replace toxic styrofoam, they have also created Fungicel® a biomaterial made from agricultural waste and mycelium. They call it “nature’s glue”. Polybion recently collaborated with NOS to create a compostable helmet that never stops growing.
Even with Elon Musk paving the way to space, there is no substitute for planet earth - there simply is no planet B. 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.