The end of garbage

p12608In nature, nothing goes to waste. The excrement of one species (forgive me if you are reading over breakfast) becomes food for another.

Why can’t we design the industrial economy to be like nature?

This isn’t a new idea. During the American Revolution, iron pots were melted down to make armaments. I take notes with a pen made out of recycled bottles. The gospel of “natural capitalism” or “cradle to cradle” has been spread by  such pioneering environmental thinkers as Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough.

Lately, though, I’m pleased to report, the idea of eliminating waste is gaining traction among big global companies, which increasingly are talking about — and acting to bring about — what is called the circular economy.

As regular readers of this blog know (see this and this), I’ve long been excited by the idea of a zero-waste world. I wrote a story for FORTUNE called The End of Garbage in 2007. Recently, I revisited the topic for Ensia, a magazine and website about environmental solutions.

Here’s how my story begins:

Don’t let fashion go to waste,” says H&M, the global clothing retailer that booked $20 billion in revenues last year. So I brought a bag of old T-shirts, sweaters and khaki pants to an H&M store in Washington, D.C., where it took them, no questions asked, and gave me a coupon for 15 percent off my next purchase. H&M takes back clothes in all of its 3,100 stores in 53 countries.

Next, I pulled an ancient iPod and an iPhone 4S with a cracked screen from a desk drawer. On the website of a company called Gazelle, I answered a few questions and learned that the company would pay me $37 for the pair. (Without the cracked screen, the iPhone would have been valued at $135.) I printed out a free shipping label, and they were on their way. Not to landfills, but to a new life.

Meanwhile, not far from my home, a garage owned by the Washington Metrorail system is about to undergo a makeover. Existing lighting fixtures will be replaced by LEDs that are expected to reduce energy usage by 68 percent. The LEDs will be manufactured, owned and monitored by Philips, which will take them back when they need to be repaired or replaced.

Welcome to the emerging world of the circular economy.

I go on to write about McKinsey & Co., Philips, Sprint, Best Buy, all of whom are getting serious about circular business models. This is getting real, folks. You can read the rest here.

What sustainable consumption looks like

Three “green” products that recently arrived at my house got me thinking about the idea of sustainable consumption.

Which of these three do you think moves us closer to sustainable consumption?

Which takes us farther away?

This is a bottle of dish and hand soap from Method. The package is made from recycled ocean plastic.

This is an LED bulb from IKEA.

And these are SUNNAM solar-powered lamps, also from IKEA.

Two of these products — the dish soap and the bulb — move us in the right direction. The solar lamp? No. And I say that as an admirer of Method and IKEA.

To understand why, let me try to define sustainable consumption: It’s the consumption of a product that leaves the world no worse off–and ideally better off–than if it were never made. But it’s got to be more than that–the product has to be appealing and affordable, too. Very few products meet that test today. But it’s not hard to see what sustainable consumption would look like–products would be made using renewable energy, and they would be made into something else when they are done. A world powered by renewable energy with zero waste would be sustainable, more or less, or at least a lot more sustainable than the polluting, wasteful, throwaway system of production and consumption that we have now. [click to continue...]

Bill Caesar: Don’t let waste go to waste

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

It sounds simple. It’s not.

Just ask Bill Caesar, who runs the recycling and organic growth units of Waste Management, America’s biggest trash company, which has $13.3 billion in revenues last year.

20120815-112349.jpgIt’s hard to get many cities and towns to embrace recycling.

It’s hard to get homeowners to figure out which plastics go into which bin.

It’s expensive to build out the infrastructure needed to separate materials, and ship them to customers.

And now, to make matters worse, the prices that buyers are willing to pay for cardboard, used paper, metals and plastics have fallen, on average, by about a third. A ton of solid waste used to yield about $150 in recycling revenues, more or less. Today, it’s closer to $100. Here’s a chart.

“The commodities are global in nature,” Bill told me the other day. “When the French stop buying things, the Chinese stop making things, and when that happens, they need fewer boxes and the price of recovered paper in the US falls.”

Who would have thought that the EU’s troubles would slow progress towards zero waste?

Bill and I met this week to after he spoke at Wastecon, the big convention organized by SWANA in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington, where I cam across the recycling robot, above. (Of course you know SWANA as the Solid Waste Association of North America. Some time ago, garbage became solid waste and the city dump turned into a sanitary landfill.) Waste Management still takes most of the garbage municipal solid waste that it collects to dumps sanitary landfills–it owns more than 250 active landfills–but Bill’s job is keep stuff out of the ground. His unit looks for ways to extract more value from waste, either by recycling, or composting organic waste, or turning waste into energy. [click to continue...]

Zero waste: Exciting, radical and real

Zero waste is one of the most exciting ideas I’ve come across in nearly a decade of writing about business and sustainability.

In the short run, it makes business sense.

In the long run, it has the potential to transform the way we design and make things.

Garbage–and how to eliminate it from our lives–is more interesting than you’d guess. I’ve kept an eye on the zero waste trend since writing a story called The End of Garbage for FORTUNE in 2007. More recently, I wrote about DuPont’s efforts to eliminate waste. Walmart did so well at reducing and recycling waste that it turned what had been a cost (landfill fees) into an asset (revenues from recycling.). Even Waste Management, the nation’s biggest trash hauler, is remaking its business to extract value from waste. [See my 2010 FORTUNE story, Waste Management Earns Its Name]

Why is zero waste a radical idea? Because, as I wrote in Fortune, it leads to a new way of thinking:

Getting to a wasteless world will require nothing less than a total makeover of the global economy, which thinkers such as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, consultant Amory Lovins, and architect William McDonough have called the Next Industrial Revolution.

They want industry to mimic biology, where one species’ excrement is another’s food. “We’re not talking here about eliminating waste,” McDonough explains. “We’re talking about eliminating the entire concept of waste.”

In two weeks, I’ll be in Costa Mesa, CA, at the first national business conference on zero waste, sponsored by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, a fledgling nonprofit set up to promote the idea of zero waste in the corporate world. The event begins on June 26, and I’ll be giving a talk (called “Zero waste: Exciting, radical and real!) on June 27. I’m also hoping to learn more about progress towards zero waste, as well as what obstacles stand in the way.  Toyota Motor Sales, SuperValu/Albertsons, Ricoh Electronics, Inc and Sierra Nevada are among the companies sending speakers.

If your company has a story to tell about waste, let me know in the next week or so (by email, please), and I will consider working it into my talk or my coverage. And I hope to see some of you there.

Trash talk, and the Internet

Incentives work. Every economist knows that, as do most parents (“clean your room and I’ll buy you an ice cream”).

Until recently, there have been few incentives to recycle. So recycling rates have been more or less steady for years.

That’s changing, largely because of the Internet and its power to efficiently collect, manage and distribute information.

In a column called The Internet of Trash for the News@Cisco website, I write about the ways a company called RecycleBank and a unit of Waste Management called Greenopolis are using data, the Internet and social media to  reward people who recycle.

Here’s how the story begins:

“Garbage,” says the character played by Andie MacDowell in the 1989 movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. “All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage. We’ve got so much of it, you know? I mean, we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually.”

Uh, no. Trash may have piled up in the late 1980s—this was the time when a barge called the Mobro carried 3,000 tons of solid waste from New York to Belize and back because there was no place to put it—but Americans lately have been throwing away less stuff, and recycling more.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Internet is a big reason why.  Digital music, for example, means fewer CD cases wind up in the trash. Email and online shopping, meanwhile, reduce the flow of letters and catalogs; mail volumes in the U.S. have fallen from 211 billion pieces in 2005 to 170 million in 2010, according to the annual reports issued by the U.S. Postal Service [PDF, downloads].

The Internet is also enabling innovation around recycling. Two ventures–a startup company called RecycleBank and a new division of Waste Management, America’s largest trash hauler, called Greenopolis – are using digital technology to give people economic incentives to recycle. Both are pay dividends—literally and for the planet, by extracting value from waste that would otherwise be buried in a landfill.

Big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that have reputational issues tied to litter  are working with RecycleBank and Greenopolis to promote recycling. You can read the rest of the story here.

Now if only local governments would find ways to either (1) penalize people who throw away lots of stuff by charging them more or (2) reward people who recycle more, we’d drive up recycling rates further. That would move us just a bit closer to a zero-waste economy where nothing is thrown away and everything is made into somethings else. The idea here isn’t merely to eliminate waste, but to eliminate the concept of waste. Kind of like nature.

Now that’s green tea!

Nothing is more wasteful than, er, waste. Companies pay for the raw materials that they don’t use. Then they pay again to have it trucked to the landfill. That’s why zero waste is an exciting idea. Reducing or eliminating waste is not only good for  the planet, it’s good for  business, as companies like Toyota and Wal-Mart have learned.

Smart companies that pursue zero waste are also taking us closer to an industrial system inspired by nature, where there’s no such thing as garbage. Think about a tree or plant, where this fall’s dead leaves become next spring’s food.

Lipton Green OPJToday’s zero waste story comes from Lipton, the world’s largest tea company. Lipton is a unit of London-based consumer-products giant Unilever (40 billion euros in 2008 revenues), whose brands include Dove soap, Ben & Jerry ice cream, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Unilever’s an environmental leader—it helped start the Marine Stewardship Council which certifies the world’s fisheries as sustainable, it’s working with Greenpeace to develop environmentally preferable refrigerants and it led the laundry industry to concentrate detergent and reduce packaging when it came up with Small and Mighty All.

It turns out that virtually all the Lipton Tea sold in the U.S. comes from a plant in Suffolk, Virginia, which brings in tea from more than 20 countries, runs its production line around-the-clock and produces about 1 million tea bags per hour. Last month, the Suffolk facility became a zero waste operation. Credit goes not just to the managers but to the plant’s 400 workers, who got the ball rolling. [click to continue...]