Getting To Scale

As the Executive Director of the Zero Waste Alliance I doubt that people expect to hear me say that when it comes to waste, more can be better.  Yes, more waste can be better and this is why - with more waste comes more opportunity.  To be clear, that is not an attempt to increase consumption or disposal.  This is an effort to have communities rethink their perception of waste and consider the value of scale.  Waste from a single business location, a single construction site or a single home is a costly problem.  It has to be collected, sorted, sent away and managed.  However, waste from a campus, a district, a community or even from an entire state, now that is an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to aggregate material flows, to pursue innovative practices and technologies, and ultimately, to create robust, self-sustaining markets that transform our relationship with waste.

Agree or not, I believe that private commercial ventures that create and sustain positive community and environmental outcomes are a cornerstone of long-term community well-being.  To attract the talent, capital and technology necessary for these ventures however, you have to have the benefit of scale.  Without the benefit of scale corporate executives, institutional investors and venture capitalists can't justify their investments or sustain their enterprises.  Now for the good news - when it comes to waste the United States is the overwhelming global leader in scale.  A recent World Bank study reported that US per capita waste production is well in excess of 2,000 pounds per year.  The is a tremendous amount of scale and fertile ground for any venture seeking a steady supply and demand for its goods and services.

Out of the gates there continues to be massive opportunity capturing and recycling the various paper, plastic, metal and glass goods that for the most part we are already able to handle.  The US continues to lag behind many other countries in recovering these materials despite the fact there are proven strategies for success and markets already in place.  In contrast, study after study has proven in communities across the US that increased recycling rates directly contribute to more jobs.  Some studies even reflect that by increasing our national recycling to 75 percent, (more than doubling the current but still behind some other countries) we would create well over 1 million new jobs.

In addition to recycling, there are substantial opportunities to create jobs and eliminate waste by filtering out, refurbishing and reusing items that should not even be in the waste stream.  From industrial materials to furniture, it is estimated that the US unnecessarily adds over $20 billion of goods and materials to landfills every year.  By reducing this volume 1 percent each year over the next 10 years, we will retain $9 billion worth of goods and materials plus the added value of many items being refurbished.  That is a tremendous market opportunity for ventures willing to bring new thinking and new technology.  It is also a market that deserves more attention and support from public sector economic development.  We have to better consider businesses that are not dependent on imported materials to meet the needs of our community.

Last, we are clearly beginning to see new waves of practices and technologies that are allowing us to take large-scale, long-term approaches to converting our waste into value.  From energy generation to oil extraction and from precious metals recovery to organic fertilizer operations, just to scratch the surface, the are businesses and communities recognizing the opportunity of addressing the waste stream at a much larger scale.  You need to look no further that business like Waste Management and their investment in new businesses to understand that despite the name, this industry leader fully recognizes that they are in the resource business and that every truck they send out is bringing back opportunity.

It is imperative that even more communities reconsider the value of their waste and actively explore the role that new practices and new technologies can play in reducing waste and creating economic opportunity. Without greater recognition and commitment, sustained community vitality and environmental gains will remain amongst the valuables we are shipping to landfills every day.