Getting ready for the waste revolution

Waste. Rubbish. Trash. Whatever you wish to name it, it litters the everyday landscape of our lives. Its ubiquitous presence flickers on the edges of our consciousness whether strolling down London streets, picnicking on beaches, or meandering through national parks. And this is simply the waste we can see. Even ‘pristine’ areas of wilderness have not been left untouched by the ramifications of anthropogenic activities, centuries of burning fossil fuels, and widespread overconsumption. For the sake of brevity, I won’t dive into the widespread destructive environmental and social consequences of waste, but I highly recommend this evocative article to give a flavour.

Waste is a universal issue that matters to every single person and rapid urbanization, population growth, and economic development will cause global waste to increase by 70% over the next 30 years – to a staggering 3.4 billion tonnes of waste generated annually. A huge proportion of this waste is (and is likely to continue to) not be managed in an environmentally safe manner. We live in a throw-away society where our daily actions and purchasing habits have a direct impact on the production, composition, and eventual disposal of waste. Perhaps you swing by Starbucks to buy a take-away coffee for the commute, then grab a quick sandwich from Pret, before discarding the packaging and cup in a bin. Once in the bin, then barely do we think about it again. Out of sight, out of mind.

So, what is waste? Where does it come from? What is the solution (or solutions) to this pressing global problem?

The UN describes waste as “materials that are not prime products for which the generator has no further use in terms”. Put simply, waste is unwanted or unusable materials. However, the change in mindset from ‘waste’ to ‘valuable resource’ is gaining momentum. The key is to treat waste as a resource that’s just out of place and as an untapped store of energy. I have to confess that before working in this space – whilst I knew that waste was an issue and that cutting down on consumption was vital- I had no idea the potential that ‘waste’ has.

The demand for energy will continue to rise in the future and waste is a readily available fuel that can contribute to this urgent need. Various national and international legislation, such as the EU Waste Framework Directive (WFD – 2008/98/EC) are seeking to incentivise the diversion of waste from disposal in landfill. Across Europe, there is growing recognition of the climate change benefits to be realised from increased recycling, reuse, and reduction of waste.  Furthermore, the UK is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and supplying 15% of its energy demands from renewable sources by 2020. These requirements are driving the need for technology solutions, which enable residual wastes to be used as cost-effective, low carbon, and indigenous energy resources.

Action and investment are needed to promote and support this transformation, and to stimulate technological innovations in this space. One example of how the waste revolution may be achieved is through integrated energy from waste facilities which are scaled to local communities. These facilities will maximise the resource efficiency of waste conversion to heat and power enabling significant economic and environmental benefits. I am working with a company which is an exciting example of this, addressing the twinned challenges mentioned above – those of waste disposal and energy supply – at the same time.

The conversion of plastics to fuels is another vector which can contribute to this and is gaining traction. Rising public consciousness and awareness of the prolific environmental damage caused by single-use plastics and insufficient recycling have led to alternative disposal methods. Through my work at RIG, I have come to realise that the largest problems we face can also be the greatest market opportunities. Waste can be reclaimed and then converted back into virgin plastics (100% circular) or market-competitive end-of-life fuels. Some reports posit that plastic-to-fuel facilities in the US alone would create nearly 39,000 jobs and almost $9 billion in economic output, making the global market potential of such an industry huge. ReNew is commencing construction of a chemical recycling plant in Teesside, UK. Nexus Fuels, Handerek Technology, and multiple other companies around the world are doing similar things.

It is also important to bring the waste hierarchy to the forefront of any discussion concerning waste. The aim of the waste hierarchy is to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to generate the minimum amount of waste. The 3R – reduce, re-use, recycle – movement is progressing steadily across the world and goes hand in hand with the waste hierarchy.

In this regard, pollution prevention innovations such as Marinatex have the potential to radically reduce the sources of waste throughout supply chains in multiple industries. In the last few years, movements towards zero waste by large corporates with clout and influence are a positive sign and a step in the right direction.

It may be unexpected to some that it is not multi-national companies with humongous R&D budgets that are coming up with solutions. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that they will not- but that start-ups are well positioned to do this. I have come across many early stage companies that are dedicated and committed to tackling the waste problem. They are flexible, they have blue-sky thinking, they spot the gaps in the market, they take risks, and they dream of a better future. The problem with such early stage companies is that they may not get there. There could be a game changing technology that can enable this shift, but if a start-up pursues the wrong market, if they run out of funding just before the leap from commercial demonstration to commercialisation – then this too is a waste. This is where RIG have cultivated expertise. From my own personal experience, I have spent months validating and analysing the appropriate markets for a given technology where the value propositions will resonate the most, and where there is the best chance of a company ‘crossing the chasm’.

It is vital that individuals, companies, and governments tackle the pressing waste management issue. This could be small personal changes like swapping to a reusable coffee cup (prevention), a company minimising the overall creation of waste resulting from an inefficient design, or a local municipality expanding their recycling facilities. We all have responsibility to reduce our ecological footprint.

Setting sail to decarbonisation

Shipping touches pervasively but unobtrusively on every aspect of our daily lives; from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the goods we order online. But rarely do we think about the negative environmental ramifications caused by it. These environmental impacts include air pollution, water pollution, noise, and oil pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions from shipping currently represent 2.6% of total global emissions, equivalent to those generated by South Korea. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) estimates that carbon dioxide emissions from shipping are expected to rise by between 50-250% by 2050 if no action is taken.

There are several drivers contributing to increased efforts to decarbonise. The maritime industry is facing a twinned challenge of a global rise in fuel prices combined with tighter environmental regulations. The IMO announced in 2018 the objective to “reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008, while, at the same time, pursuing efforts towards phasing them out entirely”. Additionally, the IMO’s global sulphur cap comes into play from 2020, substantially lowering the current 3.5% limit to 0.5% and enforcing cleaner shipping. Consumer demands, reputation concerns, and pressures from NGOs and investors are also increasing the demand for greener shipping.

Decarbonisation is the key challenge for this industry; however, the design, operation, and maintenance of shipping is built to suit the fossil fuel ‘paradigm’. Deployment of all currently known technologies could make it possible to completely decarbonise by 2035. But how are we going to get there? There is no silver bullet technology that can make the transition easy and effortless. Instead, a wide variety of technologies are needed. Innovation is necessary and vital.

Whilst shipping is the least carbon intensive way to move freight, the industry is highly reliant on outdated technology. This presents a huge energy efficiency opportunity for ships, start-ups and investors. Zero-Emission vessels (ZEVs) are needed in order to meet the IMO’s targets and contribute to meeting the goal of the Paris agreement. There are 3 broad solution areas through which decarbonisation can be achieved; technological, operational, and alternative fuels/ energy. The largest emission reductions are likely to come from alternative fuels/ energy.

Technological solutions involve improving the weight and design of ships, reducing friction, and energy recovery e.g. via propeller upgrades or heat recovery. Potential fuel savings arising from air lubrication and hull surface technologies alone could be 2-9%. For example, in this space, graphene is being innovatively used to reduce biofouling, increase the longevity of boat hulls, and decrease friction. Furthermore, many of these solutions are already available on the market and can be retrofitted.

Operational measures involve speed, ship-port interfaces, ship size, and onshore power. Multiple start-ups are specialising in this area; creating digital twins (such as We4Sea), data driven cloud platforms and using AI for predictive analytics to optimize operational performance (such as nauticAi).

Alternative ZEV technologies include ammonia fuel cells, ammonia + internal combustion engine (ICE), biofuel, electric batteries, hybrid hydrogen, hydrogen fuel cells, and hydrogen + ICE. It is crucial to ensure that these fuels are not simply moving the GHG problem upstream, as there may be emissions that arise through their production. However, future CO₂ emission reductions from certain alternative fuels could be 100% if produced by renewable energy sources. Not all of the alternative fuels have reached market maturity, and most are still in a research and development phase. There are also issues regarding safety, cost, availability, and sustainability. It is likely, however, that the costs could all reduce significantly in the future. Two of the most likely routes to shipping decarbonisation come from the use of biodiesel and the use of ammonia, based on zero-carbon hydrogen. In the near term, novel wing sail systems, such as those developed by Bound4Blue, are already making a splash with serious potential to reduce fuel consumption.

The maritime industry is not without its risks for start-ups. There are high barriers to entry, and significant levels of skills, experience, knowledge and capital are essential. Information asymmetry, split incentives, and the fragmented nature of the industry are not easy obstacles to overcome. Climate change is opening up the Arctic, international trade will continue to grow and the demand for shipping will increase. The scale and value of this opportunity must not be ignored or hidden by ‘sea blindness’. This is an exciting time for innovative technologies companies who can play a critical and key role in decarbonisation.

No Stupid Questions

There is a sense of almost breathless excitement that comes over everyone at the beginning of a new job. However, my rookie mistake of taking the stairs to the fifth floor made this far more literal than I had imagined. Having gone through the interview process over Skype, it was good to finally meet the team face-to-face. Nervousness is completely natural at the start, but the inclusive atmosphere and the friendly camaraderie between the close-knit team immediately made me feel at ease.

My first day was filled with information about the specific technology companies I would be working on, and after being assured by Ffion that there were no stupid questions, it was clear the impressive depth of understanding and knowledge that everyone had. The rest of the week flew by in a blur of meetings, discussions, and a variety of engaging tasks.

Reflecting back over the week, there were two things that particularly stood out to me. The first relates to the time and effort that RIG puts into the training and development of skills. From Day 1, RIG’s emphasis on employee development, collaboration and learning together was apparent. A company-wide negotiation forum was my personal highlight of the week and I am looking forward to taking advantage of the team’s collective wisdom and experience. Secondly, the scope that even brand-new employees have to shape RIG is unparalleled. Being given the task to choose any technology area that I found interesting and to research five potential clients was exciting and the sheer freedom was unexpected. The hard part is trying to narrow down which sector!

Before starting a new job, it’s hard to know if there is going to be the right fit between you and a company. In depth research into RIG’s website had given me the sense that this would be a unique company to work for, and I had formed high expectations. But it is only through experiencing that you will know with some certainty. I’m happy to report that I have thoroughly enjoyed my first week at RIG, and my expectations have been surpassed in every way.