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.