Green Innovation: Spotlight on Recycling
Recently, ISD, the Swedish-American Chambers of Commerce of the USA, Inc. (SACC-USA), and Hummeltorp, a Swedish company focused on achieving 100% circular recycling, entered into an agreement for advancing green innovation.
The definition of insanity is to continually do the same things over and over again and expect different results. Current approaches to environmental management are incredibly dynamic at the micro-level of individual researchers, entrepreneurs, companies, and universities, but at the macro-level, not so much. There have been so many environmental conferences over the years – the UN Conference of Parties is going on its 27th meeting in a few weeks with no end in sight, and very mixed results, according to a range of metrics.
An oft-repeated saying in entrepreneurship classes is that where there are problems, there are opportunities. When it comes to the environment, there are so many issues where new ideas, approaches, and strategies could potentially break through current logjams and address critical problems. Acidification of coral reefs (home to at least a quarter of all marine species) is happening faster than regenerative solutions are reaching scale, but there are some fascinating businesses in development. Depletion of fisheries is affecting what we catch, harvest, and eat. Terrible droughts in the desert southwest, record-breaking fires in California, and violent hurricanes in the Gulf and Atlantic are happening right now. The market opportunities for better managing extreme events are huge.
What is needed is a systematic pipeline for green innovation.
It’s been done before. Thomas Edison cranked out invention after invention that transformed America before World War I. Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, the largest research park in the country, transformed North Carolina from one of the poorest and most illiterate states into an innovation powerhouse. Everywhere that you see clusters – Hollywood (movies), Wall Street (finance), Detroit (automotives), and Silicon Valley (IT), industry innovation pipelines have been created.
This is why the Hummeltorp case study is so intriguing. Depending on what you include and exclude in the numbers, 76% of all construction and demolition (C&D) waste is recycled. In comparison, Hummeltorp recycles 96% of the waste that it processes. If its techniques were adopted in the U.S., almost 100 million more tons of waste would be recycled.
Johannes and Christer Otterström, the two brothers that run Hummeltorp, re-imagined and re-engineered their entire waste management facility upon inheriting the reins from their father. They started this process by doing something that did not add to their profit margins – they focused on protecting the groundwater from the run-off generated by the site. They put an apron and a systematic water catchment design undergirding the entire plant. The results:
An environmentally safe facility with sealed surface/cells
Closed leachate & stormwater system with multiple purification steps
Purification and recovery of nitrogen and phosphorus
Circular water system
Minimal use of groundwater with purified leachate & stormwater
Climate-neutral recycling of excavated spoil and fill
Second, they re-engineered the customer experience. Contractors are required by law in both the U.S. and Sweden to dispose of their waste. The brothers put themselves in the shoes of the truckers delivering the waste and made the facility as easy as possible to navigate. Their focus on incentivizing truckers to use their facility even extended so far as to get Starbucks to install a store on their site. They may be the only recycling center in the world to have not just one, but two Starbucks stations on site.
Third, they partnered with their equipment manufacturers to design and develop new machines. Finally, they experimented with different materials and came up with new products from the recycled materials. This includes a type of soil that combines softness with traction specially designed for horse tracks.
When I asked Mr. Otterström why he was making all of these costly investments, he said, “There are two reasons. First, it’s the right thing to do. The other is that these kinds of investments will be a requirement in the future, and then we will be ten steps ahead.”
C&D recycling in general has dramatically improved over the last twenty years, but there are several factors that slow progress down. It’s much more profitable to dump into landfill than it is to recycle waste in the United States. The industry is very fragmented, but many sites enjoy local monopolies because of NIMBYism. Residents often fight against new waste management installations tooth and nail. The result is that once established, there are often very few business incentives to continue to pour money into new processes. The cost-benefit analysis frequently doesn’t add up.
From an entrepreneurial perspective like the Otterströms’, these factors are not deterrents – they represent huge opportunities to disrupt established practices. This is one of the reasons ISD has partnered with them – they see innovations across the entire Green Economy value chain as critical for their future success. Radical recycling leads to an interest in building design, urban planning, advanced materials, new machines, digitalization, fluid dynamics, and chemistry, along with a number of related disciplines.
Hummeltorp is proud of their 96% recycling rate, but they are also thinking about how to tackle the remaining 4%, too. This is what the environmental movement needs – a commitment to think differently and focus on accelerating solutions instead of constantly being disappointed in the status quo. Innovation and future sustainability go hand in hand.
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