Waste doesn’t exist; business opportunities do

Bertus Tulleners, Partner, TheRockGroup

Household waste next to electricity plugs

Everyone in Hong Kong is aware of the waste issue. Landfills are almost full. Export to mainland China is not always (economically) feasible, partly due to the ‘green fence’. So we need alternatives.

The government has been developing a range of different strategies. The most significant is the proposed construction of a huge waste-to-energy plant or, as some call it, ‘the incinerator’. Another strategy involves establishing several organic waste treatment plants which would be able to convert food and other organic waste into energy (gas) and compost.

Basically our strategies consist of burying, burning or rotting. Although these do sound rather primitive, burning and rotting could yield positive results, if done properly.

Decentralised waste-to-energy installations would provide a sustainable, cost-effective solution for organisations in Hong Kong such as the universities, theme parks or sports centres, as well as remote communities. We are working with The Waste Transformers to explore how this could be rolled out. Eliminating the need to transport waste or find new sites for materials reprocessing would allow progress to accelerate beyond current government targets.

Nevertheless, burning perfectly usable plastics, paper, wood or other materials does not seem  a particularly efficient use of resources. On the other hand, recycling is not always economically viable, since many waste materials have a relatively low market value. Yet it is not clear to everyone that alternative options exist.

This is mainly due to our understanding of the problem. Most of us focus on the immediate, most visible impact at the end of the pipeline. We see the enormous piles of waste that we need to deal with in a hygienic and efficient manner. So we focus at waste management. Although necessary, this strategy is far too limited.

When building a dam for an ever-growing stream or river, we can be certain it will eventually break. Instead, we should first go upstream to understand where all the water comes from. By dealing with waste upstream, we can mitigate the flow and increase our options to deal with it later on.

Rethinking Waste

What is waste, really? Waste is nothing more than a material for which, at the moment, we don’t see any productive function. Through advance planning and design, we can ensure further applications are possible long after that material’s first use.

Imagine a five-star hotel chain purchasing the most expensive curtains it can find for its rooms. After three years, the rooms are restyled and the curtains must go. Although the materials are still in perfect condition, the hotel has no use for them; it is not a textile company, and it cannot sell them to a textile company because the curtains are cut and sewn in a particular way. They cannot be taken apart as they consist of five different types of high-quality textile. So instead, they go to the landfill. Not only a waste – a shame.

When the focus is purely on managing the waste generated, there is no alternative. When the focus shifts to planning for waste prevention, the range of options expands. What is the underlying need that the product is designed meet? Could it be met in a different way?

In this case, the need is for a beautiful curtain to create an attractive room. So what about purchasing a curtain that consists of a material that is easy to recycle? Material that has a market value and can be resold after use? That is likely something no-one in the company ever thought of; something that could earn money, instead of creating additional cost.

Fortunately there are more and more examples of companies and entrepreneurs doing things differently. These are people who see that there is a huge supply of free materials; some even get paid to dispose of them. The informal recycling sector in Hong Kong is seen by most as it is embodied by senior citizens working hard to collect aluminium and cardboard. Yet more socially, economically and environmentally advanced practices exist.

A famous example is Interface, a carpet company that completely rethought its business. Interface figured out that its business model of selling carpets was in fact rather inefficient – it sells huge amounts of carpet material, which are used only for a few years and then thrown away in near-perfect condition.  So it turned its product into a service. It now leases carpets, offering the service of well-maintained flooring rather than just selling flooring material.

Retaining ownership of the materials provided an incentive to innovate. Tiles are preferred over rolls, and are made with recyclable yarn that can be easily separated from the backing, to be reused again and again with different clients. In the US and Europe, Interface even takes back used carpets from its customers, separating the yarn and other fibres from the backing to perpare them for recycling. The company is earning money by minimising waste – not because governments forced it to, but because it saw a business opportunity.

Upscaling Innovation

There are many more such examples, in sectors even less likely than carpeting.  Yet companies often don’t have the resources and expertise to find them. If you have a different core business to attend to, you are unlikely to spend time exploring how you can minimise your waste.

For this we propose a different type of solution. In co-operation with the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, we are aiming to set up an organisation that will help companies identify how they can minimise their waste, and even earn money from it – thus enhancing business efficiency, while at the same time training Hong Kong’s future talent to create new business opportunities through tackling societal issues.

Together with design, business, environmental science and other students, we will examine which materials comes into the company, what their uses are and how they might be used more efficiently. This could result in changes to purchasing, processing or end-of-pipeline management; it might even mean new partnerships with companies or entrepreneurs able to put their used materials to a different use. Where appropriate, we will try to create new businesses of companies that actually process the waste into useful materials.

We understand this sounds ambitious. We have already worked on similar projects with students in Hong Kong, Bangkok and the Netherlands, for companies including both SMEs and multinationals.

We now want to establish a more permanent effort, to help stimulate the transition to a low-waste, circular economy here in Hong Kong. For this we need the support of a group of forward-looking companies – companies which see the potential benefits for themselves and their business partners.

We hope this can play some small role in helping to steer Hong Kong towards what it can be: a leading hub in a sustainable global economy.

For more information or to get involved, please get in touch: bertus.tulleners@therockgroup.biz.

The views of guest contributors do not necessarily reflect those of HKCSS, the Caring Company Scheme or Sustainable Business HK.