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11 December 2013

What do dog poo, human urine and the digestive juices of worms have in common?

disgustedThe answer is they have all been, or still are, used as a resource.

Once upon a time, dog faeces were collected as 'pure' and used to tan leather. And if I haven't already put you off your lunch, it seems that it was not just random poop-scooping, which apparently meant the pure-finders had a pretty good income:

The 'dry limy–looking sort' fetches the highest price at some yards as it is found to possess more of the alkaline or purifying properties; but others are found to prefer the dark moist quality.

(source: laudatortemporisacti)

Human urine was used as a colour fixer for fabrics, to kill lice in clothing and, believe it or not, as an ingredient in cheese- and bread making. It is still used, um, informally by gardeners as a compost accelerant. If you want more uses for pee, check out the amusing book Liquid Gold by Carol Steinfeld.

Worms have great digestive juices and earthworm enzymes have been used to dissolve blood clots and prevent cardiovascular disease in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and China. The Zero Emissions Research Initiative (ZERI) harvests them to make detergents.

Feel yourself going 'ugh' yet? Well it is the very properties of these substances that make you recoil that make them useful in the first place. Back in pre-industrial days, you didn't have much choice but to use what was to hand and there was no place for squeamishness.

This mentality - of seeing 'problem' qualities as opportunities - is essential for the uptake of industrial symbiosis (one company's waste becoming another's raw material) and to develop a circular economy. If you have, say, an acidic waste stream, the question you should be asking is not "how do we neutralise this?", but "who needs an acid?"

In other words, get over it!


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29 August 2013

Skin in the Game

rouletteI sat nervously in the anteroom, waiting for a colleague who had set up this presentation to a meeting of senior managers on one of the big chemicals sites on Teesside. I was there to sell the concept of industrial symbiosis to them - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - as I'd secured funding to run an IS project in the Tees Valley. This was the first environmental project that I had ever conceived and got running myself, it was a big one, I was very excited about it and the nerves were starting to show.

My colleague, who had decades of experience in the industry and a fantastic network, had been coaching me on what to say and what not to say, inadvertently ramping up the pressure. But he wasn't there.

So I went in alone. I did my pitch. At the end I asked "So who wants to get involved?"


Eventually the chair cleared his throat. "You've given us plenty of food for thought. We'd be very interested in the results of your study."

"It's not a study!" I protested "I need your companies to take part."

More silence. I played my final card. "I'll leave this box at the back of the room, please put your card in it if you want to join in."

When I collected the box the next day it was empty.

My colleague, who had simply forgotten about the meeting, got some feedback from the managers. He said I'd done a good job, that I had piqued their interest, but "they're very busy people."

A couple of months later we launched the project. We got a high profile keynote speaker, some good industrialists giving case studies, but crucially, we then switched to a workshop format and got people generating ideas of how their business could get involved. There was a palpable buzz in the room and we got dozens of companies signed up. Amongst them was one of the senior managers from that first, fruitless presentation - he became the project's biggest industrial champion and helped drive it to great success.

That was my first lesson in gaining commitment. If you simply explain what you want to do and ask people if they approve, you'll get murmurs of assent, but no real buy-in. As soon as you get people actively involved in developing the project they feel they have 'skin in the game' - a little part of the of project becomes theirs - they will share in any success and share in any failure.

It's the same with, say, a corporation's sustainability strategy. If present a strategy you have prepared in a vacuum to the board and ask for approval, all you will get is people trying to dilute the actions to minimise their exposure. If you get the board involved in pinning down the basics at the start of the process, you will get a much more enthusiastic response. They will have skin in the game.


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27 August 2013

Making Connections for Sustainability

sustainability green business networkSustainability will never be delivered by people working in isolation. From a practical point of view, you've never transform your supply chain, never mind implement something adventurous like industrial symbiosis, without knowing who's out there doing what.

But from learning point of view, restricting your experiences within your organisation or even within your sector will give a very blinkered view of what is possible - the best you can expect is a bit of drearily dull 'best practice'. Most green events don't help - the Powerpoint-Q&A format saps all energy out of a subject and the networking during coffee is simply random, making small talk and watching the more predatory consultants cruising past like sharks (I know someone from a big consumer goods brand who refuses to wear his name badge at conferences so he doesn't get hassled so much).

There are quite different - ie much better - ways of going about networking properly. My own Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) is based around structured discussions between a small number of top sustainability executives. The intensity of the exchanges brings out some really great insights, learning points and the occasional epiphany. One high street brand told me they wouldn't join because there weren't any other retailers on board - I said that was the whole point!

On a bigger scale, I'm delighted to be opening The Big Eco Show in October with the theme of Conversation, Connection, Collaboration. The even has been structured around round table discussions lead by facilitators - a format I pinched from the now sadly defunct Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange as it is one of the best ways I've come across to get people talking in a meaningful way in an event like this (we decided OpenSpace was a step too far).

No man (or woman) is an island - the sustainability practitioner does need to get out there and keep interacting and keep learning - but choose the forum carefully as many are simply not worth the time and effort.




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7 August 2013

The Fatberg is the Tip of the Iceberg

Imagine spending three weeks sluicing away 15 tonnes of congealed fat, wet wipes and 'sanitary items' from a London sewer. A Herculean task if there ever was one - give me the Aegean stables full of sweet smelling horse manure any day.

Most right thinking people's reaction to the 'fatberg' story would be "Urgh!", but us circular economy freaks' initial response is "what a waste!" All that good bio-sourced hydrocarbon could be used as an eco-friendly fuel rather than soaking up more energy to shift and treat. And it seems that London Mayor Boris Johnson, despite his somewhat singular attitude to climate change science, is with us - he wants to use the cooking fat being dumped in London's sewers to power buses.

The circular economy requires a complete shift in mindset. If you have an acidic waste, say, then the conventional wisdom is you must treat it with an alkali to make it safe. By contrast, the circular economist thinks "What a waste of acid and alkali - what can I use the acid for?"

One of my favourite sayings is "waste is a verb, not a noun." As soon as you start making that mental shift, all sorts of possibilities start opening up. These are starting to make an impact on the economy. For example, one of my clients tells me that you cannot buy virgin glycerin in bulk anymore as the market is now dominated by glycerin sourced as a byproduct of biodiesel - a classic industrial symbiosis.

But the fatberg shows we still have a long way to go before we start harnessing all the wasted resources in our economy.


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22 May 2013

Words Matter: What "The Bedroom Tax" can teach us about selling sustainability

words-that-workYou can win or lose an argument on the words you choose to use.

Take the recent furore over changes to UK housing benefits. The Government introduced what they called a "under-occupation charge" for those living in social housing with more than the minimum number of bedrooms they needed. The Opposition branded this "the bedroom tax" and the press adopted the term. The Prime Minister tried to fight back, talking about the status quo as a "spare room subsidy", but it was too late, "the bedroom tax" had stuck.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the policy, the case demonstrates how important language is. The original name was a dreadful piece of technocrat-speak, wide open to attack. The attack was effective as it used the much more emotive term "bedroom tax" which painted the policy as a 'bad' - tax - applied to a 'good' - a nice cosy bedroom. The response of a "spare room subsidy" was an attempt to apply the 'bad' (subsidy) to something much less cosy - a 'spare room', but it was too weak, too late.

This kind of verbal reframing is all part of the daily cut and thrust of politics, and, more often than not, whoever coins a resonant phrase first wins.

I was thinking of this at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting on sustainable supply chains. We were discussing Industrial Symbiosis - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - when one group member said that when talking to colleagues he preferred to call it "Waste to Value".


Why? Do some green jujitsu and put yourself in your colleagues' shoes.

You are busy doing your job when someone comes up to you to talk Industrial Symbiosis. Your reaction is likely to be "Huh? Can't this wait?"

Or they could ask you about Waste to Value - "What, we can make money from our waste? Tell me more!"

To win sustainability arguments, we have to think more like politicians, kick out the technocrat-speak, and put a positive spin on our sustainability ideas and projects. As Frank Luntz, George W Bush's infamous spin doctor put it, it's not what you say, it's what people hear. We need to use words that work.


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18 March 2013

What does "Re-shoring" do for the Circular Economy and CSR?

shipping containers

"Re-shoring" is a growing business trend - bringing offshore manufacturing and services back from low wage "developing countries" to so-called "developed countries". According to the Guardian, businesses as disparate as Aston Martin, Pot Noodle and kiddy-suitcase maker Trunki are re-relocating their manufacturing back in Blighty driven by rising wages in the Far East and rocketing shipping costs (presumably a result of stubbornly high oil prices).

This is clearly a good thing for the Circular Economy as goods will be consumed and 'disposed of' closer to the site of their manufacture, shrinking material loops. Quality of materials can also be better managed if the purchaser of the materials can intervene easily in the supply chain. Circular business models including leasing, remanufacturing and industrial symbiosis (one person's waste = another's raw material) all work better when manufacturers are located closer together.

There are clear CSR benefits too - we have seen in the recent horse meat scandal how difficult it is to manage complex international supply chains. Shorter supply chains mean more transparency, less opportunity for criminality and, for the EU at least, better working conditions.

And there are economic benefits to boot - an opportunity for unbalanced economies like the UK to rebalance away from the debt-driven financial and construction sectors that gave us the colossal boom and bust that we still haven't escaped.

Reshoring - a boring sounding word that I'm growing rather fond of!



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15 March 2013

Green is Cool.

Jimi HendrixHome cleaning products company Method has announced new packaging made from recycled plastic. So what? Well the plastic comes from the ocean, not only saving resources but protecting wildlife and the ocean ecosystem to boot. That's cool.

Waste company Veolia processes road sweepings to recover precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium - mining the urban environment rather than the earth's core. That's pretty cool too.

A project at my old group CLEMANCE found that it was technically possible to recover iron oxide pollution from streams and convert it into rewritable CDs and DVDs. How cool would that be?

And another CLEMANCE project led to 300,000 tomato plants growing under glass using waste heat and carbon dioxide from a chemical plant to accelerate growth. I think that's pretty damn cool.

The solar hot water panel on my roof pre-heats the water going into my combo-boiler so we get low carbon hot water without losing the on-demand convenience. Again, cool.

If I cycle rather than taking the car then I get my exercise as well as transport. If I work from home, I get to see my young family grow up and avoid the nightmare of commuting. If I use local services, I see much more of my friends and neighbours. All of this is very cool.

Smart grid technology creates the possibility of opening up the energy production and storage system to everybody buying and selling to the grid and breaking the economic and political grip of Big Oil. To me, my friend, that would be very cool indeed.

Green is cool.

So why do we persist in presenting it as hairshirt, pious asceticism - and wonder why people won't embrace it?

Let's chill out, man. Be cool.


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28 January 2013

Let's Work Together - Partnership and Sustainability

'Partnership' is one of those funny words which far too many people spout with their brains disengaged - particularly when it comes to sustainability. It is automatically assumed to be the right thing to do in all circumstances, when in reality a bad partnership, like a bad personal relationship, can be very harmful to both parties.

I've learnt from sometimes bitter experience that it is only worth getting into a partnership with people you trust and, even then, in circumstances when the benefits outweigh the effort required to form and sustain that partnership - which can be substantial. In particular I keep an eye out for 'partnership junkies' who seem to want to be involved in everything without bringing anything to the table - especially when there's some cash around.

Here are some examples when partnership between companies and organisations can deliver benefits that working alone can never do:

  • Industrial Symbiosis - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - by definition requires partnership and openness and it can deliver immense benefits. In the IS projects I used to run, we diverted 100,000s tonnes of 'waste' per annum from landfill into other uses by bringing organisations together and getting them to think the 'right' way.
  • Collective purchasing can create and strengthen non-existent or weak supply chains for green technology and greener materials/energy by creating massive and stable demand. As I recounted in The Green Executive, the Royal Mail got together with the other European postal services to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on purchasing hydrogen vehicles which they believe accelerated the development of the technology by a decade.
  • Standard setting - various sector organisations have worked together to create voluntary standards for everything from supply chain impacts to reporting standards. Other groups have lobbied for higher environmental legislation to penalise those perceived to be not pulling their weight.
  • Critical friends - some corporates have gone into partnership with NGOs to give themselves someone who can give them a poke with a sharp stick if they drop their standards. The WWF and Coca-Cola's partnership on watershed management in developing countries is a great example.
  • Mutual learning - my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group brings together some really big companies to learn from each other through structured discussions. This is particularly effective when there is a big diversity in participants as ideas which are commonplace in one sector might be novel in another. One high street chain was reluctant to join the group because there were no other retailers, but my reaction was "that's the whole point!"

Like all aspects of corporate sustainability, partnership is highly beneficial when it is done properly for the right reasons, just don't fall for those who see it as a reason to do nothing. It must lead to clear, mutual benefits for all involved, or you are wasting your time.


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10 August 2012

Book Review: The Zeronauts by John Elkington

John Elkington one of the sustainability field's leading pioneers and in his latest book he looks at those at the cutting edge of sustainability thinking who he dubs Zeronauts - the people who are aiming for zero - zero waste, zero emissions, zero toxins. Zeronauts are people like the late great Ray Anderson of Interface who launched the groundbreaking Mission Zero programme to have a zero impact on the planet by 2020. Zero is of course the ultimate stretch target and a great motivator as Elkington reminds us throughout the book.

The structure of the book takes us through three quintets of concepts:

5Cs of scale: citizen, corporation, cities, countries, civilisations;

5Es of maturity: eureka, experiementation, enterprise, eco-systems, economy;

5Ps of examples: zero population, zero pandemics, zero poverty, zero pollution, zero proliferation.

So far, so good. But the big problem is, for me at least, the book just doesn't deliver on the central promise. Many of the examples are of bog standard sustainability efforts rather than the special case of zero, diluting the core message. In fact the most insightful critique of the zero approach in the book comes not from Elkington, but in a series of lengthly blog extracts on zero waste from Andrew Winston of Green to Gold fame. Beyond this, there was little about the implications of, say, a zero waste policy to a single company and no mention of key enabling concepts such as industrial symbiosis. The "How Zeronauts Tackle Pollution" box could be titled "How Everyone Tackles Pollution" so generic is the content.

I also found the presence of many on the 'Zeronauts Roll of Honour' to be debatable - for example James Hansen is a great scientist who has bravely stuck his head over the parapet to warn of the dangers of climate change, but I have never heard a proposal from him that fits the zero theme - and none is presented here to justify his inclusion. The list appears to consist of sustainability practitioners that Elkington admires rather than Zeronauts per se. And don't get me started on the five figure year format.

That's not to say there aren't loads of interesting ideas and nuggets in the book, which I have to say is beautifully presented, and the Zeronauts meme is brilliant in itself, but I was expecting a tautly drawn up manifesto for the zero movement, or a critique of it, and this falls well short of either. Zeronauts could and should have been an essential text, but it's more of a curate's egg. Frustrating.


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11 July 2012

Circular Economy or Web of Life?

As a nature lover, I thoroughly enjoyed Chris Packham's BBC series The Secrets of the Living Planet. Having been on our screens in my youth, Packham has suddenly burst back from the wilderness to become the putative successor to the legend that is David Attenborough. But being a scientist, Packham has brought his on flavour to his shows and the theme behind 'Secrets' is the interconnectiveness of life on earth. The last episode focussed on wetlands and seas and showed how the lowly Apple Snail is key to the extraordinary wildlife of the Brazilian Pantanal and how lowly crabs create the correct conditions in the mangroves of the Ganges delta to allow trees, deer and, in turn, the mighty tiger to survive.

This got me thinking about one of the key concepts of sustainability - the circular economy. Traditionally humans have adoped a linear 'take, make, use, waste' approach to our natural resources and this was fine while consumption was low and those natural resources were such that nature could do our reprocessing for us - ie we fitted into existing eco-systems. Modern society however consumes so much material - and of so many 'unnatural' types - that our eco-systems cannot cope with the linear economy, so we need to look at our economy as an eco-system in itself and make sure resources are recovered and reused in a circular manner.

While circular economy is a nice, simple, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin description, we should bear in mind that, as with nature, the reality will be much more complex than simple product recycling at the end of life. By-products and waste heat are created at every stage of product lifecycles and all of these should be seen, and used, as resources as well. This creates a complex set of interrelations - more of a web of life than simple loops. And, as with nature, that is a good thing - a diverse eco-systems of product flows will make the whole much more robust and allow it to evolve with society.

When watching Chris Packham's boyish enthusiasm at the complexities of natural eco-systems, it reminds me of my own enthusiasm when working for years on industrial symbiosis projects - matchmaking between producers of 'waste' and those who can put that material to good use. Not much gets me more excited than a clever zero waste cluster - I should get out more!


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11 June 2012

Compost, Natural Cycles and the Circular Economy

Here's a grubby little secret - shhh - don't tell anyone - but I'm a closet compost fanatic. At last count I operate at least nine compost bins of various shapes and sizes, plus a few pre-treatment buckets where I drown persistent weeds before adding them to the main process. I just love the way that the composting process makes a product out of 'waste' materials - all you have to do is provide the right ingredients and the right conditions and you're off.

Compost is amazing stuff - check out the picture of part of our allotment - the bed at the front has about three barrows of my home-made compost as a mulch whereas the one at the back is just natural soil. The crops in the compost are bigger and the weeds are fewer. The compost not only returns nutrients to the soil, but also provides soil structure, suppresses weeds and retains moisture.

What I am doing of course is harnessing the natural cycles of nature to work for me. The Earth has had about 4.5 billion years to work out a sustainable system and after about 1.5 bn years of chaos, it came up with natural solar powered cycles of substances which didn't systematically poison itself. The system is continuously evolving - adaptation and diversity making it ever more resilient.

We know from nature that this circular model works, so it is strange then that the main focus in sustainability is on pursuing a system which doesn't work very well - making our economy more efficient. You need massive gains in eco-efficiency (the amount of use we get out of each unit of natural resource) - and hefty resource prices/ecotaxes - to outstrip the 'rebound effect' - the tendency for efficient systems to simply consume resources faster. Anyway, Nature isn't efficient - how many seeds are released to produce just one tree?

There are some great examples of the circular economy in practice - whether the industrial symbiosis cluster at Kalundborg, Marks & Spencer making school uniforms and umbrellas out of recycled polyester, or Interface using old carpet as the raw material for making new carpet. This is about delivering on the oft-uttered but rarely implemented platitude of "treating waste as a resource" at scale. The biggest challenge is making the mental shift from trying to deal with a problem (waste) to trying to source sustainable raw materials. Once you make that mental leap, all sorts of opportunities open up.

One of the potential pitfalls is trying to design a circular economy - efforts to recreate, say, Kalundborg have largely failed, often at great expense. Going back to the natural cycles, this sort of economy has to evolve. It can be helped along by eco-taxes, research & development and information sharing, but like my compost, you have to create the right conditions, provide a helping hand when required, but ultimately you must let nature take its course.

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19 March 2012

Are you ready for a drought?

Living in Britain is supposedly synonymous with owning an umbrella. And a cagoule. And wellies. But something strange is happening - or not happening - rain. It has been very dry - and it is thought we might be heading for the worst drought in 30 years. We can pontificate on the reasons - the old 'can or cannot it be attributed to climate change' dingdong - but it is more fruitful to consider the potential impacts.

According to the Telegraph's Geoffrey Lean, we might be about to move from the second level of measures (possible hosepipe bans) into the third level which could include bans on washing vehicles and swimming pools closed. If it goes beyond that, level 4, we could be into strict rationing - and business will get hit first.

Water is a regional resource. Here in the North East we have a huge reservoir at Kielder which was built for an expansion of the Teesside chemical industry that never happened. So we're probably OK at Terra Infirma Towers, but if you are based in the South East, it is a quite different matter.

Do you know how would this impact on your business? Do you use water in production or operations? Do you have alternative sources? And how should a responsible business respond? Clamouring for a bigger share of a dwindling resource isn't going to look good.

Broadly there are two approaches: use less and use better water.

1. Less water:

  • Draw up a water balance to understand your water use and identify leaks and other uncontrolled losses;
  • Track down and fix any leaks - use ultrasonic detectors to find any underground;
  • Cascade water from uses where it has to be very clean down to uses where contamination can be tolerated;
  • Find internal recycling opportunities - eg use last wash water for first rinse or treat and reuse waste water on site;
  • Maintain land in a water friendly way to minimise the need for irrigation;
  • Invest in low water technology from hose nozzles through waterless urinals to advanced process plant;
  • Educate your staff on the important of good water management - you wouldn't believe the number of hoses left running for no good reason that I have seen on industrial sites.

2. 'Better' water

  • Capture and store rainwater to even out peaks and troughs in precipitation;
  • Source suitable waste water from other users - the world famous industrial symbiosis cluster at Kalundborg started with a cascade of water from one site to another.

If you haven't already thought about the impact of water shortages, you'd better get moving. "Do a rain dance" is not a substantial risk management plan.

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9 November 2011

Going Loopy: Mindsets for a Sustainable Economy

One of the things that really impressed me with Dame Ellen MacArthur last Friday (other than the solo around the world sailing stuff) was, despite coming to the topic of sustainability relatively recently, she grasped the fact that the circular, closed loop economy is a much better sustainability model than eco-efficiency. Many so-called experts don't get this.

Nature is inefficient by our standards – how many sycamore seeds are released for every new sycamore tree? – yet it is sustainable. Materials and nutrients travel in solar powered loops and nothing gets poisoned on a grand scale. Efficiency, at best, slows the unsustainability problem down, but doesn't solve it.

In chapters 6 and 7 of The Green Executive, I describe what I call the eco-system model of sustainability and how it can be applied to industry at a macro level. The eco-system model requires all energy to be from renewable sources, all materials to be recovered for re-use in continuous loops and nothing gets poisoned. This model needs to permeate all operations, the supply chain and products/services.

Impossible, you cry, you can't recycle 'X'! Well don't use 'X' then. Or find a different way of doing using 'X' where it can be recovered and reused. Likewise, toxic materials should simply be designed out.

Taking the eco-system model a step further, we can look to nature to inspire design solutions - aka biomimcry. Some of my favourite examples in the Green Executive are from the world of biomimcry:

  • InterfaceFLOR use adhesive pads which emulate the feet of geckos to stick without glue;
  • The US Navy has developed an anti-fouling paint which emulates sharkskin - you don't see limpits on a shark - rather than trying to poison such unwanted passengers;
  • Industrial symbiosis where all waste becomes 'food' for another company.

These examples show the need for a change in mindset. The anti-fouling example required a radical rethink of the problem. If you take the eco-efficiency mindset, you will try to trade off the loss in efficiency in moving the ship from the fouling against the impact of toxic anti-fouling paint and will inevitably end up with a messy compromise. The eco-system model says "you can't use poisons at all", so you have to find another way of tackling the problem - hence the innovation. Similarly the eco-efficiency mindset says "recycle only if it saves energy/resources" whereas the eco-system mindset says "close the loop - make it work".

I've said it before and I'll say it again - sustainability is all in the mind. And, as Einstein is said to have said:

"The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them."

The eco-system model requires a different mindset. So are you going to go loopy?

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21 October 2011

Waste Is A Verb, Not A Noun

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Waste is a verb, not a noun" and it is all about the effect of the word 'waste' on us psychologically - but don't worry, I don't get too metaphysical on you all.

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC10 Waste Is A Verb, Not A Noun

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.


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26 August 2011

Michael Pawlyn on Biomimicry

I really like this TED talk by Michael Pawlyn - it's about the application of biomimicry principles to architecture, waste management and food systems. I love the scale of the ambition and the smart thinking - definitiely worth checking out.

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16 March 2011

Forestry, waste wood and business

Yesterday I ran a workshop on waste wood business opportunities for the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme's North East team. Industrial symbiosis is the concept of 'waste' from companies becoming the raw material feeds for other industrial process as a rule rather than as an exception.

Despite thick fog and a difficult to reach, if plush, location - Slaley Hall on the edge of the North Penines - we had a great turnout and a real buzz. Business cards were being exchanged left, right and centre as we went through the brainstorming process. When I say brainstorming, we did it properly - no Powerpoint at all. We used the mind map above, printed onto huge A0 sheets, colour coded Post-Its, and a simple system of ID codes to track who was offering or wanted what. I've included the map above as the recycling PESTLE analysis I created for an event last summer has been very popular with readers and Googlers. Click on it for a bigger version.

The wider wood project has been very interesting. We were originally inspired to look at wood by some examples of industrial symbiosis in the Finnish forest industry, but to be honest, when we compared those examples and what's going on in North East England carefully, there wasn't much of a difference. What difference there is is shrinking fast as economics is closing the loops of waste from the virgin wood industry - bark, sawdust, offcuts etc - so we've shifted emphasis to post-user wood. This situation was confirmed visually during the workshop as there were lots of Post-Its on the right of the mindmap, and precious few on the left.

Big issues on the right hand side are persuading waste producers not to landfill waste, the tension between waste wood as fuel and waste wood as a raw material (and Govt subsidies for the former) and sometimes contradictory legislation. Having said that, the sector seems to be booming - and the local players certainly have more to go on after the workshop.

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15 October 2010

You need friends

If you believe the version of business as portrayed by The Apprentice, then it's an every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost kind of world. Which is largely nonsense, as all of us in the real world know (well, most of us...). Business is about relationships and successful business is about trusted relationships, partnerships and collaboration. This is as true in the green business world as anywhere else, and there are many examples of where working with others has delivered mutual benefits:

  • Businesses working together, often through trade bodies, to develop voluntary agreements such as the UK's Courthald agreement between supermarkets and the food industry to reduce packaging;
  • Businesses getting together through formal and informal networks to exchange best practice, experience and mutual support;
  • Businesses working together to generate sufficient demand to bring sustainable technologies to market. The PostEurop consortium believe they have brought forward the production of hydrogen vehicles by a decade in this way;
  • Businesses working together to use each other's waste as a raw material such as in the industrial symbiosis cluster in Kalundborg, Denmark;
  • Businesses working with environmental pressure groups to develop solutions to environmental problems such as WWF and Coca-Cola working together on watershed management;
  • Businesses putting together 'dream teams' of trusted advisors who will challenge them to really deliver.

As always the flip side is true too. If associating with the 'right' people is an opportunity, not cutting ties with the 'wrong' people is a liability. When Apple and Pepsi left the US Chamber of Commerce over the latter's stance on climate change legislation, they sent a clear message out to the whole world.

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18 August 2010

The End of Recycling

I love my compost heap. I should say 'heaps' as I effectively have five - a two bay main heap, a plastic drum for food waste, a wormery and a dumpy bag for leaf mould. And three more at the allotment... but anyway, I turned the first full bay in the main heap the other week and marvelled as the hedge-clippings, grass cuttings, weeds and, ahem, 'nitrogen rich liquid' I had put in over the last year had been transformed to lovely, sweet smelling brown humus.

Of course this doesn't happen by magic - a whole eco-system of microfauna eats the different components and the compost I am so proud of is basically their waste. So they're using our waste, we're using their waste and the cycle continues.

So, from a philosophical point of view, which of these two processes is "recycling"? Both ecologists and economists like to construct rigid hierarchies where material and energy move from "primary" producers/industries up to top consumers. But in ecology these "top consumers" produce food for other organisms through their dung and eventually become food themselves. So in reality we end up with a messy 'food web' where there is no concept of 'waste'.

I believe that if we want to move to a sustainable society - ie one which mimics the natural cycles of nature - we have to get away from the concept of "recycling materials" as opposed to "cycling resources". We would then have a 'resource web' just like the 'food web' in nature (check out Kalundborg in Denmark). We hear endless calls to treat waste as a resource, but to really do that we have to stop thinking of it as waste in the first place, hence my aphorism "waste is a verb, not a noun.". If resources are no longer deemed waste then why do we want the "re-" in recycle or reuse?

So maybe it is time to say goodbye to "recycling".

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7 January 2009

Waste or food?

Over the holidays I've been reading David Archer's excellent book Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the River Tyne about the legendary river which flows about a mile south of where I'm sitting.

However the following statement on river pollution made me stop and think:

"The generation of waste products is an attribute of all living creatures, and human beings are no exception. Most of the products decompose naturally in the environment and do not cause detriment to other organisms sharing their living space."

This encapsulates our short-sighted attitude to 'waste'. Contrary to popular opinion, organic wastes do not decompose in the environment, rather they are eaten. Horse manure is manna from heaven if you are a dung fly or one of many species of fungi or bacteria. That is their food source just as a shiny apple on a tree is food for humans. We're not immune from eating 'waste' products either, there are over 700 species of bacteria in our gut which metabolise various food elements, including some essential vitamins. Metabolise = eat and excrete! So rather than natural 'waste' materials not causing "detriment to other organisms", they are actually nourishing many of those organisms and form part of a continual cycle of nutrients.

So why am I being this pedantic so early in the New Year? Well we've got to start thinking about the materials in our economy in the same way. McDonogh and Braungart call these 'technical nutrients' to draw a comparison with 'biological nutrients'. If we start to think of a continual cycle of materials in the economy, and design materials and processes so the by-products of one process are always nourishing other processes in the system, then we are a long way towards sustainability.

Sound fanciful? Then check out the industrial symbiosis at Kalundborg.

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8 February 2008

Avoid Eco-clichés!

Before Christmas I mentioned  that I hated the 'hands cupping a sapling' image used by so many green businesses. Then I admitted our corporate Christmas cards featured a polar bear rolling in the snow (v. cute - drop me a line and I'll send you one next year). Well, Getty Images has done some research that suggests these eco-clichés are a turn off to the average punter.

This is a perennial problem for promoting green businesses - what images manage to use to communicate their ethos and values without the sappiness of the clichés. For the Terra Infirma masthead, we went for a picture of Kalundborg, the home of industrial symbiosis because a. we work with industry, b. Kalundborg is an exemplar of the type of solution we present to clients (waste is a resource), and c. we had a picture of Kalundborg. Of course few people recognise the picture and its significance and one reader described it as 'dark satanic mills'. Ho hum. I'll keep looking.

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