"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!
Home 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?
One of the speakers at last week's North East Recycling Forum (NERF) Conference was Vikki Jackson-Smith of J&B Recycling. I was delighted to hear how Vikki and J&B are getting along as I clearly remember the day about 12 years ago when Vikki and I sat in a Portacabin in the corner of a damp Hartlepool coal yard and she told me her plans.
She had inherited the family coal business, J&B Fuels, which was in decline as fewer people had coal fires and demand had slumped. She said:
I realised we don't have to sell coal. What we actually do is import material in bulk, sort it, process it, bag it and sell it on. We've got all the kit - a yard with a weighbridge, trucks and front loaders - and employees who know what they're doing. It doesn't matter whether it is coal or something else, we can do it.
What "it" was, originally, was glass collected from pubs and clubs, but since then J&B Recycling has diversified over a very wide range of materials, invested many millions in facilities and grown from 20 employees in the coal business to 140 today.
What I like about Vikki's story is that it is a shining example of someone breaking into the green sector by:
Identifying the strengths J&B could bring to the sector: materials handling, logistics, customer service;
Identifying a profitable first niche in the sector to exploit those strengths, then expanding through diversification to reduce exposure to risks (in this case recyclate prices);
Getting the business side of things right: customer service, risk management, quality control.
In my first book The 3 Secrets of Green Business, the first 'Secret' was "Treat the environmental agenda as an opportunity, not a threat. Grasp it with both hands but, whatever you do, don't forget you are still running a business." Vikki is a great example of someone who has got it right.
Last Thursday I went to the North East Recycling Forum Annual Conference - one of the few events I intend as a punter. This partly because I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces and partly because the content is always better than all those identikit commercial green conferences in London.
To open, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Waste Management gave an overview of the UK's waste sector. It was very noticeable that Wales is shooting ahead of the other regions of the UK and has hit a 53% household waste recycling rate, compared to 43% in England.
"Why was this?" came a question from the floor. The answer given was that the Welsh Assembly has signed up to the One Planet principles at the very highest level and they develop strategies and make decisions through that prism. By contrast, English waste policy is managed by 5 different Whitehall department and is treated with different priority in each (It has to be said that Eric Pickles came in for a bit of a hammering from speakers and delegates alike.)
Politics aside, we can take three lessons from this which can be applied to any sustainability strategy:
Have a clear vision;
Secure proper buy-in at the highest level (not just lip service);
Proactively pursue that vision with determination and drive.
In the meantime, well done Wales! (and despite the name, I'm not Welsh).
On Monday I ran a waste awareness session with one of my large clients' employees. I used a range of green jujitsu techniques to properly engage with the participants: the session was designed to appeal to the attendees (engineering/manufacturing), getting them involved in generating solutions, and using questions rather than statements.
And no Powerpoint, just flip charts and the template you can see above. The main exercise was to join the dots between Goods In and Goods Out, plot waste streams from the manufacturing process to the three main disposal routes, and then think of ways to move these streams up the waste hierarchy.
It all went jolly well and the feedback was 100% positive.
At the end of the session, as I do, I asked participants what they had learnt and thought I would share the results in generic terms as they nailed the key issues:
1. An appreciation of the true cost of waste - including costs other than disposal, such as processing of materials up to the point they became waste, energy, labour, storage, documentation and raw materials. (It was the last one which took the longest to drag out of them.)
2. To challenge implicit assumptions - waste isn't inevitable but is within the control of the company. The problem isn't in the skips round the back of the factory, but in the design process, procurement decisions and production management.
3. The need to communicate this awareness to everyone.
The important meme to communicate here is "waste is a verb not a noun" - resources are wasted, rather than being waste in themselves.
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!
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.
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;
I had a very interesting day at the North East Recycling Forum annual conference yesterday. I don't attend a lot of events I'm not speaking at these days, but I wanted to catch up with the network members. To my delight the emerging theme from the speakers was one of my current hot topics - a possible 'resource crunch'. The killer question is are we focussing too much on outputs (waste, pollution, carbon emissions) at the exclusion of inputs (raw material, energy, water etc)?
The idea of a 'resource war' was mentioned more than once, meaning either commercial battles between companies for ever decreasing pools of virgin material, or indeed actual shooting-at-each-other battles between nations trying to protect their economic interests. Global extraction of resources are projected to hit double 1980 rates by 2020. Mineral ores are the fastest riser - predicted to rise by 200% over this period compared to an 81% increase in oil consumption. As a result, many resources are starting to become hard to get hold of: oil, rare earth metals, platinum group metals etc.
This issue is starting to go from jaw-jaw to war-war on the ground (at least in the commercial sense) - a number of manufacturing giants are starting to invest in the recycling industry to ensure a flow of materials into the future. Renault have bought into metal reprocessors. David Palmer-Jones, CEO of waste company SITA, told us that they themselves were investing in plastic-to-diesel plants to hedge against the risk of rising oil prices to their own operations.
There's a big challenge for the recycling industry here - to shift mindset from waste diversion to raw material production There's a threat too as, if they don't make the shift, they could get left behind those who do either from within the industry or manufacturers setting up their own functions (eg InterfaceFLOR's carpet recycling). I asked the question how far along this path the waste industry had gone - the CEO of the Chartered Institute of Waste Managers, Steve Lee, said he believes they are "in the early stages of a quiet revolution."
Lastly there's the much bigger risk to the manufacturers themselves. Many modern technologies, from high performance steels to the ubiquitous iPhone, rely on elements whose whose traditional sources are dwindling. There are three choices: find a substitute material, start sourcing recovered material, or stick your head in the sand and hope for a miracle. I don't recommend the last one.
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.
Traditionally we have worried about what comes out of our economy - solid wastes, persistent toxins, greenhouse gases, acid rain, ozone and so on. But increasingly focus is shifting to the sustainability of inputs - energy, water and raw materials - as these factors have a much bigger and immediate impact on business viability. Let's face it, no water = no business, no energy = no business, no raw materials = no business.
You may not have noticed as there was a wedding on TV that weekend, but back in June, Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency - the go to guy for the lowdown on energy for Governments - said that oil production may have peaked back in 2006. If you have filled up your car recently, the resulting bill was probably bad for your health - and energy prices are impacting on food and clothing prices - not good news in the current financial turmoil. Then we have China buying up rare earth metal supplies and various NGOs flagging up water stresses across the world.
So what's the answer? Well, in nature, if a leaf falls off a tree it is recycled by worms, fungi and/or bacteria into nutrients for that tree or another plant, creating a cycle of nutrients. Same with water, carbon, nitrogen and other key materials - they all move in cycles. This is how nature's processes have evolved over billions of years to be sustainable in a world of finite resources.
Carpet tile giants and green business pioneers InterfaceFLOR realised this some time ago. To become sustainable - their goal is zero impact on the environment - they obviously have to source sustainable raw materials. While they are using some natural materials to replace the traditional oil-based fibres, this would not cover all inputs. So they decided to use waste carpet as a raw material. While their 'Evergreen' carpet leasing service has failed to set the market alight (apparently accountants can't handle carpet as a revenue cost rather than a capital cost - photocopiers and vehicles yes, but carpets no...), their 'Re-entry 2.0' carpet recycling facility has been a roaring success.
There are countless other opportunities for this kind of thinking. I am reliably informed that road sweepings have a higher concentration of platinum than that in naturally occuring ores due to all those catalytic converters in our cars releasing lots of tiny amounts. So people are working on the technology to 'mine' those materials from our streets and return them to the economy. Likewise there is great interest in 'mining' obsolete mobile phones for the precious metals within.
This requires a big shift in thinking away from outputs and towards inputs. Recovery and recycling are traditionally seen as waste management options rather than as sources of high quality raw materials - so quality suffers. The current prevalence of virgin raw materials means that such 'secondary' materials also tend to suffer from low volumes, high prices and lack of competition. Forward-thinking companies like Marks & Spencer are actively working to strengthen these new supply chains by increasing volumes, demanding higher quality of materials and encouraging a diversity of suppliers. The recycled polyester brolly pictured is a result of these efforts.
When stuff we rely on starts running out, we'll thank these pioneers for their foresight.
I was at the North East Recycling Forum (NERF) yesterday - catching up with contacts and the latest in the waste industry. One of the interesting points coming out was that the new Waste (England & Wales) Regulations 2011 - to give them their full title - now enshrine the waste hierarchy. Whether this is a tick box exercise or not, what I always find interesting is that nobody ever subjects the waste hierarchy to the Toddler Test and asks "why?".
Let's get one thing straight. The waste hierarchy is simply a rule of thumb. It has no basis in science or economics whatsoever.
Some people look at me as if I have blasphemed when I say that.
Take nature. Nature is very inefficient - a birch tree releases 15-17 million seeds every year, but at best only a few saplings will result. What happens to all the millions of 'wasted' seeds? They are recycled as nutrients back into the system. The waste hierarchy says we should prioritise minimising waste over recycling, yet clearly nature does the opposite - preferring recycling over minimisation. And nature is sustainable, we're not.
I'm not just being a smart alec here - there are practical scenarios where religious adherence to the hierarchy will end up in a suboptimal result. Say you produce 11 tonnes of a particular waste a week and you can get any amount over 10 tonnes collected and put to good use by a recycling company, it makes no economic or environmental sense to invest in a new technology which only produces 9 tonnes if that 9 tonnes ends up being landfilled at a higher cost because no-one can afford to collect and recycle it. I have seen a similar situation happen in reality.
As with all rules of thumb, the waste hierarchy should always be used in conjunction with a dose of common sense. In fact the new legislation does have a caveat which allows companies to ignore the hierarchy if they can demonstrate good environmental reasons to do so. Very wise.
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.
"We want to treat waste as a resource." is a constant refrain from the great and the good, but how do we make that happen?
The obvious approach is to try and create robust markets in secondary (recycled, recovered, pre-loved?) materials. The problem is that all commodity prices vary massively and extremely rapidly in the modern global economy. My cousins are farmers and they have to buy their seed and fertiliser long before they have a clue what wheat prices will be like at harvest - this year they did OK because of the terrible problems that Russian farmers had, but next year - who knows?
Recyclate prices can vary even more as they can go from positive to negative. You can see this very visually with scrap metal - if the value drops too low, scrap yards put on a gate fee and you will start to see abandoned old cars dumped on the road. When the price soars, anything metal starts to go missing - a couple of months ago a van was stopped by police in a neighbouring street to mine - with a cargo of half-inched manhole covers in the back.
So how can we deal with this uncertainty?
1. Penalise the alternatives: taxes on the extraction of raw materials or the landfilling of waste level the playing field by internalising the costs to society of those activities.
2. Expand and broaden markets: a steady demand from a wide range of potential markets will even out the peaks and troughs. Organisations both public and private can use their buying power to boost these markets.
3. A realistic view of risk: I've seen far too many start ups build their business plans around unrealistic assumptions on material value/costs and then struggle when the real prices don't comply with their wishful thinking.
4. Use of trusted standards for the quality of materials - the UK Government and its WRAP quango have been working on a set of standards called PAS for some time - eg PAS 100 is the standard for soil conditioner/compost.
5. Use of trusted labels/certification schemes for recycled material - so the customer can make informed purchasing decisions without fear of greenwash.
Overall, though, we need a general change in attitude to 'waste'. As my own little aphorism has it, "Waste is a verb, not a noun".
On Tuesday I was facilitating a workshop on "closing the loop" in the North East of England. To stimulate ideas in the 'future landscape' session, I created the above PESTLE analysis (Politcal, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental). Thought it might be of use to some users (click on it and it should expand).
Interesting report on the manufacturing sector published by EEF and Envirowise last summer, but being publicised now. Some notable conclusions:
- 90% of respondents were doing something to improve their environmental performance; - waste and energy are the key issues; - key drivers are legislation and EMS requirements, rather than competitive advantage; - preferred method of waste reduction is recycling (80% of respondents) rather than minimisation (18% of respondents); - 70% of respondents felt Government should provide them more funds to tackle these problems.
Despite the fact that 90% of respondents were acting, the rest of this is rather disappointing. The respondents saw the green agenda as one to react to rather than get proactive on. The lack of interest in minimising waste reflects a lack of awareness of cost saving opportunities, and the expectation that this is the taxpayer's problem to sort out shows a lack of ownership.
The proactive business should acknowledge their environmental impacts and tackle them head-on to improve competitive advantage through reduced costs, better PR and happier staff (see 10 Reasons... for more on this). Looks like we still have a long way to go before a proactive attitude is prevalent.
OK the waste hierarchy says minimisation is better than recycling, but minimising a large waste stream by a small amount is pointless if it makes recycling the rest uneconomic. The waste hierarchy is just a rule of thumb - apply common sense at all times.
On Monday I gave a seminar on carbon footprinting and carbon management (using the Terra Infirma brainstorming tool) at the Association of Charity Shops Annual Conference in Keele. I learnt a lot, as I always do in this trade (I've worked with everyone from multi-national pharmaceutical companies through to a crazy golf course - you pick up all sorts of weird factoids). The sector is a huge, professionally run, and very competitive retail operation, a huge chunk of the reuse industry and a huge source of materials for recyclers. This was not lost on the three recycling companies who sponsored the event.
The seminar went to plan and was well received - despite some shock when we spent half the time actually doing some work. Solutions we generated included checking tyre pressure of vehicles, better use of steamers, buying translucent kettles and even screwing down the thermostat dials. The big contentious issue is open/closed door. As with all shops, open door = more sales but massive energy loss. We didn't resolve this one, but if anyone can think of a solution, post it in the comments.
Once again recently I was proudly told by a factory manager "We don't have a waste problem - we recycle 95% of it - isn't that fantastic?". Recycling is great, but your fantastic achievement may be hiding waste reduction opportunities.
Taking a manufacturing business as an example, there are three types of waste:
1. Unavoidable process waste - waste that is intrinsic to your business. If you produce, say, chocolate flavouring from cocoa beans, then you will have cocoa residues left over no matter what. This should be recycled where possible and, if you are really clever, you can adjust your process to maximise its value for recycling/reuse.
2. Avoidable process waste - for example, offcuts, packaging of materials/components, solvents etc. Here you have a choice - eradication, recycling or normal disposal. Soaring landfill taxes are starting to rule out the latter for all but 'difficult materials', so you effectively have a choice of whether to reduce or recycle - that largely comes down to practicalities and economics.
3. Off-spec product (or components) - this is the worst kind of waste as you have added value to it only to throw it away. This waste should be terminated with extreme prejudice - particularly towards the end of your process where the value lost is the highest - I've seen far too many horror shows of good product being sprayed across factory floors by packing machines or careless forklift drivers.
I once heard waste described as "stuff you buy that you can't sell" - a brilliant summation of the economic driver to reduce waste.