It could be argued that the 300-year-old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has never been more prescient or pertinent.
With the world’s population on track to top 10 billion by 2050, the need for increasingly affordable, resource-efficient innovation is at a premium. Which is why waste, whether generated by an individual or a multinational corporation, is less frequently written off as the cost of doing business. Instead, it’s viewed as a resource that can be leveraged for maximum benefit, both economic and social.
We give materials another life, many times beyond traditional recycling.
Over the past decade, simply monetizing unused resources fueled the creation of buzzworthy ventures like Uber and Airbnb. Other digital, peer-to-peer ventures, such as eBay and Craigslist, are not only more efficient, but they give used products a second (or third, fourth, even fifth) life.
However, the textiles industry has been a little slow to the resourcefulness party. Infamous for its inconsistent production schedules, its factories keep busy when seasonal demand is surging but operate at less than capacity for several months a year. This can lead to layoffs and, in some cases, even shuttered doors. The British nonprofit Community Clothing looks to change that. Community Clothing uses these slack periods and taps underemployed workers to create their own line of clothes and sell directly to consumers, allowing for lower markups and quick online service.
The inventive use of digital technology to streamline commerce and create a fluid relationship between buyers and sellers is variously referred to as the “share economy” or “collaborative consumption.” While still fledgling, its potential seems limitless. And a number of entrepreneurs and industrialists, inspired by the collective spirit and eco-friendly nature of the paradigm, are now looking to turn materials that were previously dumped in the trash or recycling bin into reusable assets.
Another industry hopping on board? Cars. At Nissan, this focus on reuse — or a more “circular economy” — inspired developers to create a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology that allows its electric-car owners to maximize their battery power. Long available in Japan, the system is making its way westward thanks to an ambitious rollout in the United Kingdom, which is being done in conjunction with the multinational power company Enel.
Owners of one of Nissan’s electric vehicles (EV), such as the popular LEAF, are encouraged to plug into the grid during low-use, lower-cost periods to charge their batteries, which can then be operated during peak times. What’s most revolutionary, though, is the user can feed energy back into the grid during these high-use periods and generate credits or additional revenue. Ideally, this would lead to a mutually beneficial relationship between drivers and utilities that encourages even more EV use and a robust flow of renewable energy.
Circular thinking is also all the rage in the U.S., where Reuse Opportunity Collaboratory (ROC) Detroit, for example, has brought together more than 60 local businesses, industries and nonprofits to, as it describes, find ways to create closed-loop systems in which one organization’s waste becomes another’s raw material.
The effort was spearheaded by General Motors, which hosted ROC Detroit’s launch in September 2014. To dig in, Access interviewed John Bradburn, GM’s global manager of waste reduction. “We’ve been working with waste reduction and waste minimization for some time,” he says. “What was previously called a waste became a resource. We give materials another life, many times beyond traditional recycling. The key question is: How do you take something and repurpose it and reuse without having to grind, shred or destroy it?”
Bradburn goes on to explain that ROC Detroit is particularly unique because of its membership’s diversity, reflected in the variety of projects that have already borne fruit. One small but impactful effort involved repurposing scrap metal generated when holes are stamped out to make a car’s windows as it moves along an assembly line. Instead of simply recycling the material, GM sent it along to the Texas A&M College of Architecture, where students used it to construct their own designs.
While most companies transport products using cardboard boxes, in Korea, 4-by-5-foot metal boxes, which are typically only used once, are the norm. When these boxes make their way to the port of Detroit, a number of them are turned into large pots by urban farmers — a growing segment of the area’s young, entrepreneurial class — who grow fruit and vegetables for the wider community. It’s a living example of what happens when manufacturers and everyday citizens think about the life of a product as “birth to birth” instead of “birth to grave.”
“Growing an economy. Growing jobs. Growing opportunity. That’s the goal,” Bradburn says.
Want more people, places and ideas shaping the future of our connected world? Check out the FYI List
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