Public-private partnerships turn waste into cash

Many companies face a common problem: What to do with by-product or waste left over from the manufacturing process.

Smart firms increasingly are finding profitable ways of turning waste into assets, often with the help of governments agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a promoter of by-product reuse in regions across the U.S.

A Texas wire company offers a prime example. Wire cleaning operations are messy, leaving behind for the company, which made premium wire for fencing, an unwanted by-product: sulfuric acid with bits of rust in it.

It stopped viewing the sulfuric acid as a "waste" and started seeing the iron in the acid as an "asset" it could sell to a ferrous sulfate manufacturer. Changing the waste into a raw material wasn't easy, but the wire manufacturer turned $2.5 million in disposal costs into $315,000 in earnings.

With the Earth's regenerative ability no longer able to keep pace with human demand, people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources. To restore equilibrium, businesses, government, nonprofits, trade associations and academia are operating more sustainably by recognizing the economic value of their waste streams.

The premise of by-product reuse or materials exchange is simple: Under-valued wastes from one company are matched and used as a feedstock stream for another company. By-product reuse creates economic and environmental opportunities by creating new revenue or savings and by reducing the use of virgin materials, energy, water and creating a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

These exchanges are often facilitated by local, state or regional networks coordinated by organizations that include the U.S. Business Council for Economic Development, Zero Waste Network in Austin, Texas, the Network for Business Innovation and Sustainability in Seattle, Wash., and ResourceFULL Use in Portland, Ore. The wire manufacturer cited above was facilitated through the State of Texas' Resource Exchange Network.

Businesses have many resources to draw from, including regional EPA offices. Here is how two regions are promoting by-product reuse.

Next page: By-product reuse in the Northwest

Metal scrap image by pan demin via Shutterstock.