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Unearthing the Business Opportunities Buried in Waste

Addressing the enormous environmental challenges that we face, waste management has become a growing field that offers entrepreneurial opportunities, room for innovations and investment prospects. Today, more and more venture investors are looking into waste management and value reclamation.

Waste and recycling solutions were the main topic at SDForum's Green and Clean Evening Series on May 3 in Menlo Park, Calif. Hosted by Orrick and moderated by Greg Heibel, partner and member of the Emerging Companies Group at Orrick, a panel of experts discussed current technological innovations in waste management, emerging waste mitigation business, socially responsible investment projects and collaboration with public service providers.

Panelist included Julie Rapoport from CalStar Products, Nick Drobac from The Clean Oceans Project, Randy Hawks from Claremont Creek Ventures, Annie Hazlehurst from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Haider Nazar from Verliant.

The panel discussed the challenges around waste management, end-of-life product and material utilization, and how new solutions support the emerging trend towards innovative and sustainable business practices.

How do we know that what we are producing is really eco-friendly? To measure a product’s environmental impact and carbon footprint — a complicated calculation process — companies need to look at the amount of energy consumed, the embodied energy and the CO2 that is released in the extraction, processing and transportation of raw materials, and the manufacture of the finished product. 

CalStar Products develops and manufactures sustainable building products that allow architects and builders to dramatically reduce the energy and the carbon footprint of construction projects by incorporating recycled materials. The company’s bricks and pavers have been recognized as outstanding new building products. 

Julie Rapoport, VP of product management, described CalStar’s product advantages. The company makes bricks from recycled fly ash, a waste material of coal-firing plants, where coal burning is used to produce electricity for the U.S. grid. Since the CalStar bricks do not require firing to harden, they consume less energy and emit less carbon dioxide, resulting in a finished product that has 85 percent lowered embodied energy and 85 percent lowered CO2 emissions than traditional fired clay brick. The reduction is significant since the manufacture of traditional building materials, such as concrete, clay brick, etc., accounts for about 12 percent of all emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Rapoport indicated that CalStar production relies on a constant waste stream, which is necessary for the company to commercialize their initiative. Since their raw material is fly ash, CalStar created a business relationship with the utilities industry to receive a steady stream of coal waste for several years. This alliance is a win-win for all, as it enables CalStar to produce green building materials, and it also supports the utilities in reducing their own environmental footprint.

The Clean Ocean Project, a non-profit organization, focuses on the cleanup of plastic waste from the world’s oceans. Nick Drobac said that his work exists because of the failure of the waste management and processing industry to prevent plastic debris from reaching oceans. He noted that oceans have been treated like a garbage dump for thousands of years. Although California is leading in green legislation, we still have big issues with waste. The organization aims to integrate new and existing technologies to locate plastic marine debris, and develop effective and environmentally-sustainable techniques for removing plastic from the world's oceans. Since not-for-profit organizations have limited access to financing options, the Clean Ocean Project tries to partner with companies that have the resources and want to improve their green image in the public eye. Once these companies engage with a green cause to actually make valuable and sustainable changes, they end up contributing to a healthier environment.

Haider Nazar, the CEO at Verliant Energy Partners and a general partner at Full Throttle Ventures, talked about the bio-energy markets. He has worked in a variety of emerging growth markets and is an investor, board member, renewable energy financier and mentor for entrepreneurs. Nazar said that one of the challenges we face is dealing with the established utility industries. The panelists agreed that clean tech solutions require collaboration with utilities and water management sectors, which move slowly in their decision-making process, adoption of innovations and implementation. 

Randy Hawks and Annie Hazlehurst talked about some of their firms’ investment portfolios. Venture investment is highly interested in clean tech solutions and is looking at the waste management space. Similarly to any other business model, value creation is challenging and the cost profile needs to make sense for the markets. Building revenues and a cash flow are the basic criteria for success and for satisfying investors. In addition, entrepreneurs are also looking to capture market share. For financial investors who have been accustomed to fast-moving technology initiators, the slow response of the established utility industries requires strategic adjustments.

Some of the new markets include the conversion of agriculture waste to compost for soil preservation. This field addresses several issues, such as getting higher yields from crops, land preservation and feeding the growing population of billions of people.

Landfills present new opportunities, too, in mining and energy reproducing. Large municipal and industrial landfills produce gas that can be tapped to generate electricity. Organic materials in the landfill, such as food wastes, paper or yard clippings, decompose and produce methane (Landfills produce about 60 percent methane and 40 percent carbon dioxide). Methane is over 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions. It can be captured and transported to energy producing facilities. 

Another emerging area is personal electronic recycling. The cell phone secondary market is thriving worldwide, where less-developed countries present huge markets for reused cell phones. Some companies in this space not only recycle phones, but also other personal electronics (tablets, iPods, etc.) and even laptops.

Water recycling and wastewater value extraction are also emerging sectors, whereas biomass has already captured venture capitalists' attention in the past few years. Biomass, a renewable energy source, is used to generate electricity or produce heat. Using a number of technological options, plant matter and organic waste are converted into useful energy. 

At the end of the discussion, the panelists noted that while we move into new fields, we encounter unforeseen challenges. For example, how would we define the life cycle of a brick? When does the brick stop being useful? The next generation of compostable plastics may seem as a great solution to traditional plastic disposables, however, we don't know what was the source of the biodegradable plastic and what would happen once it gets composted and back in the ground.

Building sustainable and environmentally compatible products include waste handling, treatment, recovery and containment. In the future, with increased awareness and with advancing technology, we should have less waste (in quantity), and expect much more out of waste (in utilization). 

Garbage truck - CC license by mcbarnacle/Flickr

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