From Waste to Wealth: The Three "R’s"

Stephen DeAngelis

April 01, 2011

We are all familiar with the old adage, “Waste not, want not.” The fact of the matter is, however, that we waste a lot. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported, “In 2009, Americans generated about 243 million tons of trash and recycled and composted 82 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 33.8 percent recycling rate. On average, we recycled and composted 1.46 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.34 pounds per person per day.” [“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2009“] Frankly, I was a bit surprised that the U.S. was doing as well as it is in the recycling arena. That said, it can obviously do a lot better. The report goes on to note:

“Over the last few decades, the generation, recycling, composting, and disposal of MSW [municipal solid waste] have changed substantially. While solid waste generation has increased, from 3.66 to 4.34 pounds per person per day between 1980 and 2009, the recycling rate has also increased—from less than 10 percent of MSW generated in 1980 to almost 34 percent in 2009. Disposal of waste to a landfill has decreased from 89 percent of the amount generated in 1980 to about 54 percent of MSW in 2009.”

When companies think about waste, they think about shrinking profit margins. Every effort is made to reduce waste so that profit margins can be increased. I suspect that consumers won’t get serious about waste reduction and recycling until they see waste in terms of dollar signs as well. Since Americans continue to increase the per capita amount of waste they generate rather than reduce it, it is apparent that generating waste has yet to hit them in their pocketbooks in a significant way. Fortunately, there are a number of entrepreneurs and established companies that do take waste seriously because they have realized that there is money to be made from recycling waste. In America, the three “R’s” used to stand for: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. Today the three “R’s” stand for: reuse, recycle, and repurpose. What started me thinking about this topic was an article about how companies are starting to make money from recycling used mobile phones [“Entrepreneurs Find Gold in Used Phones,” by James R. Hagerty, Wall Street Journal, 24 February 2011]. Hagerty reports:

“More companies are jumping into the business of refurbishing and reselling the used cellphones and other electronic gadgets clogging Americans’ drawers and closets. Within a few years, the used market could account for a fifth of all cellphone sales in the U.S., says Stephen Manning, chief executive of ReCellular Inc., one of the largest U.S.-based cellphone refurbishers. ReCellular resold or recycled 5.2 million cellphones last year, up from 2.1 million five years earlier. ReCellular sells about 60% of its phones in the U.S. and the rest mostly to dealers in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.”

Reselling used mobile phones (which falls under the “reuse” heading) has proven profitable for ReCellular. The company “projects that its revenue will grow more than 50% in 2011 from $66 million in 2010.” The “recycle” sector is much larger than the reuse sector. Lots of articles have been written about recycling; so there is no reason that I should bore you with another one. There was one story, however, that caught my eye. It was about an Argentine woman who once made a living scrabbling through garbage heaps looking for treasures and begging for food from local merchants. She was able to turn her life around by starting a recycling company and she now hires people who were once making a living like she did [“Argentines who discovered self-respect at the bottom of the rubbish pile,” by Jude Webber, Financial Times, 20 August 2010]. Webber reports:

“Cristina Lescano … sees the business she has built up to collect and market [recyclable material] as both a public service and a social enterprise bettering the lot of the poor people she employs. … Ms Lescano’s co-operative, named El Ceibo after the country’s national flower, has taken the job of combing through refuse looking for stuff to sell to a new level – she now employs 74 people. As the country was undergoing brutal hyperinflation in 1989, Ms Lescano, then a jobless mother of three, became a ciruja, as rubbish-riflers call themselves (the term echoes the Spanish for surgeon). So she founded El Ceibo with a few other women she knew from soup kitchens and squats. ‘We saw that if we got together, we could be stronger.’ The economies of scale are obvious. Buenos Aires has as many as 7,000 cirujas working alone, collecting 80kg to 120kg of material a day, but forced to sell to intermediaries who cream off much of the profit. By contrast, El Ceibo handles 12 to 13 tonnes a day, selling plastic bottles, for example, for 1.95 pesos ($0.50, €0.39, 31p) per kilogram, while 1kg of cardboard goes for 0.85 pesos. … El Ceibo, whose logo is a smiling bin bag, last year won a United Nations Development Programme accolade. … Ms Lescano says she spends a fortune on gloves. ‘No one ever used to use them but we started supplying them and now they come all the time [for] new gloves.’ But she is proud that her staff, which includes former convicts, are considered VIP cirujas because they work days, not nights. ‘We’ve moved this from exclusion to inclusion. I’m not ashamed to say I went through the rubbish and that at times I took along my son. You mustn’t forget where you came from.'”

I have only praise for anyone willing to work hard and make their own way in the world. I would like to devote the remainder of this post to waste and how people are finding new ways to profit from it. With food prices soaring around the globe, a number of critics have pointed to the biofuel industry as one of the culprits causing the increases. Critics would rather see arable land used to grow crops for food rather than plants for fuel. Since fuel is still needed to run vehicles and generate electricity, some very clever people have looked for ways to create fuel from waste. For example, The Economist notes that municipalities can atomize trash to generate power and eliminate the need to dump it [“Turning garbage into gas,” 3 February 2011]. The article reports:

“Disposing of household rubbish is not, at first glance, a task that looks amenable to high-tech solutions. But Hilburn Hillestad of Geoplasma, a firm based in Atlanta, Georgia, begs to differ. Burying trash—the usual way of disposing of the stuff—is old-fashioned and polluting. Instead, Geoplasma, part of a conglomerate called the Jacoby Group, proposes to tear it into its constituent atoms with electricity. It is clean. It is modern. And, what is more, it might even be profitable. For years, some particularly toxic types of waste, such as the sludge from oil refineries, have been destroyed with artificial lightning from electric plasma torches—devices that heat matter to a temperature higher than that of the sun’s surface. Until recently this has been an expensive process. … Now, though, costs are coming down. Moreover, it has occurred to people such as Dr Hillestad that the process could be used to generate power as well as consuming it. Appropriately tweaked, the destruction of organic materials (including paper and plastics) by plasma torches produces a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called syngas. That, in turn, can be burned to generate electricity. Add in the value of the tipping fees that do not have to be paid if rubbish is simply vaporised, plus the fact that energy prices in general are rising, and plasma torches start to look like a plausible alternative to burial.”

Animal waste is another big problem that been examined by researchers. Disposing of such waste continues to be an enormous problem for ranchers and farmers. New methods of disposal could not only help them solve the challenge but help them turn a dollar as well [“One Moos and One Hums, but They Could Help Power Google,” by Ashlee Vance, New York Times, 18 May 2010]. Vance reports:

“America’s dairy farmers could soon find themselves in the computer business, with the manure from their cows possibly powering the vast data centers of companies like Google and Microsoft. While not immediately intuitive, the idea plays on two trends: the building of computing centers in more rural locales, and dairy farmers’ efforts to deal with cattle waste by turning it into fuel. With the right skills, a dairy farmer could rent out land and power to technology companies and recoup an investment in the waste-to-fuel systems within two years, Hewlett-Packard engineers say in a research paper. … To make biogas, a farmer needs to buy specialized equipment that runs the manure through an anaerobic digestion process, which results in a large quantity of methane that can be used as a natural gas or diesel replacement. … According to H.P.’s calculations, 10,000 cows could fuel a one-megawatt data center, which would be the equivalent of a small computing center used by a bank. Mr. Kanellos has tracked both the data center and green technology industries and agreed that there was some convenient overlap. Computing equipment produces a lot of heat as a waste product, and the systems needed to create biogas require heat. So, there is a virtuous cycle of sorts possible.”

The Economist reports that if those dairy farmers have some extra whey lying about, they might also use that byproduct to produce fuel [“The whey to greener electricity,” 20 May 2010]. The article reports:

“It may seem ridiculous, but in the hunt for sources of alternative energy researchers have come up with fuel cells which are powered by cheese—or at least whey, a by-product in cheese making. Whey is rich in lactose, a sugar which Georgia Antonopoulou, a biochemical engineer at the University of Patras, Greece, says can be consumed by cultures of bacteria contained within a fuel cell to generate an electric current. Microbial fuel cells, as such devices are known, are not a new idea but they are attracting more attention. The organic content of whey can pose an environmental hazard and many governments now impose strict regulations requiring factories to pay for its treatment before disposal. Whey constitutes about 70% of the volume of the milk used to make cheese. So, just one small feta facility will need to dispose of as much as 4,000 tonnes of whey in a single year, says Dr Antonopoulou. Microbial fuel cells could help, and not just in the cheese-making industry. Breweries, pig farms, food-processing plants and even sewage works could gain from the technology.”

If the staff at The Economist thinks that generating electricity from cheese seems ridiculous, I wonder what it would think of some of the other research being done [“Hey, It’s Fuel—Don’t Worry About Where It Comes From,” by Esmé E. Deprez, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 3 June 2010]. In addition to cow manure, Deprez provides a few other “natural resources” that are being tested to find alternatives to oil:

CHOCOLATE — Researchers at Britain’s University of Warwick have built a Formula 3 race car that runs on 30 percent biodiesel derived from chocolate waste. As a bonus, the steering wheel is partially made of carrots and other root vegetables.

DIRTY DIAPERS — A plant in Quebec turns soiled diapers into fuel. Using a method called pyrolysis, the plant heats up the diapers without oxygen. That breaks down the molecules of both the diapers and their, um, contents, yielding synthetic methane gas and diesel-like oil.

TURKEYS — Bones, beaks, and feathers: A Carthage (Mo.) refinery can make diesel that’s 80 percent turkey parts from a nearby slaughterhouse. The plant, which went bankrupt and closed last year, is slated to reopen with a capacity of 12 million gallons a year, double its original size.

HUMAN FAT — Beverly Hills plastic surgeon C. Alan Bittner didn’t want the fat from his liposuction patients to go to waste, so he turned it into ‘lipodiesel’ to power his car, California health officials say. Authorities believe Bittner stopped making the fuel after the state launched a probe.

URINE — Ohio University’s Gerardine Botte can convert urine to hydrogen, which is used to make electricity. While it’s hard to collect enough human urine to make the process commercially viable, it may be a boon for hog farmers, who have trouble disposing of pig urine.

BEEF BY-PRODUCTS — Amtrak carries human passengers on the backs—and other parts—of cattle. The Heartland Flyer rides the rails between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth using a biodiesel blend known as B20: 20 percent fuel made with beef by-products and 80 percent diesel.

COFFEE — Coffee grounds can consist of up to 20 percent oil, making them an abundant source of biofuel. Researchers at the University of Nevada-Reno have separated oil from grounds and turned it into biofuel. The result even smells like your favorite java joint.”

Paul Ridden reports that whiskey waste is also being studied as a source for biofuel [“One for the road: Researchers develop biofuel from whisky waste,” Gizmag, 21 August 2010]. In a post entitled Go Green, Save Lives, I discussed some research efforts into converting human waste into energy. Another writer for Gizmag, Darren Quick, reports that new research “findings are a promising new innovation in wastewater treatment and renewable energy as it brings them one step closer to technology that could clean biowaste at the same time it produces useful levels of electricity.” [“Nanotech coatings offer possibility of ‘brown’ electricity from sewage,” 22 July 2010]. In another article, Quick reports on “an innovative design that generates electricity from the method used to carry this sewage away. Invented by Tom Broadbent, an industrial design student at Leicester’s De Montfort University (DMU), the HighDro Power harnesses the energy from falling waste in the soil pipes of high-rise buildings and converts it to electricity.” [“HighDro Power converts falling wastewater into electricity,” Gizmag, 22 July 2010].

Not all waste-use activity, however, is focused on producing fuel or generating electricity. Naji Khoury, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Temple University in Philadelphia, has developed “A new cement-like material that could be used to form sidewalks, bike and jogging paths, driveways and parking lots.” [“‘Plastisoil’ could mean cleaner rivers and less plastic waste,” by Ben Coxworth, Gizmag, 21 November 2010]. As Coxworth’s headline notes, Plastisoil is produced using “discarded polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles [which] are pulverized and mixed with soil, and then that mixture is blended with a coarse aggregate and heated. The result is a hard yet non-watertight substance, similar to pervious concrete or porous asphalt.” Below is a video about the product.

One final story I would like to share is about how some “young entrepreneurs from BYU are turning a profit by turning food scraps into fertilizer.” [“Young entrepreneurs turn garbage into green,” by Jed Boal,, 3 March 2011]. Boal reports that the company called EcoScraps “collects food waste, which would otherwise be thrown away, and through a completely organic process turns it into [a] high quality soil conditioner that has the same nutrient values as chemical based soil amendments while being organic.” He continues:

“A year ago, [Ecoscraps co-founder Dan] Blake was stunned by how much food went into the garbage at an all-you-can-eat buffet in Provo. He did some research and discovered food waste is 25 percent of our waste stream. So he went dumpster diving and started compost tests in trash cans in the parking lot of his apartment complex. ‘After a series of experiments with food compost, we came up with a recipe that had almost double the nutrients of chemical fertilizers, while still being completely organic,’ Blake said. Each day, Ecoscraps makes the rounds at grocers, farms and restaurants. They haul in 9 tons of food scraps, mainly fruits and vegetables. Since the business started 11 months ago, they’ve kept 400,000 pounds of food out of the landfill. At their Salt Lake City plant, they grind up the scraps, mix in wood shavings and pile it up. … The decomposing waste cooks itself. … The company oxygenates the massive pile of decomposing food waste every few days with a snowblower. After three weeks, it’s ready to bag up and send to nurseries. … Ecoscraps already has another plant in Tempe, Ariz., and will expand to Denver and Portland this summer.”

By clicking on the link above, you can watch a video of this story. Turning waste into wealth, as Dan Blake reminds us, is “a dirty business.” There are, however, tremendous upsides of such businesses. Not only can entrepreneurs run profitable waste management businesses, they can help the environment by putting waste to good use. To such entrepreneurs I say, “Keep up the dirty work.”