Waste Not, Want Not
Waste Not, Want Not
CAMPAIGN: Reimagine Money Blog
By Melinda Cheel
If you take a long hard look at a landfill you’ll see both tremendous need (where do we continue to put all this waste?) and undertapped opportunity (how can we redesign, reuse and repurpose to avoid the landfill altogether?)
We’ve been exploiting natural resources at an unsustainable level for nearly a century to create material goods for our well-being and pleasure. Over that time we’ve become a consumer society, increasing our demand for goods and pushing the limits of our ecosystem. Products are often manufactured with planned obsolescence and there’s little accountability for disposal. With true costs of manufacturing externalized, it’s easy to keep the cost low and the demand for the latest and greatest high. Not only does the creation of material goods create waste at the end of the product’s life but also throughout the extraction, production, and distribution processes.
In stark contrast to our wastefulness, in nature there is no such thing as waste. Waste is a design inefficiency of human creation. In nature, one organism’s waste is another’s nutrient. It’s a closed-loop self-rejuvenating system. Manufacturing is a linear non-restorative system where raw materials are used to create goods which are eventually disposed of. This linear system isn’t sustainable in the long run for the planet, people or business.
The business case for ecological responsibility surfaced in the 1990s when several thought leaders showcased the cost saving and worker productivity potential. The opportunities for innovation inspired by nature, such as biomimicry, and the possible positive social and environmental impacts were brought to life. Over the last decade several businesses have changed course to address environmental issues, and reimagined the way their organizational processes interact with nature. We also saw the birth of social enterprises, businesses created with the mission to confront the world’s most pressing environmental (and social) issues. The goals of social enterprises are as wide and varied as the problems we face, but many of them have committed themselves to addressing how to deal with the abundance of waste, and in the process, are designing beautiful products, attracting dedicated customers, creating jobs, and reducing ecological impact.
Several RSF borrowers are tackling waste by finding opportunities in recycling or diverting materials from the landfill. Electronic waste is increasingly becoming an environmental offender and only 14% of it is recycled annually. Much is exported to developing countries for processing. RecycleForce provides comprehensive, innovative and responsible recycling services, keeping valuable materials in the U.S. while creating jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Here are other examples: to challenge the more than 18 billion “disposable” diapers that end up in landfills every year, taking up to 500 years for each of them to decompose, gDiapers offers fun and fashionable cotton diaper covers with disposable, biodegradable inserts. New Leaf Paper strives to emulate the cyclical processes of nature by offering 100% recycled products, sourcing Forest Stewardship Council certified materials, and choosing paper mills that incorporate the most sustainable design principles. Inspired by the durability and beauty of glass, IceStone transforms waste glass, of which only 34% is recycled every year, into gorgeous countertop materials.
Opportunities abound for social enterprises interested in confronting our wasteful habits. With nature as a source of inspiration and ideas, we’re sure to see some profound and regenerative business models that will one day make landfill either obsolete or productive. We at RSF look forward to continuing to find and fund the innovative social entrepreneurs leading the way.
Melinda Cheel is Manager, Partnerships and Communications at RSF Social Finance
This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 RSF Quarterly.