SOME entrepreneurs across the country are building
businesses based on the belief that garbage - once destined to rot in a
landfill - can be repurposed into profitable products.
Americans produced about 250 million tonnes of trash in
2010, recycling and composting about 34% of that total, according to the US
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Now, thanks in part to a sour economy and growing
environmental awareness, a few businesses are looking for ways to turn more of
the trash destined for landfills into viable products.
For Dan Blake, a former Brigham Young University student and
now CEO and co-founder of the startup EcoScraps, the idea for a business came
when he couldn't finish his French toast at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
He says he realised how much food is wasted at a single
restaurant - and how much it costs for garbage haulers to truck away the
scraps. The EPA estimates that 33 million tonne of food was trashed in 2010.
Because food is among the heaviest waste - and garbage tipping fees are based
on weight - it's costly to toss old edibles.
Coming from an entrepreneurial family, Blake sensed an
opportunity. "A business that doesn't have to buy materials should, in
theory, have really good margins," he said.
Blake started dumpster diving, collecting food to compost in
his apartment's parking lot. A university lab did soil analysis to find the
best combination of nutrients for fruitful compost. It wasn't long before Blake
and his partners dropped out of school to pursue EcoScraps full time.
Launched in 2010, the business turned profitable a few
months ago and now sells its compost and potting soil in Utah, Colorado,
Arizona and New Mexico.
EcoScraps has 25 employees and declined to disclose
revenues. Blake attributes some success to EcoScraps' money-saving model. Food
waste, often from grocery stores and farms, is hauled to the company's compost
facilities for a discounted tipping fee.
The savings is passed to consumers, who can typically buy
EcoScraps products for less than other organic compost and soil. But just as
with traditional trash hauling companies, transportation costs are high.
"Transportation is a killer," says Blake. "We
spend a ton of our time figuring out how to cut down on those costs."
In the nonprofit sector, an Orlando startup is reusing
discarded hotel waste. Clean the World partners with major hotel chains like
Walt Disney Hotels and Starwood, and they recently secured a partnership with
InterContinental Hotels Group, to collect thousands of bars of used soap every
Gathered by housekeepers and shipped to collection centres,
soap is sterilised, melted and reshaped into a new bar.
Founders Shawn Seipler and Paul Till say the inspiration for
Clean the World struck in a Minneapolis hotel room.
Curious about the fate of his half-used soap, Seipler called
the front desk, and was told it was thrown away.
"There's this huge amount of trash," Seipler said.
"What could we do with it?" After ruling out the idea of selling
recycled soap, they settled on a nonprofit model with a dual mission: divert
waste from landfills and improve health conditions globally by distributing
soap to those in need.
Clean the World charges hotels a monthly fee of 65 cents per
room. As part of the deal, hotels receive communication materials touting their
participation in the programme.
Since its inception in 2009, the nonprofit says it has
distributed more than 10 million bars of soap to 45 countries - and diverted
more than a million pounds of landfill waste.
Houston-based RecycleMatch is also building a business from
trash. The company is testing software that lets businesses run public or
private online auctions in an effort to make the most money for their
Two businesses, Shaw Industries and Progressive Waste
Services, are kicking off the pilot programme, said RecycleMatch founder Brooke
Farrell. With the software, she said, "they can manage all the byproducts
in one platform with tons of flexibility".
A former consultant at trash-hauling giant Waste Management,
Farrell was inspired to start RecycleMatch when she noticed small companies
repurposing manufacturing materials.
She loved the idea, but wanted to see it scale up.
"Instead of saying, 'I'm going to create bathmats out of football parts',"
Farrell said, "I wanted to find a technology that could help people
achieve scale faster."
During the last few years, Farrell said, companies have come
to better understand the potential for their manufacturing waste to be
repurposed into an ongoing revenue stream.
"They see waste material as an opportunity instead of a
cost," she said.