Saturday, March 27, 2010

Eliminating the Concept of Waste

It’s quite amazing how the concept of waste is so prevalent in today’s society. Wikipedia defines waste as unwanted or unusable materials. This definition of waste is relatively new if one thinks about the fact that waste only emerged as a household term once we began to systematically extract materials from the earth’s crust that are not easily and/or naturally reinserted into the Earth’s natural cycle. But growing up with the very idea of a trash can underneath the kitchen sink has created the perception that waste is as common and necessary as oxygen, as unavoidable as the winter seasons, and as natural as sleeping. But if we step back from our anthropocentric worldview and reestablish our interconnection with nature, we’ll begin to realize that waste has no place in a sustainable society. Could you imagine not having the luxury of dumping to the curb batteries, plastic containers, seran wrap, food waste, your old cell phone, bounce sheets, your old ipod, a stained shirt, chocolate bar wrapper never to be seen again once picked up by the garbageman?

The growing headache of waste disposal and the disappearing space available to dump the waste is foreshadowing a society where this predicament might actually exist. Terracyle is a small entrepreneurial business fixed on “upcycling” waste into new products. The business started in New Jersey when the founder Tom Szaky learned that worm poop is an excellent all-natural fertilizer. This gave him the idea that perhaps all products could be made from waste. Emulating nature’s approach to waste, TerraCycle considers waste as a resource for something else. The worm-poop fertilizer product, for example, is bottled in old soda and water bottles. You can find the product in Wal-Mart and Home Depot in a range of different bottle sizes and types. The interesting thing though is that the company has involved thousands of community groups, organizations, and schools to help collect the bottles in return for money used for community or school events.

Only about 23% of plastic drinking bottles are recycled meaning that 77% end up in landfills. Now you may think that you’re doing your job by recycling your plastic water/soda bottles. But if you follow the journey of a recycled bottle, you’ll learn that the energy required to crush the bottles is enormous in addition to the fact that we typically send the bottles overseas, emitting tonnes of carbon. TerraCycle works to eliminate these additional steps by thinking of waste as a resource in the same way that nature thinks of waste as food. Due to the success of the TerraCycle fertilizer product, they’ve expanded to other products like tote bags made from drink pouches, corkboards made from cork, and laptop cases made from drink pouches. If you go to their website (Terracyle website) you’ll notice that they’ve made a call for candy wrappers and drink pouches at $0.02 each.

This company amazes me because not only have they come up with some amazing products made from waste, but they’ve been able to convince behemoths like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target on the customer side to stock their products and have attracted the likes of Mars, Fritolay and Stonyfield on the supply side to assist in researching how the waste from their products can be turned into new products. On top of all this, they’ve harnessed the power of communities to collect the waste, thus creating awareness among our youth that perhaps the very notion of waste is ill-founded when we consider the state of our environment and the current practices we use to create these same products from scratch.

When I write about the need for change in business cirricula, I’m referring to the need to build in frameworks that teach future managers how to build business models that incorporate this greater complexity rather than reduce it. TerraCycle is weaving together the need for economic sustainability, social sustainability, and ecological sustainability not as separate isolated initiatives but as an integrated business model with zero tradeoffs.


  1. I think that your example of the monopolistic tendencies of the fair trade movement is a good one, but I would have liked to have seen more about this in your post. Of course this was bound to happen. Five years ago, McDonald's went into Nicaragua and bought all the fair trade coffee there for their restaurants. By buying the whole of the crop, McDonald's obliterated any possibility of price competition, and all of the farmers were paid the same. What about China in Ghana? They are building a large damn there in exchange for 10% of the cocoa crop. And what about the fact that farmer involvement in fair trade leads to lower diversification of crops. There are lots of fair trade impact studies that offer lots more examples of these negative effects. The fair trade movement, unfortunately, has become just another brand, and has become victim to the same types of issues you cite at the beginning of your post. I think there is great potential for the same thing to happen to Better Place.

    So what can we do...again, work to change the system rather than coming up with new ways to fit within it even if they are green...promote greater regulation of companies that effect social, ecological, and political damage in the countries where they operate...invest more money in marketing and advertising campaigns that genuinely promote a lower reliance on oil and other natural resources...invest more in campaigns to highlight the negative social and cultural effects of purchasing "too much stuff"...and highlight the fact that much of what companies do in terms of sustainability, business ethics, and CSR is really just a way to present themselves in a positive light while diverting attention from the real problems associated with big business.

  2. So I see all your points but wonder about your solution. In my view, I think that a post-war Keynesian perspective is inappropriate for what is happening right now. I’ve posted a few thoughts on my blog that consistently flag instances highlighting the political role of the corporation or the broader blurring of the lines between the public and private spheres. Naomi Klein effectively brought this up as well. But while I commend Klein’s research and uncovering of a major issue in our society, her solutions are unconvincing. The emergence of the political left and the rise of civil society engagement, while important and indeed a piece of the puzzle, will not do the job in my view. I don’t think that sophisticated regulation is going to effectively depoliticize the corporation. I disagree with those who want to return to a situation where spheres of politics and business are neatly separated and kept apart. I think this is unrealistic. As a few of my colleagues have pointed out, the political role of the corporation is inevitable and here to stay. And I agree. Consider the global issues that exist and the corporate influence at the transnational level where regulation is non-existent. Google’s political role in China, regardless of its motivations, represents a rather pervasive illustration of the power yielded by corporations that no other country has been able to exhibit. I honestly think that the neoliberal extreme pervading our society today is an issue but I also think that movement back to a society where business does its profit-thing and government regulates business behaviour is an equal issue and likely impossible. So in reality, as a business scholar, I feel that it is my duty to study this area to understand how managers grapple with the very notion of playing a political role, how they interpret these conflicting viewpoints and objectives, and most importantly, how they blur the lines between private and public sectors to reconcile interests of the public good and those of shareholders. So I think debating whether this should happen or not is a waste of resources, resources that should be used to understand what this means and how we go about harnessing its power for good. That’s why companies like Better Place and TerraCycle intrigue me so much. They don’t even see the disparity. They’re not interested in debating whether their public role is appropriate, they’re guided by a fundamental ideology that exhibits an understanding of the complexity of today’s capitalism, a capitalism that acknowledges and incorporates the interconnectedness of seemingly incompatible systems.


  3. You say that you disagree with those who want to return to a situation in which the spheres of politics and business are neatly separated and kept apart. As a historian, I ask when, since the rise of industrialism have these spheres been completely, especially in the U.S. You really think that the corporation has a political role? What do you mean? Ok, you cite Google, but I am not wholly convinced that there wasn't some ulterior motive there.

    And how is Google's role in China political and not economic? I am not following your line of thought here. Yes, Google clearly wielded power, but I would argue that this was economic in nature and not political. They also brought attention to human rights abuses in China...yeh, like we didn't already know that.

    I see your point on the things that are important to study, but I cannot agree with you on viewing this debate as a waste of resources, and frankly, I am surprised to hear you say this given many of our previous conversations. Don't get me wrong, I think that what Better Place and TerraCycle are doing is fantastic, and I am fully aware of the nature of today's capitalism. But the two companies that you cite are two of only a handful, and while I commend their work and look forward to the creation of many more of these types of companies, the fact of the matter is that corporations that exhibit many poor business practices still reign, and their hands are stuck deeply in the back pockets of the government. I reiterate...I do not see a political role for corporations.

  4. I think my broader point here was not to demonstrate whether this political role by the corporation is a good thing or a bad thing, but that it is a reality and here to stay. This means that we need to build into our educational curricula this reality by helping managers and political scientists understand what this means and how to navigate the potential dangers involved.

    When i say political role, i'm referring to a range of activities, some of which are described here:

    Perhaps 'waste of resources' is a bit of a rash comment. My point here is that instead of focusing our efforts exclusively on separating out business from politics, perhaps we need to expend resources to understand what this means and how we avoid some of the dangers we're seeing coming out of this overlap.

  5. Ok...I finally see what you mean. The effects of SAPs over the last several decades have resulted in corporations taking on governance roles, but mostly in LDCs. And I agree that business education needs to address this issue. Although I agree with you that corporate political roles are a reality, I believe in the possibility of change, and perhaps by educating business students with a different philosophy, in the future the tide of neoliberalism may wane..who knows...