Why is cleantech innovation in waste management so important?
Society always has and always will create waste. Because we’ve been dealing with waste for a very long time, there can be a ‘business as usual’ approach to doing things, so the pace of change within waste management can be quite slow. There can be unconscious ways of doing waste that become embedded and make us think ‘that’s how we always have to do it’.
Innovation is important because it allows us to think outside the box and think differently about how we deal with waste and how it can be part of a true circular economy. The circular economy is about more than just recycling – it’s also about designing products that can become a resource at the end of their life.
We need to create innovation that gets round problems. Waste management has the been the poor cousin of the cleantech world as it’s not as sexy as renewables and is seen as ‘dirty’ – it doesn’t get the attention it should and yet it’s key to the true circular economy that we need to enable a sustainable society.
What challenges need to be overcome to catalyse cleantech innovation in waste management?
We need to raise the profile of waste management so it’s not just about dealing with the things that society throws away but a key part of how resources are delivered into society. Historically we started out with being the ‘waste management’ industry, at which point most waste went to landfill. Then we realised this wasn’t sustainable, so we changed to the ‘waste and recycling’ industry – the problem here was that a lot of the recyclates were low-value and therefore sent to countries like China, which has of course now shut its doors to that waste.
We need a vision whereby everything put into the bin has a value attached to it. We’ve worked out systems and processes to be able to value what we’re throwing away as future resources that we’ll be able to turn into something else. This approach can radically reduce the amount of virgin resources we need to extract from the ground. The key challenge is therefore to get the message out that this is a resource opportunity as well as a waste problem.
What are the opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors from game-changing innovations in this sector?
The opportunity for entrepreneurs is to seize this ‘resource’ narrative, but there are also opportunities for investors. While investors may be focused on financial returns, they are also human beings, and they go for what’s sexy. For some time, cleantech was understandably focused on the sexy things like energy generation, which is a positive and expansive concept as well as providing significant returns on investment. On the ‘waste and resources’ side, the challenge is to ensure that investors recognise that things are changing rapidly: we need to focus not only on how we create good recycling but also on how we design products that are environmentally friendly and can be valued as a resource. The Extinction Rebellion demonstrations are showing that the societal context is changing rapidly: a clever investor will start sniffing around anything to do with cleantech, and I think waste is therefore a big untapped opportunity for investors.
What are you most looking forward to from the start-ups in the waste/circular economy pitching session at Cleantech Innovate 2019?
I’m really looking forward to seeing how the pitching companies bring out this very positive and abundant narrative about the ‘resource’ industry. As the famous phrase goes, ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’ – this expression may date back to the Victorian times but it’s still very applicable now. One of the reasons why waste has historically not been valued is that we’ve been very efficient at extracting virgin materials; in Victorian times, for example, it was more difficult to do this, so there was an intrinsic value in what we currently call ‘recycling’.
Now, because we’ve become very efficient at extracting virgin resources, the value of recycled resources is fairly low. The UK is already a leader in the pricing of waste, but pressure from movements like Extinction Rebellion is going to lead to a doubling down of this. Governments around the world will push the price of waste up, with carbon taxing also pushing the price of virgin resources up. This is where the resources and waste industry can really focus on extracting resource value and putting it back into that wider circular economy.
Why should entrepreneurs and investors attend Cleantech Innovate 2019?
There’ll be a great buzz at the event – it’ll be great to be around other people who are on the same journey as you are as an entrepreneur or an investor. Entrepreneurs mainly work in silos and are often very focused on their particular project: even if they see some technologies that are directly competitive with them, this will demonstrate that they have a good idea and that they’re not the only one doing it.
Entrepreneurs will be able to see that we’re all making some amazing strides in this area, and because of rapidly increasing awareness around climate change, there’s going to be money coming in to cleantech. Investors, meanwhile, will be able to see at the event that there are some really exciting technologies out there. The Cleantech Innovate team has done a great job of ensuring there are some really good-quality technologies and solutions that will be pitching at the event as well as some good-quality speakers and workshop leaders.