The adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has never held truer than in recent times. On garbage day in my neighborhood, there’s a man who walks the streets with a shopping cart early in the morning checking the blue bins for liquor, wine, and beer bottles. By the time he passes by our house, his shopping cart is almost full. At 10 cents per bottle, he’s made himself a tidy profit.
There are a growing number of recycling companies similar to the man who walks my street on recycling day. These companies work on the business model of either getting their raw feedstock for free or, better still, getting paid for it.
The major challenge for waste generators looking to divert material from landfill is finding a recycling company that will to take it. That’s where waste exchanges come in.
Materials and waste exchanges are markets for buying and selling (or giving or taking away) reusable and recyclable commodities and residues. Waste exchanges can trace their roots back to the earlier 1970s.
Initially, the development of waste exchanges was paid for by government or not-for-profits. Over time, private companies have developed web-based waste exchanges.
In the early days, announcements of wanted and available material were mailed to subscribers in catalogues or newsletters. Modern exchanges tend to be internet based. A typical exchange allows subscribers to post materials available or wanted on a web page listing. Organizations interested in trading posted commodities then contact each other directly.
The U.S. EPA has a website that attempts to list all the international and national materials exchanges. Some are coordinated by state and local governments, others are run by not-for-profits, and a few are wholly private, for-profit businesses. The exchanges also vary in terms of area of service and types of commodities exchanged.
WASTEchange.com, headquartered in Utah, is an example of a private company in the waste exchange business. Its roots stretch back to the 1970s when its founder, Paul Rozel, started a waste exchange via mailed newsletters in Ontario. WASTEChange.com currently has internet links to exchanges in all 10 Canadian provinces, the U.S., and Europe.
A quick review of some of the information on the provincial waste exchanges through WASTEchange.com at the in mid-January showed glass bottles available in Manitoba, a company wanting used polypropylene grains bags in Calgary, and a company looking for clean plastic scrap in Ajax.
An example of a successful not-for profit waste exchange is the Recycling Council of British Columbia Materials Exchange (MEX) first established in 1985. MEX is a free BC-wide service facilitating the reuse and recycling of waste. From 2004 to 2010, 558 tonnes of waste was traded, and thus diverted from landfill, on the MEX.
Challenges and results
Companies that choose to get rid of unwanted material through a waste exchange will need to develop and enforce rules on what goes into bins destined for trade. The receiving company is expected feedstock into their recycling products, not “contaminated” material.
For companies with the next big idea of turning trash into treasure, the two biggest hurdles are often raising capital and getting approval. I’ve spoken to more than my share of companies frustrated by the fact that they need an environmental permit to process feedstock that, in some cases, they’ve paid for. In many cases, the existing waste regulations haven’t been re-written to the new realities that a growing amount of waste is being used as feedstock for recycled products.
Transportation is another challenge facing feedstock suppliers (a.k.a. waste generators) and manufacturers (a.k.a. waste reusers/recyclers). That’s why many waste exchanges developed locally and tend remain geographically focused.
For examples of the incredible products now being manufactured from waste and the innovative companies behind the recycling evolution, one need only look at TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based company solely focused on making products from waste.
Founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky, who was a first year student at Princton University, TerraCycle has grown into an enterprise in 10 countries that has created over 1,500 products from waste.
What makes TerraCycle even more unique is how it utilizes social marketing to find new feedstock. The company creates its own waste collection programs, independent of any waste exchange, drawing on volunteers who have a social and environmental conscience.
John Nicholson, M.Sc., P.Eng., is a consultant based in Toronto, Ontario. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org