Cleantech in the “Circular Economy”

This month’s Cleantech Forum in San Francisco convened a number of diverse, but similarly relevant panels and breakout sessions around the topics of clean energy and sustainability innovation. With wide attendance from cleantech industries, government, investors and policy groups, the event fostered lively exchange of unique perspectives. One panel topic in particular stood out to me as an often-overlooked piece of the sustainability puzzle: transitioning our exhaustive material flows into closed loops.

Cleantech assembled an impressive and varied panel of speakers for this engaging discussion entitled, “The Circular Economy: Taking Inspiration From Nature.” Each speaker told a different side of the recycling and revaluing story – from biomass-to-energy processes to cost effective e-waste (electronic waste) recycling. The panelists were:

Robert Hallenback, from Waste Management (WM), the largest waste and recycling company in the United States, kicked off the conversation discussing some of the constraints to recycling. Although we have the technology to recycle many products and materials nowadays, there are upstream challenges to recycling that can determine what materials are used and received by the WM plants. Interestingly enough, as was recently reported in a popular NPR story, the price of oil has a dramatic effect on the economics of recycling for petroleum-based products and especially between different grades of plastic. As Hallenback responded, commodities markets certainly have an impact on recycling, but they are also volatile in the short run and therefore don’t play a huge role in WM’s long term planning for recycling services. Addressing the cost of materials collection, he shared, was far more influential in the potential for recycling expansion in the future.

This challenge of transportation was similarly important for Christian Kasper, of Harvest Power and several of the other panelists. His company focuses on another form of waste we often take to landfill that could alternatively be upgraded to a higher value product – food waste. While composting is more prevalent on our campus here at UC Berkeley and in the wider Berkeley community, in most of the U.S. and elsewhere in California it is very difficult to procure local or regional composting services to make use of our massive amounts of food waste from residential and commercial sources. Harvest Power aims to produce sustainable organic soils, mulches and fertilizers from biodegradable waste streams using anaerobic digestion, and has creatively leveraged the use of dormant anaerobic digesters in water treatment facilities through public private partnerships (PPPs).

Another biomass transformation company on the panel was NexSteppe, represented by CEO, Anna Rath, which is a high tech biomass-to-energy company. Most US biofuel is produced from crops that were primarily designed and bred to be excellent food producers. Rath discussed NexSteppe’s interesting approach to producing bioenergy (liquid fuel, biogas or solid fuels), by designing feedstocks that are geared for optimal energy production. Rath’s insights fed nicely into the idea of cyclical economies in the sense that NexSteppe’s product cycle can be seen as a rapid carbon recycling flow alongside bioenergy consumption.

Later in the panel, Kasper refocused our dialogue around this important point:

Tech innovation in recycling and greener materials is important, but without the adoption of sustainable recycling practices by consumers and manufacturers, companies like those on this panel cannot be viable.

From this thought, the panel discussion turned to waste and recycling policy and other drivers of change in sustainable practices. Peter Holgate of Ronin8 Technologies, a competitive recycler of metals from e-waste, offered his perspective on the emerging business-to-business (B-to-B) pressure that has been driving uptake in more sustainable practices. Social awareness has also been growing on topics of waste, overflowing landfills and the options available to divert many of these valuable material streams instead. Holgate pointed out that this trend has led to more consumer-to-business (C-to-B) and B-to-C pressures to change old material flows. Jos Peeters, of the biobased material and chemicals company, Green Biologics, added that early adopters of sustainable material-use are typically companies that have a willingness to pay a premium to make their products greener. This value can come from wanting to improve their image to consumers or because it is in line with company culture and social responsibility goals. He gave the example of Coca-Cola Company, which has been using PET plastic for bottling of its beverages for many years, but is looking seriously into options for biobased or biodegradable alternatives.

Peeters and Holgate also brought up important examples of European policies of recent years, which place the onus of material waste reduction on the producers of consumer goods, thereby incentivizing sustainable product design and selection of material inputs for which we have the ability to recycle. It was clear from audience feedback in the room and on the panel that some government policies and regulations regarding material streams have been very unfavorable to the business community. However, as Anna Rath noted near the close of the panel, policies which incentivize or enforce broader behavioral changes for sustainability, without “picking winners” in specific technologies or methods to achieve these changes can have a much more positive effect on innovation and uptake in the sector. In sum, the “Circular Economy” panel at the Cleantech Forum was a fantastic addition to the program, with varied expert insights on an increasingly pertinent, but often overlooked, part of the equation for a cleaner, greener future as global population and consumption continues to grow.