Transitioning to a zero waste future

The biggest economic opportunity in  the history of the planet is figuring out how to finance the transition  to a zero waste future, according to Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo  DiCaprio Foundation and co-founder of the Planet Pledge Fund.

“Investing  in converting waste to valuable materials is of interest to investors  because of climate change, tremendous pressure on natural ecosystems,  better technology for conversion and the need to harvest more materials  locally,” says Tamminen.

For many years, those in the industry  have harvested some recyclables locally and sent the rest to countries  like China to make a profit. But now, China’s waste import ban is in effect and driving up the demand to use and manage more materials locally.

At the upcoming Global Waste Management Symposium (GWMS),  which is being held at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort &  Space in Indian Wells, Calif., February 11-14, Tamminen will address  this economic opportunity and what it means for those in the waste and  recycling industry. He recently sat down with us to provide a preview of  his keynote session.

Waste360:  Why do you believe that figuring out how to finance the transition to a  zero waste future is the biggest economic opportunity in the history of  the planet?

Terry Tamminen: Right now,  we are going through such great extremes to get raw materials, which is  both hard and expensive. There are people cutting down trees for wood,  paper and pulp, people marching in armies around the globe to secure the  next barrel of oil and people mining to get various raw materials. It’s  truly insane that we turn these raw materials into great products just  to throw them away and start all over again. I believe within the next  10 to 15 years that we will start to see urban mining of landfills to  get those materials given that the technology of conversion is getting  better and better.

The economics and politics of cutting down  trees, drilling for oil and mining are getting harder and more  expensive, which is making our own backyard look better and better. If  you do things in your own backyard, you can create local jobs, start new  businesses and develop new value in the community where those materials  exist.

At the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, we have supported  many nonprofits in places around the globe working in diverse locations  such as Algeria and Los Angeles, and we have helped people see the  opportunity and harvest as much as 80 percent of the material that was  previously going to landfill. That recycled content was then converted  locally into valuable products and materials. This process kept value  within the community, took pressure off natural ecosystems, created  local jobs and turned waste liability into valuable assets at a low  cost.

The waste industry right now is where things like solar and  natural gas were years ago when they were expensive and not widely  adopted. As the prices of solar and natural gas came down, the dynamic  shifted and those things became more obvious and attractive to  investors. The opportunities in the waste industry right now are  becoming more obvious and attractive so more and more investors are  supporting the industry as we make the shift toward a zero waste future.

Waste360:  Technology is entering the waste and recycling industry at a rapid  pace. How can capital combined with best-in-class technologies maximize  the value of particular waste streams?

Terry Tamminen:  New technologies can make it possible and more economically efficient  to find new homes for materials that were never going to be exported to  other countries, such as glass, e-waste and bulk waste. These  technologies also provide opportunities for partnerships between  recycling facilities and companies that are converting the recyclables  into valuable products or materials.

In Algeria, for example, we supported the R20 Regions of Climate Action  to help the country achieve a zero waste campus model where the  materials resource facility partnered with the companies that were  converting the recyclables into something useful. We helped co-locate  these companies so that they saved on the cost of transportation and  eliminated some of the uncertainties.

In L.A. and other parts of  the U.S., companies like Nestle are willing to make global deals for  secured recycled feedstock so you can take some of the risk out of the  agreements and eliminate or reduce some of your costs by co-locating  with the source of the feedstock.

A lot of investors are looking  for “green investments,” but there’s only so much money that you can put  into things like solar farms. Therefore, the biggest economic  investment opportunity in the history of the planet is in waste because  it takes something that we already have and offers opportunities to  create valuable materials and products. It also solves problems like  food insecurity by putting presorted or edible food back into the food  system. Technology is helping to push the waste industry in the right  direction, and I do feel there is a lot of value and opportunity in this  industry.

Waste360: What can GWMS attendees expect to take away from your keynote?

Terry Tamminen:  First, a reassurance that they are in the right business. Many people  in the industry may be sitting on the next Uber, Apple or Tesla and they  may not even know it. I grew up in the 1960s in Milwaukee, and my  parents always used to tell me that I had to do well in school or else I  would end up being a garbage man. But knowing what I know today, I wish  they would have told me to do well in school so that I could be a  garbage man. I really want to inject some optimism into the people who  are in this industry because we’re at a tipping point now from various  dynamics that will make this industry the most valuable industry on the  planet.

Last updated July 2, 2018

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