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 January 16, 2018

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