Energy from waste and urban mining: Businesses aim for sustainable growth

Green energy

Food, electronics and logistics companies are developing innovative recycling, reuse and efficiency programs.

This article appears with permission from The Guardian.

Those that stick to business models based on high inputs will inevitably stagnate as natural resources become scarcer.

The mantra of growth is central to modern business. The more sales that companies can accrue, the more markets they can enter, the more customers they can win, and the healthier their bottom line. But there's a catch: The world is a finite place, and the resources to make ever more products and sell ever more stuff are limited.

The reality of increasing resource constraints is pushing companies to modify their business patterns. One industry leading the way is the food and drink sector. Given its heavy reliance on energy and water, its need to shift toward more efficient, innovative and collaborative ways of working is obvious.

"In the food and drink business, we've been making a lot of our products for many, many years," says Richard Martin, technical director at Nestlé United Kingdom and Ireland. "One of the key things we're doing is reinventing and re-engineering the processes through the lens of resource efficiency. All resources, from energy to the ingredients and the water, have to be used in a responsible way."

Harnessing steam, heat and waste

At its Quality Street factory in Halifax, England, Nestlé has developed new ways to recover heat from the cooling cycle of the manufacturing process, which then provides the plant with free hot water. And in Newcastle, England, a small, on-site anaerobic digestion facility has been developed that's fueled by waste products. This produces gas, which, in turn, provides energy for the factory, leading to what Martin calls "dramatic reductions in energy bills." The company is also developing a freeze-dried-coffee plant in Derbyshire that will use 60 percent less energy and water than the plant it's replacing.

However, Angela Coleshill, director of employment, skills and corporate services at the Food and Drink Federation, says these kinds of efficiencies often involve considerable initial investment in research and equipment – something many smaller businesses struggle to afford. That's why food and drink manufacturers, academics and engineers came together in 2013 to set up the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University in Yorkshire, England.

"It's an absolute standout example of where industry has seen the long-term potential for coming together," she says.

The center is working on further ways to harness the steam and heat produced during manufacturing, as well as new methods to get the most out of raw materials and minimize waste. Ultimately, says Martin, the research will drive down costs, so smaller businesses can buy innovative off-the-shelf solutions to help them use resources more efficiently.

Recycling rare earth metals

One of the key resource issues taxing the minds of the electronics industry is how to reduce its reliance on earth metals, such as yttrium and scandium. These are minerals key to the production of computers and mobile phones, but difficult to extract and hard to recycle.

"The electronics industry is highly concerned about the supply of these elements," explains Robert Frisbee, CEO of the Portland, Ore.-based Green Electronics Council. "The chief strategy companies have adopted so far is substitution. When dysprosium went up in price, and its supply was challenged, some of the hard-drive manufacturers found alternatives."

But more wide-ranging strategies to make use of substitute materials are still in their early stages, which pushes the need to recover existing minerals to the fore.

"The potential recovery of rare earths from scrap electronics could become a substantial source of supply," he says, with real business opportunities for companies that look to reuse these metals, rather than pay the high prices demanded for virgin materials.

While it remains early days for the efficient and environmentally friendly recycling of rare earth metals, several companies are making a start. Among them is Belgium-based Umicore, a mining company turned waste recycler that has developed a unique process to recycle lithium-ion and other new-generation rechargeable batteries. Similarly, Belgian chemical firm Solvay has designed a system for extracting and purifying six separate rare earth metals from end-of-life light bulbs.

Logistical challenges

Resource issues within the logistics industry are not quite so clear-cut, says Peter Harris, director of sustainability for UPS Europe. For a global business running a fleet of more than 100,000 vehicles, fuel is certainly a key resource. However, it's not fuel itself that's the constraint, he says, but "the ability of the planet to handle the effect of it being used."

The challenge, he says, is to find ways to mitigate the industry's effect on air quality, congestion and noise – and in tackling this, the company has managed to turn a potential constraint into a business opportunity by, surprisingly, running fewer trucks.

UPS operates a single, integrated delivery network, which brings together all its services, from standard to express, on the same truck. Optimized route planning and flexibility, so that urgent packages can still be delivered first, are key to the service, says Harris, which he describes as "inherently more efficient because it means that we're running one truck, whereas others might run two or three."

The logistics industry is also working on alternative fuels, and Harris sees UPS's global fleet as a "rolling laboratory" and "a learning resource" for the industry that is unparalleled. More than 3,600 trucks and vans are using some form of alternative fuel, such as biomethane or electricity, and other solutions are constantly being tested.

In Hamburg, Germany, UPS is testing a system that involves walkers and cyclists making deliveries from a container parked in the city center, thereby cutting out the need for vans altogether. "This improves our carbon footprint, emissions and congestion, all at the same time," says Harris. "It's hard to do well, but we think it's another idea that has a lot of promise for the future."

Companies' desire to grow remains unabated. But the rules governing such growth are changing. Those that stick to business models based on high inputs will inevitably stagnate as natural resources become scarcer. Resource efficiency not only makes environmental sense; for any business serious about long-term growth, it has to become a guiding mantra.

By Mark Hillsdon. Mark Hillsdon is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Coast and Countryfile magazines, The Guardian and The Independent.


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