Over the past twelve months there have been an increasing number of presentations postulating the future of waste management both globally and within Australia. Whilst these presentations seem to concentrate on an immediate and medium- term future, the common denominator is the preoccupation with the current system limitations (which are assumed and/or imposed by many to dictate the operation of the industry currently) and our inability to stimulate the circular economy.
The tyranny of distance, mandatory economies of scale for technologies, the continuing role of local government in household waste collection and the recent announcement that China does not want to indefinitely accept our waste and low-grade recyclate, are just a few of the commonly cited limitations and in my personal opinion, short-term views.
Anyone or any new thinking which challenges these beliefs is met with the old adages of ‘It won’t work’, ‘it will cost too much’, ‘no-one will pay for it’, ‘it is too hard’, ‘it is not possible’, ‘it is not proven and needs more research’ and, my personal favourite, ‘no one else does it like that’ – in any other sector new approaches would be viewed as innovative or a point of differentiation.
Walt Disney made the statement that “if you can dream it, you can do it” and this philosophy has been proven in other sectors. Steve Jobs talked about the Cloud early in the life of the internet and well before the technology became possible, and for those of you who have not seen the Corning Glass Advert “A Day Made of Glass” and the 2012 “Day Made of Glass 2” which outlines how the futuristic applications in the first advert have actually been commercialised, or ZAPPs ‘future of money’, I would direct you to see them. These sectors regularly dream, and in many cases have already achieved those dreams and are onto dreaming new dreams.
So what is the dream for our industry? My dream is that the waste management industry will not exist into the future. Waste is an inefficiency of any extraction or manufacturing process, represents lost profit, and an unnecessary and avoidable environment cost. New technologies have, and will continue to assist in the reduction of wastes across all aspects of these processes. However, given the diversity of the stakeholders who generate wastes and, more importantly, willingly accept wastes into their lives and practices, technology alone can only contribute so much. Technology innovation (or just finding solutions to a problem for those engineers) is critical both now and into the future. It is an integral part in product redesign and the reformation of services which will be a fundamental aspect of addressing unsustainable consumption and a mechanism for changing culture which is undoubtedly the biggest underlying challenge in the elimination of waste. However, this challenge is not being met by decision makers as evidenced by weak government waste strategies/policies and a poor understanding of current business practices, in particular those relating to investment confidence.
So what about the waste management sector? I certainly do not see us going anywhere. I am not being contradictory; I strongly believe that we are critical to driving the change away from waste generation (where possible, acknowledging our limited role here) and its requirement for subsequent safe and efficient management. Many of us are already great innovators, early adopters of technologies, transport and logistic wizards, manufacturers of quality products, communication specialists and critical advisors to the industries we assist and service. We need to cultivate these roles and move beyond what we currently offer. We are ultimately technology, product and service providers, and technology servicers. We also need to quantify and better articulate our role in other critical sectors including the renewable energy sector where we provide siting opportunities as well as high quality fuels.
If we do not act and redefine our industry and the currently held perceptions of our roles, other industry sectors will do it for us. For example, domestic waste water treatment technologies are currently sophisticated enough to be done at household level, allowing each home to be self-sufficient. This technology is currently only confined by traditional thinking on the connection of water services (potable water and sewerage) to all houses and householder perception including the concerns by some about drinking recycled water. At some point, many of these changes will have to be mandated regardless of individual, householder or industry perception.
And what about solid wastes? Has anyone considered 3D home printers recycling our plastic objects indefinitely, or the real and existing risks posed by the rapidly growing home grocery delivery services? The service already offers great scope for packaging reuse and take-back, not to mention convenience to the householder. What if every household ordered their groceries on-line with food being packed and transported from centralised depots? Whilst this could be more efficient across the life-cycle of products and households, reducing cars journeys to the shops through to opportunities for changes in food packaging regulations, what other services could Woolworth offer to the household which we currently offer? The collection of all food wastes and leftover packaging perhaps?
But I hear you cry, this just means Woolworths is moving into the waste management industry. I would argue that this simply means that Woolworths is expanding its services, be it into our traditional service areas. Is it not more efficient to double load vehicles and who could argue with the removal of solid wastes coupled with the delivery of new goods? Back at the Woolworths depot, the food wastes and any biodegradable food packaging could simply go into the onsite digester, generating power for on-site use at the depot and producing an organic product which Woolworths would sell to its farm suppliers. These logistical processes and digester technologies already exist and are being utilised overseas.
Such an approach will also impact and limit our traditional customer base. No more supermarkets to service. No local government provided collection services for general household waste or recyclables required.
The increasing demand for services rather than products for everything from electronic goods through to carpets and hard and soft furnishings is undoubtedly a good thing. It means that the manufacturers and suppliers of these goods must start to seriously consider product design and durability; and more importantly product take-back and disassembly, after all they (or their agent) are going to get the item back at the end of life or end of contract. Where is our role going to be in this growing strategy?
These risks are coming at a time where the regulatory landscape of our industry is also changing. Our careful management is effectively reducing the perceived and actual risk posed from wastes and, in turn, the requirements for regulation through certain transport or treatment processes. Do not think that current licencing requirements will protect your business, infrastructure/assets, or the industry sector moving forward. It would be unlikely that Woolworths would need any licences to collect or process the food and packaging waste it collected from households.
My aim is not to paint a bleak outlook for our sector into the future. It is about stimulating us to consider and debate what our individual businesses (and business models) and the sector will look like into the future, and initiate some internal disruption. We need to consider a future which is not confined by the perceived limitations of today; rather it is a future that is driven by our dreams (or at least best guesses – with a smattering of our ‘crazy’ moments).
I am often asked about where disruption of our industry will come from and how the sector can better innovate to ‘stay ahead’. Yet some of these questions originate from companies who do not recognise or even make innovation a core strategic capability, and often from those who also believe that disruption can only come from outside their organisation. In reality, innovation and disruption operate in parallel and whilst it is difficult to create disruption from within any business, many organisations are still letting innovation and disruption happen to them from external sources. If you want to survive you need to be adopting business innovation strategies – and contrary to popular belief this is not simply about technology transformation. After all, “the best way to predict the future is to create it – Peter Drucker”.