Find Treasure in Recycled Trash

Extracting value from garbage—and giving consumers and businesses a cut—will drive the next wave of waste management

Written by Mira Shenker

Green products keep filling store shelves, but the bigger eco-business opportunity may lie at the other end of the cycle: in disposal, not production. As governments toughen up recycling rules and consumers realize that some of their waste has value, there’s money to be made from the growing piles of trash.

Businesses will be held more and more responsible for dealing with their waste in an environmentally sound manner, and they will need innovative services to help them do it.

Residential recycling is already in force in many cities, but new laws will target companies. “Businesses will be held more and more responsible for dealing with their waste in an environmentally sound manner,” says William Shutkin, CEO of San Francisco-based Presidio Graduate School, which specializes in sustainable management and social entrepreneurship. “And they will need innovative services to help them do it.”

Recycle People Corp., which collects paper, electronic and other waste from offices in the Greater Toronto Area, has to date served businesses looking to “do the right thing,” says owner Farid Parhami. But proposed regulations such as Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act that shift responsibility to industry would likely hike the demand for Recycle People’s services.

The spread of composting regulations may offer a similar boost for companies like Pedal to Petal, a Victoria, B.C.-based bicycle-powered pick-up service that hauls away residential kitchen scraps and turns them into compost. In 2015, Metro Vancouver and the entire province of Quebec will ban organics from landfills. Most urban residents can expect city pick-up, but companies and some multi-unit dwellings will need to hire private services to handle their organic waste. The trick for entrepreneurs, says Shutkin, is finding a profitable business model: “It’s still expensive to pick up even a grocery store’s waste food.”

Perhaps the biggest recycling bonanza will lie in discarded electronics as the obsolescence cycle grows shorter (Canadians now replace their cellphones every 30 months or so). The federal government alone disposes of at least 2,000 tonnes of electronic equipment a year, ranging from computers and security gear to medical devices.

Cliff Hacking, CEO of the Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA), says such waste is a treasure trove of recoverable materials—mercury bulbs, copper coils and metals such as gold and cadmium. A California entrepreneur is capitalizing on this value with the ecoATM network of “e-cycling” kiosks, which scan cellphones, MP3 players and tablets, search for the highest prices on the devices or their components and offer the owner cash on the spot.

Hacking notes that 80% of the e-waste the EPRA’s network of Canadian recyclers processes comes in through drop-off points. “If you could find an economic model to pick up from the consumer, you would get a pretty strong response,” he says. But providing eco-waste services is provincially and federally regulated. “A new business will need to go through a qualifying process to ensure it is handling those materials in an environmentally correct way,” says Hacking. He also cautions that any company dealing with computer recycling will face the issue of data security. Governments and large businesses typically only work with firms that guarantee data wiping. But with e-waste recycling pegged to become a $15-billion global market by 2015, entrepreneurs should find it well worth the legwork.

This story is part of PROFIT’s 2014 Opportunity Guide, full of trends, ideas and markets you can jump on right now

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