Redefining Waste

October 1, 2012

When many of us hear the term “waste” we think exclusively of garbage bins and landfills. Waste is something we dispose of and expect to never see again. It is something we bury and forget about. It is rarely viewed as a source of entrepreneurial opportunity, unless of course you are aspiring to become the individual paid to dispose of and hide such waste.

However, I would like to argue here that one of the most important avenues for developing one’s integrative thinking and for finding social entrepreneurial opportunities is to focus on systemic waste. Wasted effort. Wasted energy. Wasted capital. Wasted talent. Wasted information. Wasted consumer product goods. And the list goes on. Such systemic waste provides an ideal context for double- and triple-bottom line thinking.

To illustrate this, let’s consider the cycle of production. First, you have inputs into the system. Second, those inputs go through some conversion process, whereby they are transformed into marketable goods. Third, they are purchased and typically used for a period of time. Fourth they are disposed. If I asked most individuals to highlight the stage or stages associated with waste, most would quickly point to the fourth stage. Yet, they would be only partially correct, for waste is clearly prevalent throughout the system. Take the first stage (i.e. inputs for production), for example, and consider energy as a primary input into many of our production systems. Waste, of course, is rampant in relation to energy inputs, as we rely almost exclusively on scarce, non-renewable fossil fuels, whereas we could just as easily have designed production systems that relied more on renewable energy sources. Fortunately many innovators are beginning to recognize the waste inherent to the current energy markets and beginning to view solar, wind, and even human motion as sources of energy that can be captured, stored, and used toward productive purposes. Moreover, eliminating waste by switching to renewable energy production/consumption has the clear advantage of serving both the interests of the planet and of profits.

If in this same example I asked individuals to comment on the value of the waste produced throughout the system, most would likely assert that the value is either zero or negative. In other words, waste would typically be viewed as a liability not an asset. However, I can imagine as well that those same individuals would have heard of the idiom which asserts that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Stated differently, the things we undervalue actually have overlooked market value. Why do we overlook these opportunities? I believe it is for a host of reasons. For some it is that we are ignorant and prejudiced. For others it is that we are busy. For yet others it is that we are just doing things the way they have always been done.

To drive this point home, let’s look at three different social enterprises in Nashville, TN: (1) Triple Thread, (2) Nashville Mobile Market, and (3) Dispensary of Hope. First, Triple Thread exists to solve problems of waste created by the American prison system – certainly one of the most notorious examples of a “landfill” of human potential and productive labor potential. Within this system, there is a sizable and growing population of capable human beings that are treated as social liabilities, both during and after their prison stay. Triple Thread exists to serve the population of ex-cons, overturning latent cultural assumptions that these individuals are either less capable or less deserving of quality work. In doing so, they attack labor market waste. Second, Nashville Mobile Market attacks the massive problem of food waste in the United States. Every second of every day massive quantities of uncontaminated and perfectly healthy food is wasted by grocery stores, cafeterias, and other food retailers. Ironically our world is full of individuals that are malnourished. Nashville’s Mobile Market looks to attack this problem by improving distribution systems, thereby making the food market more efficient while also making it more just. The double bottom line here is again obvious. Finally, the Dispensary of Hope attacks the problem of waste built into the pharmaceuticals market, where the disposal of unused prescription drugs is typically viewed as a liability for pharmaceutical companies. On the other hand, health care providers and clinics are in ongoing need of these prescription medications, but often find the price inaccessible. The Dispensary of Hope disintermediates this system and creates a new and more efficient distribution system for the pharmaceutical market, thereby removing waste from the system and seizing hold of a double-bottom line opportunity.

So now it’s your turn. Start thinking integratively by attacking the problems of rampant waste that you more than likely encounter each day. Recognize that such waste is not merely a societal liability; it is an opportunity for social entrepreneurship.

Above post written by SE expert Matthew Grimes.

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