Why Downstream Recycling is Resource Efficiency at its Best

by Cleantech Invest CEO Alexander ‘Bigge’ Lidgren

We have all done it — cleared out the attic, the basement or the garage and thrown away tons of stuff that we got tired of or outgrew. I never really knew what to do with it myself, and would often feel bad about it.

You know instinctively that it doesn’t make sense to throw things away like this, and if you have studied environmental impacts in supply chains you know more than you want to about what goes into making our clothes and electronics: Gigaliters of fresh water, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, artificial dyes leaking into aquifers, energy for transportation, energy inputs, rare-earth materials and the list goes on!

It makes you tired just thinking about how to begin to ‘green’ the production of a lot of the things we use each and every day.

This work is happening though, often carried out by the unsung heroes of the production facilities where the world’s ‘stuff’ is made. Environmental Managers who do their best to replace environmentally-harmful substances with ecological alternatives, and seeking to reduce the use of energy and natural resources (thank you to Per Grunewald of Electrolux by the way).

In many cases though, they are fighting an uphill battle; we produce ever more and cheaper ‘stuff’ in the global economy. ‘Stuff’ that is transported longer distances and used for shorter periods of time too. I have heard it described as ‘mopping the floor with all the water faucets on’, but maybe an even more accurate analogy would be that it is actually like ‘mopping the floor with faucets on that are leaking contaminated water’!

The question we need to ask ourselves is this:

Will we be able to produce the things we seem to want more and more of in a more sustainable way?

One answer is Downstream Recycling, and the good news is that this always makes sense.

‘Downstream’ means close to the customer. You know, finding someone else who may want the sweater you think is too small around the shoulders, or finding someone who can actually fix your broken coffee machine instead of you going out and buying a new one (again, thanks to an unsung hero — Noori of Electronicsmix in Lund, who just set up shop and fixed my Bluetooth speaker and coffee machine by replacing some tiny parts that were malfunctioning). You could say that Downstream Recycling is about appreciation, or valuing your ‘stuff’ long after the initial buzz of buying it has worn off.

An important feature of Downstream Recycling is that it helps us save resources and energy use at the early, resource-intensive stages of a product’s life-cycle (such as in the mining of natural resources and production/ manufacture). This means it has impact as a way to reduce our environmental impacts.

We are fortunate enough to have a number of companies that enable and encourage Downstream Recycling in our portfolio, the most straightforward of which being swap.com.

Swap.com is a three-football field-sized fulfillment center located on the outskirts of Chicago, where it provides Americans with a super-easy way to make sure their old clothes are re-used (as well as providing them with some easy money at the same time). Swap accepts boxes of kids and women’s second-hand clothes at their fulfillment center, where they sort, categorize, take nice photos, price and sell them on their www.swap.com sales platform. You can find approximately one million used items on the site today, and the amount of goods available is growing every day.

As mentioned previously, I recently had my Bluetooth speaker and coffee machine repaired instead of being disassembled and for the most part, burned, but this is really the exception to the rule of e-waste. Just consider for a moment the quantities of E-waste that is piling up around the world that could also have had the Downstream Recycling treatment…

An unlikely area with huge potential for Downstream Recycling is food waste.

A recent study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research showed that 30% to 40% of food produced around the world is never eaten, due to it being spoiled after harvest, during transportation, or thrown away by retailers or consumers. This wasted food, whilst being a tragedy in a world where billions of people are starving every single day, is also quite a significant creator of greenhouse gas emissions (estimated at 3.3 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent). Food production also imposes a significant strain on local ecosystems and threatens biodiversity through the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

In real terms, the amount of food wasted is expected to increase drastically as emerging economies such as China and India adopt western food habits, including a shift to eating more red meat. Needless to say, it is also a huge cost to restaurants and retailers when food is thrown away, particularly after valuable hours of chef and kitchen staff hours have been invested in turning it into a delicious meal for customers.

Surely, with today’s increasingly and constantly-connected society this wasted food is ‘ripe’ for a Downstream Recycling solution?!

We have our eyes on a number of solutions in these fields and hopefully will find some strong teams with innovative ways of making sure we re-use what is already produced.

Does that sound like a good investment to you?

Alexander ‘Bigge’ Lidgren, CEO Cleantech Invest

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