If you are a hardcore environmentalist, be a hardcore industrialist.
Wise words from Mark Herrema, CEO of Newlight Technologies, earning a strongly affirmative nod from the Nori crew. Mark sees carbon in the atmosphere not merely as a waste product, but as an economic resource, and he’s making a replacement for conventional plastics with this “waste.” This perfect dicho has come up in multiple podcasts but it bears repeating:
Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.
- Buckminster Fuller
Newlight uses carbon dioxide and methane as feedstocks for polymer production. This flies in the face of conventional plastic production, which requires oil, and produces materials which do not biodegrade. He believes that not only can Newlight’s products beat plastics on the environmental score, but they can compete on the necessary levels of price and performance. Without this level of quality and affordability, there isn’t enough altruism in the world to make this work.
Entrepreneurs like Mark are some of my favorite people to have on the podcast. I love seeing people observe a problem and think “hey, this is an opportunity to help people and create a sustainable business.” I find this to be so refreshing relative to a focus on policy or nonprofit activities. Mark kept driving by cows thinking about how methane was a valuable resource that was being thrown away into the atmosphere and researched how he could turn a waste product into value.
Key to this approach is the idea that plastics and petroleum and methane aren’t bad in and of themselves. They’ve made our lives easier and better. The world without them would be unrecognizable. They do come with some serious tradeoffs though, and we need to innovate past the bad.
Mark realizes that if it’s just Newlight Technologies trying to launch this innovation, it will be just a drop in the bucket. They’re interested in licensing their tech to huge oil companies hoping that this will be more profitable for all and good for the Earth. Tandem with this angle is the worry that subsidies for green businesses come and go, and improvements like Newlight polymers need to be good enough to justify themselves without government help, which is of course, a big part of how Nori thinks.
There is also a fair amount of us talking about Nori in this episode, as Mark is quite curious, so if you’d like a refresher, this isn’t a bad place to look.
I’m so excited to see what Newlight and Mark get up to in the next decade. I have a lot of hope for them., and would encourage anyone out there reading in cyberspace to look for opportunities to address ecological problems in a for-profit way. That’s potentially the easiest and most graceful way to scale, and we thank Mark Herrema and Newlight Industries for the reminder.