Waste-to-Value: The Next Big Thing?

Mar 10th, 2014 | By Gray Peckham

We’ve been traveling quite a bit so far this year, dodging snowstorms and waiting out flight delays, in service of investing in startups that address issues around sustainability in the U.S. food and fuel systems.

We’re seeing some interesting potential investments across a wide range of categories, from local agriculture to transportation technologies and lots of things in between. One category — and an emerging term that we’ve come to like quite a bit because it describes so many sustainability-oriented business models — is waste-to-value. It’s a great buzzword and even better concept, in our view, because it cuts right to the core of what we really need in society today – practical means of taking the waste we generate and repurposing it, profitably if possible, into things we need.

Looking at waste-to-value through the lens of things that our organization cares about, namely food and fuel, we’ve seen business models built around turning food waste into compost, turning methane generated as a byproduct of decomposition at landfills into compressed natural gas for vehicles, turning fish waste into food for crops, and many more. To be clear: Composting, landfill gas capture and aquaponics aren’t new, but re-framing the discussion around the waste-to-value terminology and concept may help communicate the value proposition in a way that is new and more intuitive.

While the economic potential of so many of these models is still to be determined, the potential of the sustainable impact is great. Taking food waste-to-compost, for example, we can see that not only does composted food waste create a nutrient-rich soil supplement, it keeps food from turning to harmful methane in the landfill, and saves on hydrocarbon usage – both in preventing the need for so many traditional fertilizers (which are largely made from petrochemicals) to grow new crops, but also to make sure that the embedded energy that went into producing the food in the first place wasn’t completely lost.

For perspective, according to research by the University of Texas at Austin in 2007, using a fairly conservative 27% assumption for total food wasted, the energy embedded in that wasted food amounted to 2,030 trillion Btu . That’s about 2% of ALL energy consumed by the U.S. in 2007, and amounts to about the same amount of energy that Sweden used throughout its entire economy that year, according to the BP Statistical Report of World Energy, 2013. If we assume a higher percentage of food wasted in our society, which recent studies argue for, say 40% of our total food produced, the amount of energy wasted via food waste becomes even more sobering. There’s a real need to capture that energy and make sure that it is not frittered away, for both environmental and economic reasons. Waste-to-value, indeed.

Gray Peckham
Director of Investments, Sustainable America

Tagged: food waste, compost, fuel efficiency, fuel, sustainable business, Gray Peckham, impact investing, investing, Sustainable America investments, waste-to-value, Science & Tech, Innovation

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