E2 member adds value to garbage

Chicago-based E2 member Peter Lobin is managing director of ZeroWaste Global (ZWG), a management and consulting firm developing zero-waste business solutions. ZWG is associated with the private equity firm Pegasus Capital Advisors. In November 2013, E2 interviewed Lobin to find out more about his company.

How did you get involved in the waste industry?
I was living down in Latin America in the 1980s and someone invited me to tour a Coca-Cola plant. Plastic bottles had just started replacing glass, and there were 5 million used plastic bottles in the back of the plant. Nobody knew what to do them. This was a problem, but I knew there was an opportunity to figure out the solution. They ground up the bottles and shipped the material to China to be reused in manufacturing fibers.

In broad terms, what’s the process for efficiently managing waste?
We look at waste as a resource that needs to be managed, and we break it into three distinct areas: 1) the collection; 2) the infrastructure – the transfer stations, the MRFs [“materials recovery facilities” where waste can be sorted], the landfills; and 3) value added. The last one is where it gets interesting for us, as far as developing new technologies and markets.

Why is ZWG most interested in the value added component?
The key is being able to find the highest and best value for the various materials. Different waste streams have different values, and we’re constantly searching for new markets as well as the businesses and the technologies that can add the most value to waste. Whereas energy technologies are relatively advanced, waste technologies are not as well developed.

Can you give an example of how value can be added to waste?
Take organics. You get food waste, agricultural waste, grass trimmings, and waste wood from construction and demolition. In the past, a lot of this just got composted. But there are technologies that can break organic materials down even faster. The next generation of technology is going to be really interesting: Breaking down material into its raw state, and then using that to recreate other things. Whether it’s sugars or other chemicals, now you are increasing the number of markets you can sell into.

What role have landfills played in our waste stream?
Landfills are the bread and butter of major garbage corporations like Republic Services Group and Waste Management. The road these guys have to making their money is the longstanding tradition of digging a big hole and selling you space in that hole. That’s not resource management; there’s nothing there that makes sense other than that it’s easy to do and it’s the path of least resistance. Space to sustain that model is becoming scarcer. Companies have to haul to landfills located further out from population centers, and the costs are increasingly higher on the coasts, where land is tight, people are more environmentally conscious and there’s a growing understanding that it’s not a sustainable model. In some areas of the country along the coasts, landfill prices can be as much as four times more expensive than areas such as the South.

What policies can be put in place to help grow the waste industry into something that manages waste not as a line-item expense, but as an economically valuable resource?
You’re looking for polices that incentivize people and/or industries to more carefully manage their resources. It could be as simple as “pay to throw,” where you’re assessed fees for what you dispose, a bottle bill [beverage container laws], or tax investment incentives.

What’s the economic benefit to managing waste as a resource?
Look at the lifecycle analysis of your household trash. If your trash simply goes into a landfill, you’re not creating a lot of jobs. But if you collect the material, you separate it out, and you add value to it, and then you use it a new product, there are lots of jobs in there – chemical engineers, truck drivers, plant workers, you name it. And as the technologies that add more value to our waste continue to develop, the number of jobs and the types of jobs will grow along with those developments.

Can smart waste management practices be considered a form of energy efficiency?
Everything has a carbon footprint, and if you’re able to take waste materials and recycle them into materials that can be reused in some fashion, you can achieve an increased level of efficiency. Everything is recyclable, not everything is economically recyclable. We’re trying to bridge that gap right now.

How do you approach your role as a businessman whose company is in a position to grow the economy and protect the environment?
I see this as a holistic approach to the environment and to business. The fact that I’m in the waste business is what draws me to E2. My thinking is that this makes sense in the whole scheme of things, in what I am trying to do in the whole environmental world. There is interdependence between energy, air, water, and waste, and hopefully my participation in E2 speeds the development of these industries. Waste is just one part of the growing clean economy.

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E2 member Peter Lobin.