Innovation is about introducing changes and new ideas. If there are two things that the recycling industry continues to need, and the planet remains in dire need of, it's change and new ideas. As Pauline Hinchion, CEO of CRNS and founder of the UK's first mattress recycling facility, SpringBack, says: "Innovation is crucial if we are to conserve the earth's resources, solve the global issues facing us and get people to recognise what is possible."
Apple's Steve Jobs once said that innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. Following the old ways of doing things - burning fossil fuels with careless abandon, burying our rubbish in the earth, ignoring the value inherent in our waste - is no longer an option. Individuals, communities and organisations need to redesign systems, re-imagine processes and blaze new trails.
"We are all creating a new resource recovery industry so innovation and experimentation is everything," says Eric Lombardi of the Colorado-based Eco-Cycle - a not-for-profit enterprise that's blazed more than a few trails with its Centre for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM). "The problem is that we aren’t likely to create a new highly profitable technology or system, just a cleaner cheaper way of handling discard. Therefore, it's difficult for us to find money to invest in our innovations."
But the challenges that innovators face are not all monetary. For one thing, if you're going where no one has gone before then you're faced with a blank canvas that's paradoxically packed with a lot questions and unknowns. Innovation is rarely the result of one blinding idea that marches forth into execution but the result of trial, error, and failed approaches that need to be revised.
"You come up with the idea but then you have to ask, is it a good idea? So you start writing up a strategy and business plan to define what you're trying to do," says Maureen Menzies, who's currently setting up RePaint Scotland (which won the CRNS Innovation Award last year) with Josephine Orr. "We didn't know we were going to reprocess paint. We knew early on we'd be collecting half used tins of this and that but when we did our research, we could see this wasn’t a viable way of doing it because it wouldn’t allow us to be sustainable."
In a similar vein, Hinchion wasn’t thinking about recycling when she and a colleague first started digging into mattresses in 2003. They wondered how they might be able to reconstruct old, battered mattresses to make them reusable for those on low incomes. Their research eventually told them this wasn't possible but along the way they discovered that no one in the UK, in fact barely anyone in the world, was recycling mattresses. This, then, became a new avenue to explore.
With no one in the UK doing what they wanted to do, RePaint Scotland and SpringBack both looked across the Atlantic for help. Hinchion went to visit Terry McDonald, who had launched the only mattress recycling facility (as opposed to shredding) in the world, called DR3, in California. They thought they'd be able to bring back the same model to the UK until they discovered that there are many more types of mattresses in the UK, where the regulation governing their construction is very different. That means there are more shapes and sizes, and many more materials, to handle.
"When we realised we couldn't use Terry's model we had to do our own research from scratch. We opened 20 different mattresses to see what was in there and thought there was going to be a total of five materials to deal with. Actually, there are 20, including prison foam, sponge foam, shoddy, polypropylene, polyurethane foam, coconut hair and horse hair. There's no industry standard," says Hinchion.
Borrowing from a US model holds more promise for RePaint Scotland. In February of this year, Menzies went with her business partner Josephine Orr to visit Metro Paint in Portland, Oregon. The pair discovered Metro through a Google search and had built up a relationship by email before going to see its operations first hand.
"They shared a lot of information with us and didn’t hide anything. We worked with them for two days, discussed things and saw how the reprocessing actually worked. It was the best training we could ever have had, offering a more cost-effective, immediate way of learning and a more commercially sound way of taking us forward," says Menzies.
The process of innovating inevitably involves experimentation and trial and error. Springback actually tried steam rolling over a wet mattress to try and extract moisture (it didn’t work). When the glass recycling business that employed him was threatened with closure in 2005, Chris Massie of Enviroglass in Shetland employed a process of testing, experimenting, and testing again to develop a unique, patented process of making paving slabs from recycled glass.
"I never thought of myself as anything other than an ordinary bloke but I was involved with glass and I knew I had to do something with the glass to make it valuable and make the business work," says Massie. "It's more good luck than good shooting when you're doing something that hasn't been done before. Things come up and hit you and you don't know if they're going to work."
Failure has to be expected when trying things that haven’t been done before but that doesn’t need to mean the end of an idea. Eco-Cycle has written failure into its business models. In its 33 years of pushing the recycling envelope, Eco-Cycle has never stopped taking a material once it has started handling it. "It's possible because our business plan assumes that the winners will pay for the losers, and we do our homework before we start taking a new material," says Lombardi.
In resource recovery, niggling technical issues will always rise up to try and derail you. For Enviroglass, screening off the paper labels on bottles and then disposing of them caused the most problems (the company now uses a double screening method and lets the paper naturally degrade in the open air).
For SpringBack, a whole slew of issues created a bumpy ride - how to deal with wet mattresses that are double the weight and carry dangerous spores (waterproof containers at collection points can prevent some of these); how to take mattresses apart in an efficient way (build a custom-designed mattress filleting machine); and what to do with all the materials recovered (still an ongoing quest for some materials).
Even language can throw up barriers. Menzies and Orr found themselves confronted by a whole new world of words and mysterious acronyms when they set about applying for funding from INCREASE. SEPA, tonnage, the national waste directive - it was all Greek to them in the beginning. They also found it a struggle to be taken seriously. "We're two women and what we're doing is quite technical. People dismiss us saying 'what do they know about paint?' Others think we're wee women who will do things for nothing."
But beyond the niggling details are the larger, more daunting challenges, including a lack of reprocessors of materials and the challenges inherent in scaling up an innovative idea. "Reprocessing is an issue. There isn't enough of it going on," says Hinchion. "If we’re seriously saying we want to create jobs in the environmental field, then we need to take our own waste and turn it into something of value. We shouldn't be shipping waste, we should be shipping products."
Many of the problems stem from the insidious economic imbalance between recycling and landfilling that our society has lived with for years.
"Clearly the biggest difficulty is the dishonest economics of landfills and incinerators that we have to compete with," says Lombardi. "There are so many economic externalities that go unpaid for - like groundwater pollution, air pollution and resource depletion - that the current systems of burying or burning trash only appear to be inexpensive. For example, no one really knows how much it costs to landfill a ton of mixed waste when someday the groundwater will need to be cleaned up at a huge cost."
By comparison, Lombardi points out, the recycling system has no economic externalities. There are no hidden costs waiting to bite the general tax payer at a later date. What's paid today is the full cost of recycling, which means it's known and is actually cheaper than landfills or incinerators. Changes in landfill taxes and regulations are beginning to alter our damaging behaviours, but we're just on the cusp of that change and still arguments in favour of mass incineration of our limited resources are made and accepted.
It's a perverted truth that many innovative and brave efforts to make the world a cleaner and better place, which is more able to survive the future and support its inhabitants, are thwarted by those in a position of power to help.
"The hardest challenge is when the elected officials don’t support our efforts," says Lombardi. "We sometimes joke around here that 'no good deed goes unpunished!' Public staff sometimes act as if we are a threat to them on some level, which is not true. We are their best friends and partners in creating community value." There are many in the UK who will have shared this experience.
Leaders in the field therefore need dedication and a strong will. "Innovators need determination, vision and persistence," says Hinchion, "Passion, patience, a love of the process over the outcome, some money and a lot of brains," says Lombardi. And good business sense doesn't go amiss. "I think you do need to be savvy. If you don't have a background in business it could be difficult," says Menzies.
Setting off into the unknown is unpredictable but for those battling forward on the front line it can be hugely rewarding. "I call it living man!" says Lombardi with spirit. "But try to stay in balance by not betting your whole life on one thing, and trust the universe when it hands defeats because in fact most things work out the way they're supposed to."
Innovating also takes time. It took two years of research and development before Springback could accept its first mattress and that wasn't the end of the process.
"You need to be prepared for it all to take longer than anticipated and you need to be flexible," says Hinchion. "And don't be put off by the sceptics". That last one is an important point, one that our future might just depend on.