SXSW Interactive: Biz from waste
Valerie Casey, executive director of the Designers Accord, started her Sunday SXSW keynote speech by calling the interactive community to task for not engaging in the global conversation on sustainability.
And in some ways, she was right to; it’s a community rife with future-shaping talent who, by and large, haven’t pounced on these issues.
The interactive field is one full of designers, communicators and architects: systems thinkers who consider on a daily basis how to shape narrative, user experience, or communications architecture to engage and sustain an audience. They’re deeply familiar with the notion that it isn’t enough to get their audience’s attention, that the real goal is to motivate them to (preferably continual) action, whether that means playing a game, buying products, engaging in offline or online communities, or donating to/participating in a nonprofit’s work. More importantly, they can look at a system, take it apart and redesign it while incorporating dramatic leaps in efficiency.
Casey pushed SXSW-goers to imagine what that immense pool of talent could achieve if their abilities were directed towards cultural sustainability rather than commerce.
That said, I was pleased to find that, while jumping from panel to panel and having hurried conversations in the halls, more than a few of SXSW’s attendees were trying to embrace both at once, building their business models around addressing one of today’s biggest — and least sexy — environmental and business issues: solid waste management.
Solid waste is a huge contributor to climate change; offgassing emissions from decomposing organic waste in landfills comprises some 23 percent of the nation’s methane emissions inventory (EPA 2007). Currently, the U.S. recycles or composts just over 32 percent of its solid waste streams (EPA 2008). With these entrepreneurs’ help, hopefully we can nudge that number up.
Brooke Farrell of Houston firm RecycleMatch saw her company make it to the finals of Microsoft’s BizSpark competition for innovative Web technologies, and with good reason: their offering is, a Web-based marketplace for industrial waste products, or as Farrell put it, the eHarmony for recycling.
Matching “producers” with potential buyers, lots up for bid include everything from organic fruit/vegetable remains (for use in composting) to wood pallets (aka biomass for burning) to industrial byproducts like porcelain, polypropylene and plastic scraps. Interested parties can also post to an ongoing “want list,” an approach I like because, as the site gains users, facility managers may see requests for materials that they wouldn’t have considered upcyclable and sent to the landfill.
On a personal note, Farrell was a networking powerhouse, blogging and tweeting her way through the entire week (@RecycleMatch) and hitting every relevant party I could think of. RecycleMatch is going to need tireless advocates like her to succeed, to draw in enough buyers and sellers to make RecycleMatch a viable marketplace. They’re in the process of upgrading their site’s functionality, and I expect to post more about it (and them) when it goes live.
At SXSW’s Zero Waste panel, Jason Aramburu talked about his enterprise, re:char, which manufactures small-scale pyrolysis systems, or more simply, stoves. Re:char’s stoves use a thousands-year-old technique: burn biomass (i.e., wood chips, sawdust, dead plants) in a low-oxygen environment, and you get heat, a form of charcoal called biochar, liquid fuel oil and syngas as byproducts.
South American farmers have been mixing biochar into nutrient-poor soil as a means of rejuvenating farmlands for over 2,000 years. (The photo to the right shows what biochar-infused rainforest topsoil looks like.) What farmers then didn’t realize is that doing so also creates a soil-based carbon sink, trapping not just the CO2 from combustion but helping the soil retain methane and nitrous oxide, two potent greenhouse gases.
Biochar’s been getting mentions in the environmental press for years, but an inexpensive, scalable solution would both benefit poor farmers in tropical climates (who want to render overfarmed soil usable again) and urban communities alike (who want to do something with organic waste like downed trees/branches, beyond sending them to the landfill or turning them into mulch). In New York state, for example, organic matter — mostly food, but also yard waste and other materials — makes up 30 percent of the state’s waste stream. Also, re:char’s pyrolysis process stoves don’t emit the black carbon soot that traditional wood-burning stoves do, which is a major cause of respiratory disorders in developing countries.
I didn’t hear about Restaurant Recyclers at SXSW (Austin360 did a great piece on them), but wanted to include them because they’re tackling one of my favorite waste streams: commercial-scale food waste.
Jimmy Mitchell’s company started offering collection and composting services just over a year ago, and currently picks up from about 30 restaurants across Austin, including the Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain and the single best Italian restaurant in town, Vespaio. The collected food scraps, waste paper, glass and plastic are sorted and taken either to local recycling facilities or to Organics by Gosh, a firm that composts the scraps for use in Dillo Dirt, a manure-based soil.
Too often, consumers only pay attention to their individual consumption — making sure to recycle, drinking tap water from reusable bottles, repurposing old jars and bottles for bulk purchases instead of buying packaged goods — but in cities like Austin, there are other options.
Encourage local businesses to make sure their waste streams are recycled (or in the case of composting, “upcycled” into new products). Remind them that biodiesel producers will happily take waste fryer oil off their hands. (An East Austin fixture, DieselGreen Fuels, goes to area grocery stores every Thanksgiving, slapping their stickers onto boxes of peanut oil customers buy for deep-frying turkeys.)
(Note: an extra shout-out goes to Ross Nover of Free Range Studios, who I bonded with over BBQ at the Salt Lick, and who turned me on to Annie Leonard’s Web short, “The Story of Bottled Water.” I’m pretty conversant with the issues around why one shouldn’t buy bottled water, but this 8-minute short covers the entire supply chain and wraps it and advocacy ideas up in a very clever package.)