What is Truly Waste? What Cannot be Reused and Everything Else

Utilities want to reduce waste; the EPA wants to reduce landfill usage; and everyone wants to find an environmentally friendly way of disposing of this treated wood waste. The question becomes, what can be reused and what is truly waste that just can’t be repurposed?

A challenge we found when building a disposal program for repurposing poles was that only a relatively small amount of the wood collected is actually in good enough condition to be used again. Typically, only about 40 percent of the material to be disposed of is really reusable anyway, and the rest—whether it is rotted out, full of nails, or whatever the case may be—is landfilled. Sometimes utilities may believe they are headed down a more sustainable path by implementing a disposal program based on repurposing poles when, in fact, 60 percent of that material is not marketable as a reusable product, so it goes to a landfill either way.

The current slate of disposal options leaves us with a tough situation; in every case, we run into a disposal situation where there are significant costs (financial or environmental) and obstacles to implementation. From a life cycle perspective, we keep running into a wall at the end of the process, which moves from development of the raw material (tree growth), manufacturing (cutting and treatment), use, and finally disposal. You grow the tree, you harvest the tree, you manufacture it, it goes up in service, and then ultimately it gets disposed of one way or another.

It’s that last step, the end of the line, that keeps presenting difficulties. Even in the best-case scenarios currently available, the material has to somehow go away, albeit in a relatively environmentally friendly way that can produce some value in the form of energy. Even reuse, as I mentioned, does not keep the pole from eventually being a waste product.

That is where there is more room for innovation as we seek to find ways to dispose of true waste in a manner that is productive or environmentally friendly. Learn more about what some utilities are doing to be more sustainable in my next post.

Trash cans on side of road

Your Place in the Landfill: Considering the Waste an Individual Produces Annually

Garbage day. This day is committed to memory each week as we take the time to empty the trash cans throughout our homes into a larger bin that is either hauled off to the community dumpster or set out on the curb to be dealt with by the local waste management company.

The bin is emptied, we bring it back in from the street, and the cycle continues the following week. Beyond the monotony of this chore, are we taking the time to think about where that trash actually goes and what the impact of this seemingly “normal” activity is having in the grand scheme of our communities and future?

Most of us aren’t. There’s an assumption that it’s being handled in an acceptable, manageable way. The problem is the solution that has been deemed “acceptable” is running its course.  Historically, city dumps were largely unregulated; they bred pests and, since much waste is toxic, allowed poisonous materials to leach into the ground and affect the water supply and the broader environment. The landfill developed in the early twentieth century as a cleaner, safer alternative and would eventually grow to replace the city dump. The idea behind the landfill is essentially to isolate the garbage (known as “municipal solid waste”) in a confined space, control leaching and gas emissions, and cover the surface with soil on a daily basis. In the United States, landfills are subject to stringent EPA regulations.

These facilities, however, are running out of space; across large portions of the Northeast and especially the upper Midwest, there is less than twenty years’ worth of useful life in the landfill space available. The numbers are only increasing. Data from the EPA indicates that the total generation of municipal solid waste in 2015 was 262.4 million tons, approximately 3.5 million tons more than the amount generated the year before. As the amount increases, many of the country’s largest landfills are closing their doors.

Remaining US Landfill Life

The EPA’s site states the following which is telling of the situation and the direction we need to head in” “[the] EPA is also thinking beyond waste, and we have transitioned from focusing on waste management to focusing on Sustainable Materials Management (SMM), which refers to the use and reuse of materials across their entire life cycle. SMM conserves resources, reduces waste and minimizes the environmental impacts of materials we use. In an era of limited resources, the sustainable management of natural capital is increasingly at the forefront of international dialogue about how to achieve economic growth without compromising human health and the environment.”

A shift must occur, not only from business entities, but from us as individuals as well. When we start to understand the waste situation we are in and educate ourselves about the state of today’s disposal methods, we can make better choices about our involvement in it and ask for that same awareness from business entities as well. Learn more about the future of disposal and sustainability in my latest book, Transforming the Utility Pole: Using Innovation to Disrupt Commodity Markets and Fuel Sustainable Business.

Brand-Differentiation-Barry-Breede

What Brand Differentiation in a Commodity Market Looks Like

Brand differentiation is not common in commodity markets; nor is innovation. What is common is downward pressure on prices; often, for the end user, price is the only differentiator for commodity producers, so the only competition that occurs is a race to the bottom on price.

As in any commodity market, the buyer of utility poles—the employee of a utility who controls which poles are purchased from which vendors—has a lot of power to shape the market. If the buyer only looks at price, then competition keeps happening only on the basis of price; this is how industries fall into the commodity trap. Creative, disruptive innovation is needed to help companies operating in commodity markets escape this trap.

It can be done.

Looking Beyond the Commodity

When it comes to treated wood products, for example, it likely will always be a commodity market. If you put two utility poles produced by two forest products manufacturers next to one another, 99.9 percent of the buyers are unlikely to identify any brand-relevant difference between them.

How then could a commodity product such as the utility pole differentiate itself? The answer is typically not found in the product, but rather in the potential related services that surround the use of the product itself.  The challenge becomes helping the buyer understand the value of these services so ultimately they are willing to pay more for your product than competition. Creating services that have recognizable value in the eyes of the buyer requires adopting the mindset of the buyer and understanding what current processes create challenges for them—and therefore represent opportunities for new innovation to occur. For us, a key area of focus was what disposal of the utility pole looks like down the road.

Differentiation Lies in Looking at the Entire Lifecycle

Typically, our buyers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where the poles come from, and probably no time at all thinking about where a pole is going to go fifty years down the line at the end of its useful life span. The pole is a line item in their budget; apart from due diligence, they will most likely make their purchase decision—based on price. However, it is in their best interest—just as it is in many industries—to understand the product lifecycle and its impact on multiple stakeholders down the road. That is where true differentiation lies—by treating business transactions as a part of an entire process, not just one exchange of product procurement.

In the case of utility poles, it has been our priority to help buyers engage in the supply chain conversation and walk them through what the costs of disposal actually are. At some point, those poles will need to be replaced, to go somewhere—a consideration that is all-too-often dismissed. However, when this challenge is discussed upfront, everyone is aware of critical aspects in the process and why the end of a product’s life is just as important as the procurement of it.

In this industry—as in many others in today’s market—sustainability and a more responsible approach to a product’s life cycle is expected. Beyond the financial benefits, which I’ve discussed in previous articles, commitment to sustainability is a shift that utilities are seriously considering and many are starting to fully embrace. Learn more about implementing innovation in commodity markets and how sustainability initiatives may be one area worthy for you to incorporate into your business by visiting, barrybreede.com.

Listen to the Market

When the Market Speaks, What Wins?

When it comes to offering something new, always listen to the market. If you don’t, your company certainly won’t win.  All too often, innovations tend to be ahead of the market, and sometimes it will take a significant amount of time before the market will accept them.

Companies that don’t heed the market’s voice will find themselves investing resources into innovation that may not be accepted. Years ago, I was a part of this kind of scenario, where we created an RFID-based business, Sustainable Management Systems (SMS), that could create a great amount of value to our customers – or so we thought.  We failed to understand the specifics behind our go-to-market strategy. We erroneously thought the utilities were ready to adopt RFID into their business – they weren’t.

In this case the innovation was cutting-edge and had the potential to be extremely valuable.  However, the market wasn’t prepared to incorporate that kind of technology. We learned from this experience, and while the SMS technology is now a relevant offering, we made sure that our next innovation would be a recognized market need. To accurately identify what the market wanted, we needed to implement a dedicated innovative process.

In the early stages of the formal innovation process, which I’ve described in previous posts,  we made sure to conduct market research among customers and prospective customers, to see what their pain points were and how we might be able to help address them. Through this process, it soon became clear that there was a huge opportunity present in trying to find ways to help these customers create more sustainable business models for themselves. We kept hearing from our biggest customers—investor-owned, publicly traded utilities—about the greatly increasing scrutiny they were facing with regard to their environmental sustainability practices, so we knew that making these practices more sustainable from an economic standpoint as well would be very attractive to our customers.

By integrating the market’s voice into our innovation process, we not only gained valuable ideas and insights, we would create an innovative initiative that would be welcomed and embraced by the very market we serve. When the market speaks, listen; more importantly, take the time to actually ask the market. Doing so will ensure successful implementation of your innovation from the beginning.

Learn more about our successful approach to innovation by getting your own copy of Transforming the Utility Pole which you can find here.

Case Study: Choosing the Right Innovation to Pursue

Case Study: Choosing the Right Innovation to Pursue

Choosing the Right Innovation to Pursue: Most people don’t think much about the life of a utility pole or what happens to it when its life has concluded. For utilities, the end of a pole’s life simply meant hauling it off to be disposed. In recent years however, the industry has been forced to address the increasingly problematic factors associated with traditional disposal methods.

At the time of our innovation process (to provide alternative disposal), landfill costs were going up, all while state legislatures were handing down new rules about how to handle waste. The utilities were clearly feeling the pressure to find a more sustainable model for disposing of poles, but the options just weren’t there; it was clearly an area that called for reform, and no one else was really working on it.

As I discuss in a separate post, we heard the market speak and responded with a solution that our business could reasonably provide; it’s what led to offering a service that recovered and disposed of old poles, reels, pallets, and pretty much any other wood-related waste.

The development of this service exemplifies the possible outcomes of the type of focused innovation program we had set out to implement. Compared to the other areas of innovation that resulted from strategic planning sessions, this initiative would allow us to leverage the resources and processes we already had in place – which meant we wouldn’t be required to make enormous changes in how we conducted business, at least initially. Logistically speaking, disposal was a natural area for us to move into, because we knew we could take control of it and have an impact, whereas the other areas of innovation further upstream in the product life cycle were further outside our domain of capability.

For example, we had the trucking assets already in place that could pick up used poles and dispose of them. The thinking was basically this: “Well, we already make the poles, transport them, and drop them off; why don’t we just pick up any used poles while we’re already in the field and figure out the best thing to do with them, so that the utility doesn’t have to?”

Rather than taking a drastic leap into a totally new area, choosing an innovation that would work in tandem with our basic business model as it already existed, and with the services we were already offering would create greater success more quickly.

Take this same approach with your business; take an in-depth look into your life cycle and determine areas that can be improved, maximized or even transformed leveraging the infrastructure you already have in place. Doing so can provide value to you and your customer.  Learn more by visiting, barrybreede.com.

Repurpose

Find Your Repurpose in Life

Finding your (re)purpose: it may sound like a self-help topic, and in some ways perhaps it could be considered that, but for your business. Like finding your purpose in life, helping your business find its repurpose opportunities are just as important to its future.

As discussed in my previous post, the concept of introducing a repurpose step in your product’s life cycle is not only beneficial for the environment, it can ultimately help your bottom line.  Doing this requires a shift from the traditional linear model – which produces, uses, and disposes of – to a circular model that loops the “disposal” back around to production.

Making the Shift

Product life cycle management or looking at the supply chain and value chain from a holistic perspective is clearly the first step on the way to a circular model. For a company to be able to divert its used products from disposal (which is so often going to be in a landfill) back into the production process, it has to have some control over the entire product life cycle—not only how it’s conceived from a materials standpoint and how it’s designed and manufactured, but also its use and disposal.

This means treating the raw material of your product as an asset to be taken advantage of beyond its just being input to the initial production process. From this point of view, letting the raw material be simply discarded at the end of its useful life starts to look like a mistake from a bottom-line point of view—a waste of a potential resource.

The question then is how you can take the raw material output and loop it back around to an earlier stage in the production process so that the process becomes regenerative rather than linear. This also makes business sense, as the elimination of waste is a cost-saving measure—landfills, for instance, are getting more and more expensive to use—and it can be a brand differentiator and create deeper customer relationships, the kind of “stickiness” that makes customers or clients adhere to a particular vendor. Repurposing the disposed-of product in a way that it can somehow be led back to the customer is a powerful model.

It’s a model that can work, but will require a commitment to innovation and change.  The key is to accomplish two things: create a more environmentally friendly business model and making sure the business will be more profitable through the proposed repurposing.

Fortunately, insofar as circularity is a way of eliminating waste and taking advantage of access to raw material assets, these two objectives can go hand in hand. Often companies look at circular economy or even total life cycle management and see only the up-front costs; however, the long-term benefits are worth it.  Learn more about repurposing and implementing a circular economy model within your business by reaching out.

Utility

When in Doubt… Repurpose: A Motto for the Circular Economy

Utilities want to reduce waste; the EPA wants to reduce landfill usage; and everyone wants to find an environmentally friendly way of disposing of this treated wood waste. That is where a shift in look at this product’s “end of life” needs to occur. What if the utility pole’s life didn’t need to end per se, just be repurposed into something else?

This mindset is in part what drove our desire to provide an alternative “disposal” option for utilities. Our message was not to say, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll load that stuff into a dumpster and drive it to the landfill for you.” Our first focus was on finding things to do with the material besides just putting it in a landfill – to repurpose it.

Shifting from Linear to Circular

Most business models are linear – that’s what has traditionally been done in many industries including the utility pole business. The problem with that approach is current disposal methods (which come at the end of a linear business model), lead to significant costs (financial or environmental) and obstacles to implementation. From a life cycle perspective for utility poles, we keep running into a wall at the end of the process, which moves from development of the raw material (tree growth), manufacture (cutting and treatment), use, and finally disposal. You grow the tree, you harvest the tree, you manufacture it, it goes up in service, and then ultimately it gets disposed of one way or another. It’s that last step, the end of the line, that has historically presented difficulties.

I’m sure that is the case in many industries; if the ability to repurpose were easy, it’s likely we’d all be doing it. However, just because it is not currently easy, doesn’t mean creating a circular business model isn’t possible or worth it.

Don’t Waste “Waste”

Choosing to not shift to a circular life cycle is leaving assets on the table. If we view the product life cycle as a stream flowing from design, through production and use, to disposal, the intervention of the circular economy is to divert the stream at the point of disposal and cycle back to a point upstream. In other words, rather than just treating the remaining raw material at the end of the process as waste to be gotten rid of, companies have the opportunity to innovate by closing the loop and turning that material into input at an earlier phase of the process.

By seeking to repurpose and transform your linear business model into a circular one, you can not only make a positive impact on the environment, but on your business’s bottom line. 

Sustainability

Overcoming Obstacles to Win at Sustainability

Utilities want to reduce waste; the EPA wants to reduce landfill usage; everyone wants to find an environmentally friendly way to disposing of this treated wood waste. As such, it was in our best interest to determine a disposal method that was both sustainable and desirable from a business perspective. There are a number of things to consider as you seek to become more sustainable in your business practices. These are key takeaways from our experience introducing new pole disposal solutions to our customers:

  • Leverage processes and infrastructure you already have in place. A key component to being able to provide a more sustainable disposal option was our ability to leverage the logistics network we already had in place for pole delivery toward implementing pickup and removal services. This allowed us to use our existing infrastructure to efficiently support a new service that allowed everyone involved to be more sustainable. Looking to improve processes doesn’t necessarily mean replacing them completely; often, the best place to start is with an examination of how current resources can be used to help achieve your new initiatives.  
  • Don’t assume being sustainable will be bad for the bottom-line. You’d be wrong to come to that hasty conclusion. As mentioned before, the cost of traditional disposal (landfills) is continuing to rise and will continue to do so until there is no more room available. In the case of our disposal solution, it creates a much more efficient cost structure for utilities.  It is possible to be both sustainable and profitable!
  • Recognize the need for a tailored solution and plan. As we began rolling out our new disposal turnkey service, one thing was extremely important to understand as the provider and as the recipient: we weren’t offering a one-size-fits-all disposal solution; that’s what the waste management companies do and this approach has caused the current challenges. Sustainability as it pertains to your organization – while trying to achieve a universal goal – will be unique in its application.  
  • Continue looking for the next best solution. As we collectively seek to make more sustainable business choices and practices, it’s important to recognize that the new options we adopt will likely not be entirely satisfactory. While they will be better than what we’ve done before, there will always be way to improve and adopt more effective and efficient solutions.  Be willing to innovate even beyond the current innovation.

Learn more about how to integrate greater innovation and sustainability into your organization by visiting, barrybreede.com.

Environmentally

Innovating Environmentally Safe Ways to Dispose of Your Company’s Waste

Did you know, the utility industry is predominately dependent on landfills as the primary disposal option for their poles? While this has been “what we’ve always done as an industry,” there is less and less landfill space to work with – coupled with the fact that it’s simply not the best option environmentally.

In many instances, the decision about where or how a pole can be disposed of is not in the hands of the utility, but rather lies with the regulatory bodies at the state and federal levels responsible for managing treated wood waste. As a result, in the early stages of our innovation process, it became clear that one of our first conversations needed to be with the government bodies that control pole disposal, simply to understand their perspectives on this issue.  


As you seek to innovate and implement environmentally friendly alternatives to your current waste disposal processes, consider the following:

  • Get on the same page as the federal government (likely the EPA). For corporate innovators working in industries that are in some way regulated by the government (and who isn’t?), it’s important to develop a shared understanding of the problems that need to be solved before you embark on potential solutions. In doing so, there is a far greater chance that you’ll create an ally in your innovation process rather than a potential future stumbling block. Often this will take some extra time and energy to educate folks on issues that you live with daily while they do not. However, the longer-term upside is well worth the effort.
  • Understand the state laws that are applicable to your business. Regulations governing what specific disposal options are available locally vary from state to state. The result is that disposal solutions available in Massachusetts may not be available in Missouri. This is posing a challenge for larger investor-owned utilities that operate on a regional or multistate level.
  • Be prepared to be your own advocate for your desired disposal options. Misalignment between different states, as well as continual changes and uncertainty at the federal level due to changes in administration, make governments an unreliable partner in this area, so businesses have to take the lead in pushing for sustainable solutions that are economically feasible.


As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the need for alternative disposal methods is imminent.  Take inventory of your company’s current processes and start the discussion about how to improve upon those processes.  Learn more about implementing innovation within your organization by visiting, barrybreede.com.

global warming

The Impact of the “Anthropocene Period” and What We Can Do About It

There’s a debate amongst geologists and environmentalists about the impact of humans and how to label this period of impact in Earth’s history. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the term being discussed amongst scientists is, “… ‘Anthropocene’ – from anthropo, for ‘man’ and cene, for ‘new’ – because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.”


There’s no question that our impact on the environment has been significant and that those changes have and will continue to affect the planet. As an industry, we see this in the kind of energy that is produced and in the disposal of resources used in the process.


Where does all that waste go? What is done with resources that no longer fulfill the useful life determined by the utility? Traditionally it’s been hauled off to the dump along with every other human-beings’ garbage. The problem is, this approach went largely unregulated for the longest time, leading to a number of issues including pests, toxicity and the presence of poisonous materials that leach into the ground and affect the water supply and the broader environment.


The landfill developed in the early twentieth century as a cleaner, safer alternative and would eventually grow to replace the city dump. The idea behind the landfill is essentially to isolate the garbage (known as “municipal solid waste”) in a confined space, control leaching and gas emissions, and cover the surface with soil on a daily basis. In the United States, landfills are subject to stringent EPA regulations.


Even with these regulations, there will be a time where there is no more room. The social and environmental costs of current practices, especially among utilities that are disposing of their used poles, are too high to maintain. With landfills reaching capacity, we in the industry have no choice but to seek alternative disposal methods; otherwise, we are on a collision course with disaster.


Despite the irreversible imprint that has been made on Earth by human presence, we have the ability to be more aware, responsible, and sustainable in our day-to-day/business practices. It is possible to improve and be more responsible; however, effort and resources must be dedicated to this cause.  Learn more about how you can effectively integrate innovation within your organization to become more sustainable, all while continuing to be profitable. Visit, barrybreede.com.