Recycled Materials

Circular Economy: More Than Just a Fad

The concept of companies owning the life of their products from cradle to grave and cradle again sounds ideal in theory. Some might think that this notion of “sustainability” is only a trend— one that will lose its popularity eventually. The reality is, sustainability isn’t a fad or just the popular thing to do. For many utilities and other companies, it’s the only way forward.

When companies realize the necessity of “closing the loop” on their product’s lifecycle, they realize a circular economy approach is really just the convergence of thinking about manufacturing, design, logistics, and business models.

Waste Management is an example of a company that needed to close the loop of their business model due to challenges related to disposal. Specifically, their business model, which has historically relied heavily on landfills, has been under threat due to dwindling landfill space. In response, they have moved heavily into the circular economy, not only with recycling but also in offering sustainability consulting services to the businesses that contract with them, partnering to help develop longer-lasting and CE-friendly products and services.

This example, and others like it, show that CE is not just a fad, nor should it be seen as a cumbersome imposition on existing models that should only be taken on to satisfy environmental regulators. Instead, it is a value generator and a potential profit center, one that companies need to be more proactive about participating in if they are to meet the demands of the new economy that is developing.

Circular economy thinking can require a big shift. Sometimes innovation efforts that start with a targeted focus like disposal have unintended, broader strategic consequences down the road. For us, it was a rather simple step forward to enter the pole disposal market. What we didn’t anticipate was the potentially much bigger transformational journey that lies ahead for both our pole disposal efforts and, ultimately, our company business model.

This journey has enabled us to come full circle, so to speak, back to our primary aim: finding a method of disposing of wood waste that would maximize both environmental value and value for the utilities that are its customers. Learn more about how a circular economy approach might work within your company in my book, Transforming the Utility Pole: Using Innovation To Disrupt Commodity Markets And Fuel Sustainable Business. 

Innovation environmental footprint

The Long View of Innovation

Innovation is more than an idea to be talked about in the boardroom. It requires an investment of time, resources, and a willingness to change. The process is not immediate, but instead a long-term strategy. Leadership can’t expect a one-year return on their investment. In fact, it may take a few years before a business can break even, but the potential is huge.

For us, the goal was to go-to-market with a completely new, total life cycle solution for how utilities can deal with their waste stream. From a broader perspective, we hope to provide an exemplar of how companies should be thinking about their environmental footprint.

All business leaders could benefit from asking themselves about the environmental value they get from their product in the way it is developed, manufactured, and disposed of. In fact, given the new and increasingly circular economy that is developing all around us, business leaders can’t afford not to start implementing innovations in a directed way that aims to derive greater environmental value from products and production processes.

In commodity industries, innovation can serve as a brand differentiator and a market disruptor. Companies in these markets don’t have to participate in the race to the bottom on prices; positioning yourself as having the most cutting-edge business model in your sector can attract and attach buyers to you even more effectively.

Ultimately, the benefits of innovation efforts extend beyond the parties involved in the immediate business transaction. In implementing our innovation model, we have become more environmentally sensitive, at the same time providing a value proposition to end users (the utilities), the environment, and the general citizenry.

Companies interested in innovation need to start by examining the likely impact that cultural, economic, demographic, and industry-related issues and trends will have on their business model. In that way, they integrate their innovation efforts into the broader, long-term business strategy. Success won’t come from brainstorming big ideas in a standalone department whose goals are detached from those of the rest of the company. Success also won’t come from implementing measures in a reactive manner to meet specific demands here and now. Instead, successful innovation efforts need to be directed at the long-term aims of the company and reflect long-term trends in the industry.

Learn how your company can adopt an innovative approach to the future that will provide long-term success by grabbing a copy of my book, Transforming the Utility Pole: Using Innovation To Disrupt Commodity Markets And Fuel Sustainable Business. 

Product as a service

Product as Service: Rethinking Consumer Behavior and Ownership

I frequently refer to the concept of a circular economy when discussing the future of utility poles—and any industry looking to shift toward a more sustainable process. Instead of thinking of a product as being created to eventually be disposed of, products can instead be repurposed as a part of a more sustainable “disposal” solution. The truth is, many companies think of themselves as merely providing a product and just that. However, there is great opportunity in viewing a product as a service that can ultimately extend its useful life.

Take the carpentry industry, which is facing many of the same regulatory and market demands regarding waste reduction as waste wood. Landfills are filled with massive amounts of old nylon carpeting, and government mandates are starting to force carpet manufacturers to divert large portions—in some cases all—of their waste from the landfill. The companies that have been most successful in meeting this challenge have done so by developing systems for both retrieving old carpet from customers and converting the nylon in that material into usable new products.

The carpet company Desso, in particular, has been a pioneer in this area, adopting a cradle-to-cradle, circular approach, employing a combination of recyclable yarn and consumer take-back programs to use the same material again and again to make their product. The carpet industry has had to react in a broad-based way to the demands for waste reduction. There have certainly been challenges, but what is being done in this industry provides a useful example of how it can be done.

The electronics industry is yet another area where this new perspective has been applied.  Hewlett Packard has been a pioneer in this area, diverting millions of ink cartridges with its take-back and recycling program. The company started the program in 1995, and by 2000 they were closing the loop by manufacturing new ink cartridges out of this old plastic. Their “Instant Ink” subscription service automates this take-back process—when one ink cartridge starts running low, the company sends the user a new one along with a postage-paid envelope to send back the old one. Instant Ink represents the shift from selling products to selling services, as well.

This approach often involves a company shifting its perspective on how its products can become assets that become deployed as a service to consumers or end-users. It’s an important distinction for businesses and their customers to make: instead of the consumer purchasing the product and taking full ownership of it, the vendor simply provides the product for the time of its use and retains ownership, so that it can take the product back at the end of its life cycle and find a second use or second life for it.

There are several ways to help both the provider and the consumer make the shift to a “product as a service” approach that will benefit all stakeholders. Learn more about how to achieve this in my book, Transforming the Utility Pole: Using Innovation to Disrupt Commodity Markets and Fuel Sustainable Business.

Great Examples from Municipalities Making Sustainability Work - Waste to energy

Cities on a Hill: Great Examples from Municipalities Making Sustainability Work

For many years, Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, a Virginia-based utility located inside the confines of Shenandoah National Park, disposed of their used poles by having a local waste hauler take them to a nearby landfill. But, one day we received what might best be termed an emergency call from the co-op. The local landfill had run out of space; the co-op was told they needed to find a new home for their used poles, and suddenly the utility needed help in identifying an alternative disposal option. Shenandoah Valley ended up becoming one of the first customers I worked with.

This utility’s response to a disposal dilemma reflects what we see regularly across the country. First, few utilities have a defined long-term strategy for wood disposal, and most have instead become reliant on what has historically worked best and cost the least for them: landfilling. Second, due to the lack of a disposal strategy, few utilities have a good understanding of what other disposal options may exist for them.

Every municipality and utility will have unique needs. And while the EPA governs the classification of pole waste as non-hazardous, regulations governing what specific disposal options are available locally vary from state to state. The result is that disposal solutions that are available in Massachusetts and Florida may not be available in Missouri or Washington.

The following are the options available that some municipalities are currently leveraging in order to reach a greater level of sustainability.  Each have their benefits and drawbacks:

Repurposing – The first, most straightforward method is what we might call simple reuse or repurposing. In the past, going back decades, this actually was a much more common way of disposing of old poles. In rural areas in particular, a utility would simply chop a pole into manageably-sized pieces and then sell them, give them away, or even just leave them out for Farmer Fred to pick up and use as a fence, build a retaining wall, or serve myriad other needs.

Landfill-to-Gas (LFG) – One relatively low-cost semi-alternative to landfill is to deploy the material housed in the landfill itself as an alternative energy source. As landfill operators have started to become tapped out in terms of the space they have to offer, many have invested in accessing an alternative revenue stream by converting their landfills into plants that produce energy by taking in the methane gas coming off of the landfilled material.

Waste-to-energy (WTE) – These facilities take raw material waste and, as the name suggests, convert it to energy by incinerating it at a high temperature. This either generates heat or electricity or provides boiler fuel to generate steam or gas energy. Most of the raw material for these facilities comes in the form of municipal solid waste—in other words, garbage. Typically, a facility will contract with a municipality to collect its garbage to fuel the plant. However, many facilities will also take certain types of ground-up treated wood (e.g. creosote and/or penta treated wood) as fuel. A facility that takes wood will work similarly to a landfill, charging a fee, analogous to a landfill’s tipping fee, to accept and dispose of the material.

Biomass – Similar in ways to WTE, biomass energy production involves incinerating an organic material to fuel boilers to provide power for very energy-intensive industries, such as the manufacture of cement. It largely shares the environmental benefits of WTE regarding the energy captured, and thus the value generated, from the waste. It also has the upside of being more desirable to the utility from a cost standpoint: instead of having to pay a facility (whether landfill or WTE facility) to take the wood waste, biomass facilities are actually much more reliant on this type of feedstock as a fuel source and will thus pay suppliers for the material.

None of the solutions available provide a complete answer for utilities and their municipalities.  However, the need for options other than the traditional landfill solution is increasing exponentially. Learn more about how to integrate sustainable solutions within your utility in my latest book, Transforming the Utility Pole: Using Innovation to Disrupt Commodity Markets and Fuel Sustainable Business. 

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.


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.


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,


One Major Question for Your Business: Where Does Your Waste Go?

All productive human activity produces waste in some form, and—while it may not seem like a profound philosophical question—we have always had to ask ourselves: “What do we do with all of this stuff once we’re done with it?”

Waste is often material we don’t really want to keep around, but we can’t help producing it, and it has to go somewhere.  The first modern landfill started operating in 1937 in Fresno, California. In the years since, most Americans have come to take the facilities for granted, simply throwing waste away without thinking about where it is going.

Utilities too have long operated on the assumption that there is essentially limitless landfill space. In the eighty years since the first landfill was created, the vast majority of utilities have not changed their waste disposal operations, with most relying heavily on landfills to take in their used poles. The traditional model for most utilities is to cut up and pile the used poles in a dumpster. Once the dumpster is full, they call a local waste management company to come pick it up and empty it into a landfill.

Just to give some perspective: every year, about four million tons of treated wood utility poles are disposed of, and at least 60 percent (or 2.4 million tons, a conservative estimate) are landfilled. The space for these poles, though, is limited; this solution is unsustainable. Of course, when space goes down, the price of entry goes up.

There needs to be another alternative for the disposal of these poles. And while there are alternatives becoming available, both the utility industry and government regulators together need to address how best to dispose of poles that use chromated copper arsenate (CCA) as a treatment process. CCA poles are cost effective and continue to grow in market share, but per current regulations, they currently can only be disposed of via the landfill, as it can’t be incinerated. Fast-forward to twenty or thirty years from now, and, without the development of any new disposal solutions and associated changes in regulations, we’re going to have a majority of poles coming out of the ground that can’t go anywhere but the landfill—and there likely won’t be any landfill for them to go to.

Seriously consider your company’s disposal practices and what your future strategies are in this area; space is running out and the future of our environment is dependent upon our ability to be as sustainable as possible.  Learn more about alternative disposal methods that may be available for your utility by visiting,

Barry speaking on stage

The Environmental Impact of Your Product Life Cycle (and How to Reduce It)

Each passing year, industries – including the utility and commodity markets – are increasingly more aware of the impact their companies have on the environment.  It’s a concern that stakeholders in these industries recognize as a duty to address for the sake of consumers and the environment.

Understanding what that impact is and how to potentially reduce it won’t be clear until you comprehensively consider your product’s entire lifecycle from cradle to grave.  That may provoke you to consider the materials used to manufacturing or provide your product/service.  Could you potentially use more environmentally friendly materials?  If so, what would be the new impact of those materials?

However, what may initially seem like an improved concept may not necessarily reduce the overall environmental impact.  For example, many have questioned the use of other materials for utility poles – the idea being that perhaps other resources such as concrete or steel could outlast wood and therefore be more environmentally friendly. In theory these ideas seem credible.  However, from the view point of sustainability and carbon footprint, the more responsible material is still wood.

It comes back to understanding this particular product’s entire life cycle.  Studies* have been done and have found that treated wood compares favorably against galvanized steel, concrete, and fiber-reinforced composite poles along several environmental metrics, including greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use, ecological toxicity, and water use.

The main reason why?  Forest products are organic raw material. Part of the production of this material involves thirty years of wood growth in the form of a tree.  This growth process actually removes carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, rather than contributing to carbon emissions—a remarkable side effect of using this organic raw material. The so-called “carbon sequestration” process generates a “carbon credit” early in the life cycle that allows the final product to have a much lower carbon footprint than competing products.  During the 40 years a pole stands, another tree will have grown in its place – canceling out the carbon release from the retirement of the pole.

Being aware of the details – large and small – of your product’s life cycle will allow you to identify where you can reduce your impact on the environment and where you are making the best choice given the options available.  Learn more about how to reduce your company’s environmental impact through innovation by visiting this site.



*Christopher A. Bolin and Stephen T. Smith, “Life cycle assessment of pentachlorophenol-treated wooden utility poles with comparisons to steel and concrete”


The Impact of Chemicals on the Product Life Cycle

One of the most frequent questions I hear from people outside of our industry, particularly those with environmental concerns is, “Why do you have to put chemicals on the poles to begin with?” The common belief is that these chemicals, which are really derivatives of pesticides, will have significant negative effects on both humans and the environment.

It’s not as harmful as one may believe; it plays a significant role in extending the life cycle of a renewable resource.  To recognize the true impact, it’s important to understand how much and why chemicals are used in the process.

All major pole producers abide by manufacturing standards developed by the American Wood Products Association (AWPA). This association, composed of scientists, academics, and industry personnel, collectively establishes the amount of chemical required during the manufacturing process to maintain the proper functioning of the pole. Per AWPA standards, the typical pole is impregnated with chemicals that, depending on tree species, penetrate less than four inches of the entire diameter of the pole. Given an average-sized pole based on industry standards, this means that less than 5 percent of a pole’s entire mass receives chemical treatment, a relatively small fraction.

Chemicals help extend the pole’s life span by protecting it from things like fungi or termites—basically, any organic thing that might feed off the wood and lead the pole to rot out and fall apart. If the poles went untreated, they would rot out so quickly that they would become much more likely to break, especially during inclement weather – creating extremely difficult situations for vendors, utilities, and consumers.

Consider too how this would impact the environment: if poles only lasted five to ten years, as opposed to decades, that would dramatically increase the amount of timber needed to supply these poles – roughly four times the amount harvested today.  Add to that the changes in environmental impact caused by the decline of sequestered carbon in the forest, as well as the effects of logging and manufacturing to increase output, and the overall result is that chemical usage actually does more to help preserve our environment than to harm it.

This isn’t to say today’s chemicals will be the best process for the future. The idea of cleaner, more eco-friendly preservatives is being explored which could replace current processes that extend the life of a utility pole. Learn more about how the utility pole life cycle impacts the commodity industry here.