Disposal Options in a Circular Economy

Looking at Disposal Options through the Lens of Innovation

Disposal is inevitable. At some point, a product will need to be disposed of. It’s what occurs at, during, and after that disposal that has led many utilities to believe there are only a few set and costly options.

However, that’s looking through the lens of traditional methods—an economic method where the product is discarded at the end of its life. This is also known as a “linear economy” approach.   For centuries, it was about the only model anyone knew, and it has left us with the problems we have today: what to do with all of this waste, much of which is damaging our atmosphere. While the problems with this model have been mitigated by improved production practices and by the rise of recycling, the business model of the vast majority of companies still takes the linear model for granted.

Breaking out of this thought process represents a hugely disruptive form of innovation. For many companies, it takes looking at the product’s life cycle, and how it applies to them, in a different way. I’ve mentioned before the concept of a circular economy, which in essence extends the life of the product by repurposing it at the end of one life into another useful life.

The circular economy is a relatively new trend, but many businesses are already taking on the model for purposes of both environmental sustainability and profitability—both achieved through the elimination of waste. Environmental constraints suggest that businesses ought to incorporate the idea of the circular economy into their business models.

And, believe it or not, seeking innovation in this area makes business sense. The elimination of waste is a cost-saving measure—landfills, for instance, are getting more and more expensive to use. This 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. The investment community views the circular economy as a positive contributor to company profitability, primarily through a reduction in the cost of raw materials. As a result, many direct their dollars based on the ability of companies to perform well in this area.

Learn more about how your company can change its existing processes and methods to become a more sustainable—and profitable—operation by grabbing your copy of 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. 

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.

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.

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.

Waste

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, barrybreede.com.

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”

chemicals

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.

Innovation

In Favor of Incremental Innovation

It’s becoming more and more apparent in today’s marketplace – regardless of industry – that innovation is critical to long-term success and business sustainability. The question becomes, particularly for those companies in the commodity industry, where do we even start?

Longtime practitioners of innovation, of which there are many, know well that building a company that has a true portfolio of promising ideas to tap into is quite a challenging task. Such a portfolio needs to include initiatives that represent different levels of company risk and return, ranging from what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls “incremental” innovations—tweaks to an existing product or service—to “disruptive” innovations—changes in strategy with the potential to transform markets or business models.

Might I suggest that your business begins with considering incremental innovation – doing so won’t cause you to take on overwhelming initiatives but will instead focus on improving what you already do best. In the world of utility poles, incremental innovation might focus on how to maximize the performance of a utility pole product line. For example, consider what modifications could be made in order to limit growth of vegetation around the pole, or how to make the poles better equipped to handle broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity in pockets that are underserved in this regard.

Leverage the product you have and find a way to make it even more useful.  Consider your products and/or services and ponder the following:

  • What is the main benefit of the product or service that I currently provide? What are the necessary benefits I must deliver on and what could provide even greater value?
  • What major customer problems or unmet needs exist that today remain unexplored?
  • What is my product’s life cycle? Within that lifecycle, where can things improve that may positively impact my business and perhaps my customer?
  • What trends seem to be of interest in my industry and complementary industries?
  • When is the last time I have implemented any kind of change or improvement to my business processes or product?

Innovation, and the integration of it in your business, doesn’t need to be a blackhole of uncertainty – it can start with what you are already doing, just finding a way to do it better.  Ask yourself these questions and consider how you can make incremental changes that can make a larger impact in the long-term.  Learn more about effectively implementing innovation within your organization here.