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Understanding value in order to drive sustainability

By 20th December 2015 Blog, Sustainability No Comments

When something has a value to us, we tend to care more about it. Once we perceive it to have less or no further value, our attitude changes and we are prone to no longer look after it in quite the same way. It’s the key to sustainable behaviours.

Let’s say you use lots of sugar in one of your production processes, to make a key product. You buy the sugar and store it in your warehouse until it’s needed. Whilst it remains part of your stock inventory, it will have a “book” value.

Now let’s imagine that demand for your product slumps, and so you make much less of it or even stop producing it at all – the chances are you’ll find yourself with leftover sugar on stock that you no longer have a use for. Suddenly, it no longer has any perceived value, and is simply now a cost – a cost to store and, potentially, a cost to discard as waste.

At this point, there’s every chance you’ll stop taking quite as much care of it. When you have a need for it, and it’s necessary to preserve it in tip-top condition for use in your product formulation, you’ll make sure that it’s stored safely and can’t be accessed or spoiled; when you no longer have a need for it, standards will slip as you conclude that it’s pointless investing the time and effort keeping this redundant raw material safe.

But just because it’s lost it’s value to you, that doesn’t mean it has no lasting value to someone else. The trouble is, by not taking good care of it, you could ultimately degrade its value to others and find yourself in a disposal-only cul-de-sac when you might have otherwise been able to sell it.

The same could be said for carbon dioxide emitted in fossil fuel use.

Carbon Capture and Use?

Right now, there’s a lot of debate about the need to put a price on carbon, but in that respect, it’s being seen more like a tax – a fiscal disincentive and another cost.

At the same time, a lot of people are pinning their hopes on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as a means of enabling the continued use of coal, gas and oil in power generation. CCS would see CO2 captured and injected into porous rock formations, deep underground, to be sequestered away forever – effectively putting it back where it came from.

But imagine if CO2 was treated like a commodity instead. And had a value attached to it.

Suddenly, market principles would apply. Investor appetite would increase, and fossil fuel power generators would be incentivised to look after their emissions rather than simply release them into the atmosphere.

If you think it sounds crazy, just consider how many uses there are for CO2:

– As an aid to ripening tomatoes
– In freezing and cooling
– To neutralise alkaline solutions
– In carbonated beverages
– To make foamed plastics
– For medicinal use

Waste not, want not

Over the years here at Remsol, we’ve found time and again that the best way to engage businesses in the pursuit of sustainable waste management is to highlight the latent value in their wastes by finding markets for them.

As soon as they can see it’s possible for their waste to attract a value, businesses are prepared to put the effort into segregating them and achieving the necessary quality standards required to extract maximum value – all the while boosting sustainability.

The company that was sending mixed waste to landfill, whilst accepting continually rising costs, suddenly becomes evangelistic about baling cardboard for separate collection because it attracts a value, rather than a cost.

Finding markets for the products and substances we no longer want or need, and where it becomes possible to generate additional sources of revenue where before there were only costs (or just a nil return) is a powerful motivator when it comes to engaging people and businesses in desirable behaviours. It’s why the bottle-back scheme was so popular in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK, where you got your deposit back if you returned your empty ‘pop’ or beer bottle in good condition so it could be reused.

Taxing something, and driving up costs, will undoubtedly force industry to think carefully about its wastes and emissions, but show them a way to make money from the things they throw away or emit to atmosphere and you’ll excite them even more, encouraging greater sustainability.

Here’s a case study that perfectly illustrates why:

A chemical manufacturer that we worked with in Cheshire regularly produced a strong Hydrochloric Acid waste in 1m3 Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs), costing around £72,000 a year to transport and dispose of. We helped them find a buyer for it, that could use it despite the small amount of contamination that was present and that would also fund the transport itself. The net result was a bottom-line improvement of £87,240, taking into account the value obtained for the acid and the zeroing of transport costs.

Yes, the client would still have been interested in a cost saving, but by eliminating costs altogether and generating a new revenue stream, it made the opportunity impossible to ignore.

Going back to the issue of power station CO2, it’s possible that a combination of carbon tax (stick) and market-based commodity pricing of Carbon Capture and Use (carrot) could be the solution that allows for continued use of fossil fuels, alongside new nuclear and renewables.

Did you find this article interesting or thought provoking? We’d love to hear from you in the comments – and please share it too!

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