trash to treasure

Earning Money from the Waste Stream

Fear sells so the media and advertisers inundate us with messages of scarcity. Having peered into many dumpsters and watched numerous documentaries on the subject of waste it seems to me that the real issue, which gets far less attention, is poor distribution and reuse of the abundance that surrounds us. Our current version of capitalism as well as the limiting beliefs under which many of us operate discourage the re-directing of so many still usable items from food to furniture to essentially everything that gets thrown out. That’s why I want to highlight some examples of people earning money from the waste stream.

Trash to Treasure – The Problem is the Solution

Being the optimist that I am my favorite permaculture principle is the problem is the solution. One often-cited example of this line of thinking in permaculture is “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency,” meaning if you had (more) ducks they’d eat the snails thus eliminating that problem in your garden. Ryan Holiday explores and expands on this concept with a more mainstream approach in his book The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph, which is strongly influenced by his appreciation of Stoicism. This is the lens through which I view all of the untapped, unrecognized, unappreciated abundances that surrounds us in the waste stream. I agree with the increasingly popular opinion that waste is a resource in the wrong place.

Ways to Make Money from Garbage

Tapping into the profit potential of trash and waste reduction requires us to open our eyes and look at waste in a different way. At the personal level this could be as simple as what I outlined in this post about how dumpster diving significantly reduces my spending on groceries. Or as I described in this one how I eared several thousand dollars annually selling things I recovered from dumpsters and have greatly reduced my need to buy clothes and many other items.

How Are People Earning Money from the Waste Stream?

One of my favorite illustrations of this is relayed to us by Nick Loper in episode 274 of his Side Hustle Nation podcast. During this show, he profiled John Wilker, who started out buying or being given pallets free by businesses that had no need for them and selling them to pallet yards. He eventually found other businesses in his area that were buying pallets and started selling the pallets directly to them. Later he started doing the same thing with crates, dunnage, corrugated boxes, 55 gallon metal drums, and wire reels. He now teaches a course instructing others how to do this.

Emilie O’Brien, who I learned about while listening to episode 715 of the So Money podcast with Farnoosh Torabi lends a slightly different twist to this theme. Emilie paired her background in film and TV production with her passion for the environment to establish Earth Angel, which aims to reduce the carbon footprint of entertainment productions. Emilie and her team do this by helping TV and film re-think industry norms such as recycling materials from no longer needed set props that would have previously been thrown away ending up in landfills, setting up systems to compost much of the food waste created from all the catered food brought in for the cast and crew during filming, as well as improving the way hazardous materials are handled on and off set. Emilie has created an effective model that could be replicated in so many different settings — hotels, conferences, hospitals, universities, and on and on and on.

Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Is Promoting Earning Money from the Waste Stream

Several years ago even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dipped it’s toe in the arena publishing Trash to Treasure: Changing Waste Streams to Profit Streams, which delves into profiting from waste stream diversion at a much more macro level. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation this report was prepared to:

how to earn money from waste materials
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Publication

“educate the private sector about the business value of circular economy opportunities. More and more, companies are looking towards a circular economy business model as a way to cut costs and increase efficiency. Turning waste into a resource is a huge part of that, and this report takes a deep dive into how the private sector can make “trash” an economic opportunity.”

Earning Money from the Waste Stream Prompts Innovative Solutions

Two college friends concerned about the environment seized the opportunity to address the islands of floating plastic developing in bodies of water across the planet and turn a profit. To do just that they founded Norton Point, a company which makes sustainable sunglasses from ocean plastic and plant-based materials

Another example of two college friends starting a business turning waste into profit began as a vermi-composting venture, meaning they fed organic waste to worms and then sold the resulting worm waste as plant food. That business has since morphed into a multi-million dollar global company called TerraCycle, which collects and repurposes hard-to-recycle waste. Over the years the company’s mission has stayed the same – eliminate the idea of waste. TerraCycle has won over 200 awards for social entrepreneurship and sustainable business.

China’s announcement in 2017 that it will no longer accept many of the materials Western nations had long been sending its way for recycling has left municipalities scrambling to find alternatives because no other country has the capacity to recycle the amount of plastics, paper, and other materials that China can. This makes it even more important that we find ways to reuse items and keep them out of the waste stream. China’s decision could well end up becoming the Incentive to Innovate James Conca predicted in a November 2017 article in Forbes Magazine, which is needed for long term sustainability.

Investing in Companies Earning Money from the Waste Stream

This is the type of innovation I would like to be able to invest more in. (I have already invested two companies – TerraCycle and Tradefox – working to divert the waste stream.) I’m excited to investigate what options exist for those of us pursuing an environmentally and socially conscious path to financial independence to invest in businesses that are turning items from the waste stream into profits and sharing those findings with you in future blog posts.

Beginner's Guide to Regenerative Investing
Click here to take a deeper dive into more sustainable and less extractive investing with yours truly!

Post Script – Sure I enjoy practicing and profiting from waste stream diversion through dumpster diving. And I’m always delighted to champion businesses like those highlighted in this post finding examples of people and companies demonstrating how the problem can be the solution. However, it is even more important that we in Western nations have frank discussions about reducing our consumption levels in order to create less waste in the first place. The first priority is on reducing, then reusing, and finally, recycling — not the other way around.

What about You???

Has anybody else turned waste from a problem into a solution? If so, how have you done it?


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