Archive for the ‘Green Business’ Category

The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) in Boston’s Back Bay is a national non-profit organization with a mission to change the way we pay for waste management and recycling in this country. The concept behind product stewardship is simple—people who benefit from the sale and use of a product should be responsible for the cost of managing that product when the consumer disposes of it. The most commonly discussed form of product stewardship is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which requires companies to pay some or all of the costs associated with safely managing their products at their end of life. Though many models exist, EPR programs typically involve the creation of an industry-funded stewardship organization that helps businesses recycle the products they produce. Seen by many as a fairer way to pay for recycling, EPR also gives companies an incentive to design and sell products that can easily and cheaply be recycled.

In the past few decades, the EPR approach has caught on all over the world. EPR programs in the United States are typically run at the state level and focus on items that are bulky, dangerous or toxic. Many states have EPR programs for electronic waste, products that contain mercury (e.g., thermostats, auto switches, and fluorescent lights), paint, and batteries. While PSI sees this as a starting point, these are by no means the only products that can benefit from EPR. Five Canadian provinces and the European Union apply EPR to commonplace items like packaging waste. PSI hopes to expand the number of US states that employ EPR and the number of product categories that are covered by EPR programs.

Having worked at PSI as an intern since September of 2012, I have had a chance to become familiar with the Institute’s work nationwide. For a small organization with just 8 full-time employees, the scope of PSI’s work is impressive. Its work includes legislative tracking, advocacy, policy research and evaluation, designing and running pilot projects, and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogs. PSI is involved with more than 15 product categories, including packaging, paint, electronics, pharmaceuticals, phonebooks, mattresses, and products containing mercury. To give a sense of the scope of PSI’s work, as an intern I am currently assisting in a research project on policy best practices for packaging EPR in Europe and Canada, as well as helping with the design and implementation of a program to increase the number of mercury switches that are recovered from automobiles in Illinois.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Scott Cassel, the founder and CEO of PSI to get a sense of how PSI got started and where the movement is headed. Below are the highlights of our conversation.

Where did the idea for PSI come from and how did PSI get started?

The idea came about in the 1990s when Scott was Director of Waste Policy and Planning at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and developed the first state plan for household hazardous waste. Because of a lack of funding at the state and municipal level only a small percentage of products were being collected. Scott realized that success at collecting household hazardous waste would break the banks of communities and that a new funding model was needed. At the same time, Scott was president of the North American Hazardous Materials Management Association and learned about successful EPR programs in British Columbia. Scott developed a business plan for an organization to promote EPR in the US and was given roughly three years of seed money by the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and space at UMass Lowell. PSI was founded in 2000 and was conceived as an organization that would be a voice for state and local governments on EPR. It has expanded into nearly 100 formal partnerships with companies, organizations (including environmental), universities, and non-US governments. After 4 years at UMass Lowell, PSI moved first to Newbury Street and then to its present location on Stanhope Street in Back Bay.

How has the product stewardship landscape changed since PSI was founded? Has PSI’s role changed since then?

There has been increasing recognition that EPR is not just for toxics and that we need to look at products from a lifecycle perspective. It is easy to see the value of EPR for toxic products and for products such as carpet and mattresses that have high disposal costs for municipalities, but there are actually very few products that cannot fit under the EPR umbrella if you view it from a lifecycle perspective. All products have an impact on the environment, and we need to look broadly at the mining, manufacture, use, transportation, and post-consumer management to really get the full understanding of which products should be viewed as priorities from an environmental impact perspective. With 67 EPR laws in 32 states, the EPR movement has momentum and companies are beginning to see the writing on the wall. Companies are also beginning to realize that regulation can level the playing field and eliminate free rider problems in a way that voluntary initiatives cannot.

One place where voluntary action has been successful has been with retailers, who are realizing that serving as collection points can draw in customers and increase brand loyalty. Staples developed its computer take back program after a successful 6-week pilot project with PSI. They initially charged a $10 fee, but were eventually able to collect and recycle computers for no charge due to an increased market for scrap electronics. This program has proved highly successful, and has been emulated by Best Buy, Office Depot and Office Max.

What do you consider to be PSI’s major accomplishments?

One is the Staples program, which was the first time a retailer became involved in computer take-back.  In 2004, retailers did not want to participate in the national electronics dialogue. Staples stepped forward and worked with PSI to develop the program, which became a well-known success and showed that retailers could take back computers at a low cost. Store employees loved it, and customers showed increased brand loyalty.

A second major accomplishment was a national agreement reached with the paint industry to fund the collection of leftover paint. Over 9 months of dialog, PSI reached an agreement with the industry. After conducting 8 projects over the next two years, the paint industry was convinced to take full responsibility. This showed that it was possible to work with, rather than against, industry on EPR.

EPR has grown tremendously over the past decade, with 67 EPR laws now in place across the country. PSI has thousands of members, including 47 state memberships at the secretary, commissioner or director level. PSI has built a broad-based coalition and it is clear that EPR is not going away. There is a need to take stock and evaluate programs to be sure that they are working to create jobs, save money for governments, increase recycling rates and allocate costs fairly.

How do you see the EPR/product stewardship landscape in America changing in the next few years? Do you anticipate any changes in PSI’s role?

We will see more laws, better laws, and greater justification for the laws. We will gain a better understanding of how EPR influences product design. We will come to better understand the lifecycle impacts of products, allowing us to better target products for EPR programs and necessary voluntary initiatives.  There will also be consolidation, both of collection systems and of stewardship organizations, as is happening in Canada and Europe already.

There is also a possibility of EPR legislation happening at the federal level. At the moment, EPR is still new in the US and is experiencing pushback from industry. This will change once industry comes to accept that EPR is here to stay. Once enough state laws are in place, we could see a tipping point where federal legislation is passed. On the other hand, many stewardship organizations are nervous about the operational challenges of rolling out an EPR program nationally and may resist federal legislation. In addition, a federal program would still need to be implemented at the state level.

We will also see movement toward harmonization of EPR programs at the national and international levels, though this will be a very difficult task. Even within a country or region there are many different models for how EPR programs can be set up and managed, but as we gain experience and understanding of best practices we should be able to begin to move toward more standard models.


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Have you ever wondered whether or not all this recycling is doing any good? We hear plenty of bad news—overflowing landfills, rising energy consumption, islands of garbage floating in the ocean—but until recently it has been hard to figure out just how much impact our own individual behavior was having.  Boston-area company Greenbean Recycle aims to change that by installing high-tech “reverse vending machines” at university campuses and eventually other public areas around the city. Aimed at the Facebook and Twitter crowd, these machines provide recyclers with instantaneous feedback on how much they are recycling and on how much energy they have saved in the process. Users simply sign in and deposit their bottles; their recycling totals are tracked online. According to the company’s website, the company’s machines at MIT and Tufts had recycled 30,058 containers and saved 5313 kilowatt hours of energy as of February 9, 2012. Bottle deposit money can be deposited to a Paypal account, added to a student spending card, or donated to a charity of the user’s choice.

The instant feedback provided by this system gives an incentive to keep recycling in much the same way that the desire to get a high score in Tetris keeps players coming back. This is an example of the phenomenon of gamification, or adding video game-like incentives to encourage people to participate in socially desirable activities. Greenbean offers recycling competitions (the America Recycles for Thanksgiving challenge took 2636 containers out of the waste stream), and CEO Shanker Sahai envisions eventually giving away prizes provided by sponsors, such as Red Sox tickets, to encourage even more recycling.

Anyone who has had (or known someone who has had) a video game obsession knows how easy it is to get hooked on simple, repetitive tasks for which rewards are given. Gamification provides a wealth of opportunities to encourage people to participate in beneficial activities by reframing them as competitive games rather than chores. In the future it would be interesting to see more experimentation in this area, such as testing whether or not intermittent rewards (e.g. a small chance to win a random prize each time a bottle is inserted into the machine), would increase use.

We applaud Greenbean for its innovative program, and hope to see more of its machines around the city in the near future.

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Dr. Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, gave a talk on November 30, 2011 at MIT on how the U.S. can lead in the clean energy race. In addition to discussing several new technologies in renewable energy and energy efficiency that will have great impacts in the coming decades, he challenged MIT students to come up with solutions to barriers to energy efficiency as part of President Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative.

First up, Secretary Chu discussed several technologies of the past century that have drastically changed the way we live. The development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in the early 20th century and crop improvements during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s have so far enabled global food production to keep pace with the expanding population and averted a Malthusian crisis. The evolution from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits (popular computer processors in 2011 boast in the range of a billion transistors each) has led to a spectacular explosion of consumer electronics that has revolutionized the way we communicate and consume information. Assembly line manufacturing and the relatively rapid adoption of the automobile in the early 20th century changed the face of our cities and solved one pollution problem (mountains of horse excrement) while introducing others (smog, lead, and greenhouse gas emissions).

Against this backdrop, Dr. Chu discussed a number of promising advances that could play major roles in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. He  focused on advances in materials science, such as the carbon fiber reinforced plastic used in the body of the Boeing 787, the introduction of high tensile strength steel in automobiles, substitutes being developed for rare earth metals used in electronics, more efficient and lower cost solar cells, and next-generation battery technology that shows promise of drastically reducing the cost of energy storage.

Dr. Chu also spoke about the DOE’s Sunshot Initiative, which aims to have cost-competitive solar power by 2020. Due mostly to large scale manufacturing in China, the price of solar photovoltaic panels has plummeted in recent years, outpacing even optimistic estimates. While this has been bad news for certain US companies trying to compete in the market, it has had the advantage of pushing solar ever closer to the magical break-even point where it becomes competitive with fossil fuels. To help people get past the up-front cost of solar installation, companies such as Simply Solar of Arizona offer programs that allow homeowners to lease solar cells for 20 years with a low initial down payment and fixed monthly payments thereafter. For those who are interested, Sun Run offers a similar program here in Massachusetts.

While I found Dr. Chu’s talk to be informative and enjoyable (if a bit technical in parts), I was hoping he would spend more time addressing the policy and business aspects of winning the clean energy race. As Dr. Chu himself noted, the mass production of solar panels in China has made the competitive environment difficult for US firms. Renewable energy policy in this country has largely been left to state and local governments with little leadership from the federal government. I had hoped that Dr. Chu would spend more time discussing the Obama Administration’s roadmap for clean energy over the next 20 to 30 years and the policy steps they are taking to make that happen. Nevertheless, Dr. Chu is an extremely engaging speaker, and the technologies he discussed were exciting.

A video of the talk is available here.



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Life can be hard for clean tech start-up companies struggling to move from a good idea to a competitive business model able to survive in the marketplace. At the Clean Tech Open 2011 Global Forum in San Jose on November 15-16, one such company selected from a pool of finalists from around the country will be awarded the Clean Tech Open US National Grand Prize consisting of investment and services valued at up to $250,000. Since 2006, the Clean Tech Open has raised more than $280M in private capital and estimates that it has created over 2,000 green jobs in the US. In addition to the prize money awarded, the program provides extensive training and support to its participants, including developing a business plan and training in how to make a pitch to investors.

I had the opportunity to attend the 2011 Northeast Regional Finals Event on October 4 at the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge, where regional semifinalists made pitches to a panel of judges and three regional finalists were selected to attend the Global Forum in San Jose. Lesser prizes were awarded to various runners-up. While the prize money was obviously important to these companies, the event was also a networking event and an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to show off their carefully prepared sales pitches to any private investors who might be in attendance. From their questions to the presenters, the judges were clearly interested not just in good ideas but also in companies whose business models would allow them to be profitable in the short- to medium-term.

The three companies that were selected to represent the Northeast in San Jose were:

  • PK Clean, an MIT team that has developed a technology for turning waste plastic into oil that can be used as a fuel source. The company foresees two sources of revenue: one from being paid to dispose of the plastic and another from selling the oil that it produces. Even assuming that the disposal fee dries up and the price of oil falls well below the current level, CEO Priyanka Bakaya estimates that the company will still be profitable. PK Clean has a pilot plant in Pune, India and is currently seeking $4 million in investment to move into the U.S. market.
  • Arctic Sand, another team from MIT that has developed a way to drastically reduce losses due to power conversion in the electronics industry. The company would initially license its technology to manufacturers of servers for large corporate data centers, where it estimates that its technology will save companies millions of dollars per year in electricity costs. In the future, the company plans to expand into the telecom and mobile sectors, where its energy efficiency technology could enable smaller and more efficient mobile devices.
  • Qado Energy, a startup company that provides distribution grid analytic software to help with the completion of the interconnection studies that are necessary before new electricity suppliers can be connected to the grid. Especially for intermittent generators such as wind and solar, these interconnection studies are complex, expensive and time-consuming and can be a significant barrier to entry. The company sees a large market for its software platform as the smart grid takes shape and renewables begin to represent a greater proportion of the US energy mix.

I was impressed by the level of polish of the pitches I saw, and excited by the possibilities of some of these technologies. Despite recent concerns about competition from China in the renewable energy sector, the U.S. in general and the Boston area in particular are still very competitive when it comes to innovation. The Clean Tech Open encourages competition between entrants hoping to win the big prize, but it also provides support and publicity to help all participants bring their innovative ideas to market. The Northeast Regional finalists all have technologies and business models that promise to make significant environmental contributions while also being profitable, and the Clean Tech Open has helped them fine-tune their message to sell their ideas to investors. While we will be hoping for a win by one of our teams, it was clear to me that whoever wins the prize, all of the teams have benefited from their participation.

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It is difficult to walk around the Boston area without seeing one of Boloco’s 18 restaurants serving up smoothies and the company’s signature “inspired burritos” to hungry passers-by. Boloco (“Boston Local Company”) was founded in Back Bay in 1996 and has since spread throughout the metro area and beyond, with locations including Northeastern University, Harvard Square, Tufts, Berklee,  and several stores downtown. While other fast food burrito chains stick more or less to tried and true Mexican-style ingredients, Boloco pushes the boundary with such unusual burrito offerings as the “Bangkok Thai” (meat, peanut sauce, “Asian slaw”, and cucumbers) and the “Memphis BBQ” (meat, barbecue sauce, beans and coleslaw). Every combination may not be a winner, but the ever-increasing number of Boloco restaurants is testament to the success of their business model.

Fortunately for those of us who enjoy their products, Boloco is also one of the greenest restaurant chains around. No visit to a Boloco would be complete without a head-scratching moment on the way out, trying to figure out which waste goes in the recycling bin and which is compostable. For example, the company recycles its aluminum foil wrapping, and its corn-based plastic cups and potato starch based silverware are fully compostable. Boloco’s compostable waste is collected by a private hauler called Save That Stuff, and the finished product is sold as a soil enhancement to landscapers. Composting company Harvest Power has an interesting blog post with more details about the implementation of Boloco’s composting program. Also interesting is that its tabletops and counters are made of recycled paper. Boloco became a Green Restaurant Association certified green restaurant in 2008, earned a 2-star Green Restaurant Certification in July, 2011, and was the first chain of restaurants to become certified across all of its locations. In 2010, Boloco was awarded the Mayor’s Green Business Award for “extraordinary performance related to sustainable environmental practices.”

The Green Restaurant Association is a national non-profit organization that runs a voluntary point-based certification program for restaurants. Restaurants are scored in seven categories: water efficiency, waste reduction, furnishings and building materials, sustainable food, energy, disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction (a PDF of the complete scoring standards is available here). Restaurants must meet certain minimums in each category as well as an overall minimum score in order to attain certification. The program also encourages continuing improvement: for every year that a restaurant participates in the program, the minimum number of points necessary to maintain certification increases.

Mayor Menino’s Green Awards are given out annually to “recognize achievements in the residential and business sectors” by exemplary individuals and businesses. Businesses such as Boloco are nominated for the Green Business Award in one of four categories: commercial, industrial, non-profit, and academic, cultural and healthcare institutions. Nominations are considered based on a business’s “sustainable and environmentally beneficial activities” and awards are announced each spring. (A quick shout-out: Congrats to Northeastern University on winning a 2011 Green Business Award!)

With “greenness” often seen as a value-add for high-end boutique businesses, it is refreshing to see companies like Boloco show that sustainable practices are not incompatible with a successful, mainstream business. Hopefully Boloco’s example will encourage its competitors in the fast food industry to adopt many of the same practices. While they do not replace more comprehensive national- or state-level policy solutions, voluntary certification programs such as the Green Restaurant Certification, LEED, and Rainforest Alliance do provide valuable information to consumers while helping to create frameworks for assessing sustainability that could be incorporated into policy at a later time. Similarly, while the Green Awards are commendable for giving recognition to those businesses and individuals that exceed expectations, they do not replace the need for enforceable sustainability standards that apply to all homes and businesses. These are, however, small but important steps in the direction of raising public consciousness of environmental issues. Companies like Boloco deserve credit for being ahead of the pack and setting visible examples of sustainable practices in action.

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