How Entrepreneurs Can Turn Trash Into Profit (Literally)

Embracing the circular economy can bring business success and appeal to customers -- and maybe even save the world.
How Entrepreneurs Can Turn Trash Into Profit (Literally)
Image credit: Spencer Platt | Getty Images
  • ---Shares

A few weeks ago, I spent days with my toes in the Pacific Ocean watching whales breach with their babies beside them. I have had a passion for the water since I could walk, or should I say swim. Scuba diving has showed me another part of our beautiful planet. Any country that I have had the privilege of visiting that has access to the ocean, I have grabbed a tank and jumped in. From the biggest whale sharks to the tiniest reef-lurking clown fish, the millions of species under your toes dipping in the water are critical to our everyday lives.

Every time I see a plastic bag floating in the water, I picture one around a turtle’s neck in a complete panic. That six-pack being held together by rings of plastic, I think about it stuck on a dolphin fin. Worse is a trash line floating on top of the water with Styrofoam and construction waste blocking migrations of bluefins. These are all preventable. Beyond just the pollution, these plastics break down and resemble phytoplankton, which gets eaten and makes its way up the food chain (and into our stomachs).

Related: Meet the Entrepreneurs Driving the Edible Insect Movement

As a consumer, to help keep the oceans clean, we can educate, donate money, clean the beaches and recycle. But, why does this matter as an entrepreneur? Because you have the ability to make the biggest impact in saving the oceans, recycling or the planet in general. Last week at SXSW, I got slapped in the face by a giant squid to promote a strawless ocean. (Not kidding, check it out.) Adrian Grenier, Dell’s social good advocate, leads this initiative to prevent the 500 million straws we use a day from going into the ocean.

Work with organizations that are looking for ways to innovate by using efficient materials AND are willing to explore the business models around them. For instance, Dell recently announced that it’s using recycled plastics collected from waterways and beaches for use in the new packaging tray for its Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. Its ocean plastics pilot will keep 16,000 pounds of plastic from entering the ocean (as you already know, this is a big deal to me and my scuba diving adventures). What really makes this news so valuable is it demonstrates the potential business applications ocean plastics can have. Packaging today, a bathing suit tomorrow -- and who knows what else?

It’s important for you to work with businesses that focus on the same values you do, as that’s what is going to be important to your customers.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About B Corporation Certification

In addition, embrace the circular economy model yourself, where the concept of waste is designed out of the system. As entrepreneurs, we are passionate by nature. We are not just creating a business for the sake of it, but generally we are looking for ways to make a difference. In an era where purpose-driven consumption is prevalent, the circular economy is something we all need to consider as we create our innovative ideas into products to sell. Design for recyclability takes into account the entire product lifecycle (including ease of reuse, repair and recycling), finding more efficient materials and means (including use of renewable resources) and looking at new business models that transform processes and relationships.

I’ve recently come across a few small companies who are doing this well. Rubies in the Rubble is a great example of a startup that believes one man’s trash is another man’s treasure -- quite literally. This inspiring business has found a way to scale the problem of food waste (and profit from it) by taking produce that would otherwise have been discarded and turning it into relishes, jams and pickles.

Related: How Companies and Consumers Can Support Sustainability

Another small business that is leading the charge on circular economy is Norton Point. The company was founded by two college friends with the mission to make sustainable sunglasses from ocean plastic and plant-based materials. Besides looking stylish while saving the ocean, the company gives back 5 percent of net profits to global clean-up, education and remediation practices.

re:3D is a veteran-owned company that has affordable 3D printing. Their Gigabot has human-scale 3D printing. The best part: It utilizes trash for printing materials. Bunker Labs is promoting several exceptional companies like re:3D that are utilizing technology to enhance our environment.

Now get out there and be inspired. Implement your own sustainable business approach. Not only could you be creating a more sustainable environment, you’ll also automatically position yourself as a thought leader and innovator for creating GENIUS out of trash.