The America Recycles Innovation Fair, hosted by the EPA in Washington DC, showcases products made from recycled plastic, eco-friendly products and technology, and advances in recycling technology.
Over forty-five companies packed into an exhibit hall in downtown DC. After a few hours of slightly awkward conference conversations, I found the coolest, most innovative and sustainable companies according to my proprietary, scientifically-proven assessment methodology (in other words, these are just my opinions).
950 CARBON-FREE TAKE-OUT MEALS WITH GO BOX
Photo credit: GO Box
GO Box was one of my favorite companies I came across. Based in Portland, GO Box provides an alternative to single-use take-out containers by supplying reusable plastic containers at participating restaurants.
How does it work? You “subscribe” to the program and then “check out” a container in the restaurant with the help of an app, kind of like a library book. Fill it up with food, transport your food home and fill your belly.
Once you are done with it, drop it off at a GO Box location around town and check it back in with the app. The containers are collected up (by bike, so totally carbon free), washed, and restocked at the restaurants.
Photo credit: GO Box
I asked Jocelyn Quarrell, the CEO of GO Box about how their system compared, on a sustainability basis, to the single-use options. She said that based on their assessment, a GO Box hits carbon-neutral after its 50th use, and that each container can be used up to about 1000 times. Nine hundred and fifty carbon free meals is pretty hard to argue with!
For participating restaurants, GO Box does not increase their costs as compared to disposable containers. They are charged a small restocking fee that is comparable to the cost of a disposable container.
For consumers, they bear the relatively small cost of this eco-friendly solution. A yearly subscription is $22, which works out to about six cents per day or about $2 a month. To me, that is a reasonable price to pay (Would you pay that to avoid take-out waste? Weigh in below in the comment section).
During my conversation I inquired whether there was a way for businesses to save money. My hope was that there would be a way for businesses to provide this service without any cost to consumers. Unfortunately that isn’t the case (read on to hear my views on how policy changes would revolutionize all of the businesses highlighted in this article).
GO Box’s system is designed to split the cost of operations among several user groups, consumers pay a subscription fee, vendors pay stocking fees, corporate partners pay for drop site services, and catering clients pay for renting our reusables.
One benefit to companies is the chance that consumers might eat out more if they participate in the program. I know that my household avoids eating out, especially take-out, because of the amount of waste that is created. I could see us going to take-out restaurants more frequently if GO Box was in DC.
HALLOTEX IS MAKING BEAUTIFUL TEXTILE FROM RECYCLED MATERIAL
Hallotex, a Spanish company, designs and manufactures textiles that are both socially and environmentally responsible. Hallotex creates textiles with recycled cotton and polyester for many well-known clothing brands.
The gorgeous clothing they had on their display table grabbed my attention from across the conference center, including a grey sweatshirt made from 100% recycled materials.
Hallotex estimates that using less virgin material can reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a per garment basis by 40%.
Our conversation focused on the challenges with recycling old clothing, especially since many modern, fast fashion textiles are a mix of multiple materials, some natural and some artificial. They said that 100% cotton was the easiest to recycle. Garments made from 100% any material, rather than a mix, is next in terms of ease of recycling.
We also talked about the use of recycled polyester, such as using recycled plastic bottles to create textile. Their take was that recycled polyester was less than ideal, both in terms of the quality of the material and the potential environmental impact. The problem of microplastics, tiny particles released by polyester and other plastic based textile, just isn’t understood well enough right now.
Hallotex is driving several projects in U.S. with the aim of promote recycling textiles and supply manufacturers and brands with recycled material. Continuing to demand recycled material in its products will push companies to seek out eco-friendly suppliers like Hallotex.
TURN A YEAR OF FOOD WASTE INTO COMPOST IN ONE DAY
Eco Rich’s industrial composter is like something from science fiction. Throw 100 pounds of food waste into it and in 24 hours you have nutrient-rich compost! According to this blog, 100 lbs. is the average amount of food waste an American produces in a whole year!
Eco Rich’s President, Manish Desai, said their composter relies on a heat resistant bacteria thriving under a constant supply of fresh air and heat. The machine is imported from India and automated mechanical processes (e.g., turning blades) within accelerate the aerobic process.
They have units with processing capacity that ranges from 20 lbs. of waste to 2500 lbs.! The latter will produce 250 lbs. of soil a day, or 360 tons per year!
Photo credit: Ecorich
I talked to Ecorich about the business case for their composters and whether it could save money for their customers. It wasn’t clear whether diverting all that food waste from the trash reduced hauling costs enough to cover the expense of the composter. If a business paid for composting services, then it would make economic sense.
If a restaurant is paying for food waste to be hauled away, Ecorich is clearly superior. First off, since food waste is comprised of 50% to 60% water composting on-site reduces the volume of waste drastically, thus requiring far fewer trucks to transport it. Plus, business owners avoid the never-ending hauling fees, paying for the composter in 3 to 4 years (according to Ecorich).
Photo credit: Ecorich
However, if a college campus, large office building, museum, or some large entity wanted to really step up their sustainability game, Ecorich industrial composters seems like a great strategy. Diverting up to 2000 lbs. of compostable material from the waste stream, or more with multiple units, has the potential for huge reductions in emissions.
A WORD FROM THE DISMAL SCIENCE ON ECO-FRIENDLY COMPANIES
Carbon emissions, according to economics (aka “the dismal science,” as it is lovingly called), are referred to as a negative externality. Basically, it is extra stuff left over from a transaction. You pay the cost of some product, giving the producer some of your money and you get the product. However, the cost of carbon emissions are not captured in that transaction. It is extra, and it is bad, and the two parties to the transaction do not incur the cost of its badness.
All of the companies above, and especially Go Box and Ecorich, have business models that are asking for consumers and business owners to voluntarily pay for some of that negative externality. However, if that cost of carbon emissions were somehow applied in a more general way across the economy, then that would have a huge beneficial effect on sustainable companies like Go Box, Ecorich, and Hallotex.
A carbon tax is one such approach, among others, to force the people who are part of the transaction to pay for the full costs of their behavior, rather than having the rest of the world deal with it. If the full cost of carbon was “priced into” our consumerist society, businesses with more sustainable practices would not only be morally and ethically superior, they’d be competitively superior.
In the meantime, they will have to rely on forward-thinking folks like you and me to support them, not because it is necessarily good for your wallet, but because it will help save the world (literally).
HOW MUCH OF THE “NEGATIVE EXTERNALITY” TAB WILL YOU PICK UP?
What do you think, would you be willing to pay $22 a month to avoid the waste you generate from take-out meals?
Would you pay a bit more to eat at eco-friendly and sustainable restaurants, like one who composts all their biodegradable waste in a Ecorich unit?
Let us know what you think below in the comments.
Additional photo credits: