We may know that one man’s junk is another’s treasure; however, today’s social entrepreneurs are showing us that one industry’s waste can be another’s fuel.  You may arrive at the idea of commercializing waste from different angles, but whatever view you take on the topic, it seems to  make plenty of dollars and sense.This post highlights six startups that utilize and repurpose waste created by other industries to create their core product or service. The industries span biological waste, heat waste, food waste, and–yes, human waste.


Commercializing Waste: 6 Industries that Turn Waste Into Profit

1. Making plastic out of phosphorous and other chemicals from waste water.

Algix, LLC, a startup out of Georgia, started in 2010 when its founders became fascinated with the idea of using algae to scrub wastewater of chemicals such as phosphorous that were deposited into water streams from carpet mills and dairies in northwest region of the state. Their efforts yielded pounds upon pounds of algae. After experimenting with various techniques, they found that blending the aquatic biomass with base resin could yield a durable plastic that can be used in injection molding, compression molding, and thermoforming.

2. Converting wasted heat from a car engine’s exhaust into an adsorption-driven car AC unit.

For the past three years,  Warwick Energy Research Lab at Warwick University has been exploring ways to utilize adsorption of wasted heat to power refrigeration, heat pumps, and air conditioning. An adsorption heat pump essentially uses a chemical rather than mechanical processor and is driven by heat, rather than mechanical rotation.
3. Processing human waste into fertilizer and electricity as part of an urban slum sanitation system. 

While some may hear the statistic of 2.6 billion people around the world lacking adequate sanitation and feel jaded. The founders of Sanergy, saw it as a commercial and social entrepreneurial opportunity. In 2010, nearing the completion of their degrees from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, they developed a sanitation system for urban slums that establishes a pay-as-you-use system of sanitation centers for local use that collects and transports waste to processing plants that converts it into biogas through anaerobic processes. The resulting methane converts to sellable electricity and solid waste that be used as organic fertilizer.

4. Spinning farm waste into biofuel, cellulosic ethanol. 

Canada’s Iogen Bio-Products, recently acquired by Danish enzyme manufacturer Novozymes for $67.3M, has been producing and selling enzymes it generates from agricultural waste to companies dealing in pulp & paper, textile, grain-processing, and animal feed. Iogen is one example of a company that has found a niche in creating cellulosic ethanol, which is a renewable fuel made from farm waste and used to power cars.

5. Upcycling non-recyclable waste into retail inventory. 

For the past 9 years Terracycle has been diverting trash from landfills—to the tune of 2.5 billion pieces. Not only does it reuse and “upcycle” the waste, it has donated over $6M to local charities and schools. All while expanding its revenue growth. In 2012 the company extended its reach to Turkey, Hungary, and Puerto Rico—for a portfolio of over 20 countries. TerraCycle was tarted by a Princeton freshman in 2001 to collect non-recyclable waste such as drink pouches, chip bags, and toothbrushes and use them to create a broad range of consumer products. TerraCycle products are now carried by major retailers including WalMart and Target.

6. Growing gourmet mushrooms from coffee grounds. 

Innov8Social has covered the work of Back to the Roots on a few occasions. Their story bears mention here as well. Started by two Berkeley seniors in 2009, Back to the Roots mushroom kits utilize used coffee grinds to grow 1.5 pounds of gourmet oyster mushrooms in a grow-at-home mushroom kit. The kits have gained an ardent following, and are now carried in over 300 Whole Foods locations as well as at a number of other retail outlets. BTTR is especially proud of the 3.6 billion pounds of coffee grounds it has diverted from landfills and the over 130,000 pounds of fresh produce it has enabled individuals to grow at home. The duo has met President Obama and were named in the Forbes List of Top 30 Under 30 for Food and Wine.