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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

Cash from Trash; Summary of a Columbia University sponsored Panel discussion

Colin Beaven was the moderator of the event; considered by MSNBC as one of the 10 most influential men. He’s most widely known for the ‘no impact’ living method introduced by him and his family, which now has spread to a ‘no impact week’ where anyone can join in anytime they want. More information at

Thoughts from Colin:

There is such a thing as benefit based environmentalism. Not every environmentally friendly act one does has to be seen as a sacrifice. Most of the time the end result is people are happier and companies save money. Currently, 97% of the raw materials used in making a product are converted to waste; in terms of water, deforestation and mountaintop coal used.  Also, there is a lot of waste related health issues as most industries target poor communities and areas for establishing business. It sometimes turns out to be health traded for jobs.

Thoughts from guest speaker- Resa Dimino:

More than 20 years of experience in the private, public and non-profit world in environmental stewardship. She spoke from a govt perspective for NY state.  Currently, the amount of waste (not recycled) generated by a NYorker is 4.1 pounds pp pday. The ‘beyond waste plan’ is a 20 year NY state funded program that hopes to change this figure to ‘0.6’.

They hope to achieve that by following three major tenets:

  1. Reuse, recycle, reduce

  2. Increase organic recovery (through means such as composting); could account for 30% reduction

  3. Product, package stewardship.

Thoughts from guest speaker- Justin Green:

Build It Green! NYC started a few years ago and already has more than one store and provides employment to more than 20 people. Their business model is  (as described by Justin) a mix between a Home Depot and a Goodwill where buyers can find products recovered from being waste at 50-80% discounts from what a Home Depot would sell it at.  Although commendable, NYC still produces 16,000 tons of such waste a day and org. such as these are able to divert 900 tons/ year of that waste.

The biggest concern he brought up is around ‘non residential’ waste. These are currently handled by private companies and the city doesn’t factor it into their policy work. There’s a lot that can be done in improving this area and theirs is only one model and approach.

Thoughts from guest speaker: Ian Yolles:

Recyclebank taps into the social motivation behind recycling by linking doing good (in this case recycling) to getting rewarded (discounts/coupons) and helping the community (discounts are for local businesses).


Initially I had personally not thought much about recyclebank’s business model because the rewards they were offering was ‘more stuff’; that would eventually turn into waste. So where was the net reduction? What I liked about recyclebank this time around was that they were looking into other areas of social motivation, such as:

  1. Energy use

  2. Water use

  3. Smart transportation.

In the end, whatever works in the short term (in this case material rewards) is better in bringing about a cultural shift towards more recycling.

Thoughts from guest speaker: Albe Zakes:

Terracycle had its foundations in composting but now they handle all kinds of waste and even make bags from car seat belts and kites from chip bags. One point he made that resonated well was in nature there is no waste; waste is pure manmade phenomena.. Everything is recycled. There’s no concept of ‘waste stream’, no matter how natural it sounds.

They involve various communities and to some extent the initial creators of the waste; the manufacturers.

It’s become a huge success both financially and in terms of spread with business in over 20 countries, 90000 collecting units (mostly schools, churches etc) and over the last 4 years has saved 2 billion units of waste from going to landfills.

They are currently doing some interesting work with hospitals which tend to have a huge waste bill due to ‘single use’ policy.


Two years ago when I had seen a movie on teracycle and been into the teracycle flagship store, I was a bit disappointed because it didn’t look like they were making a big dent in reusing wasted packaging.  This was my conclusion based on the types of products made from the type of materials used. Yet, it’s such a success and has been able to reduce substantially the need to use virgin materials. Imagine how much more we could achieve if we came up with solutions for bigger items like cars, refrigerators, electronics etc. There’s so much potential to be tapped.

Group discussion:

  1. Public education and cultural change is a must to tackle any waste issues in the long term. Most people have no idea how much waste goes into producing goods or how much waste is leftover after using a product. They also feel once down the trash, waste magically disappears and doesn’t meet them again. It’s important to explain product life cycle and cradle to cradle understandings.

  2. A lot can be done to reduce existing waste instead of looking at short term solutions with future negative impacts. For example, only 15% of all waste is currently recycled in NYC. This can definitely be increased. A lot of organic waste can be composted instead of using fertilizers, pesticides etc.  Anerobic decomposition has potential so as other solutions. Creating incendiaries that burn waste to produce energy will not only release all sorts of harmful gases into the atmosphere but also will require constant waste to be created to keep them running.

  3. Proper product stewardship and extended producer responsibility will go a long way in assuaging this issue. Example being Xerox. Once they change to the ‘sell’ vs. ‘lease’ model of doing business, they have been constantly designing better products to get the most use out of their equipment and producing as less waste as possible.

  4. Govt. role vs. Manufacturer role.Belgiumhas been able to create a successful model with handing over responsibility to the same team for both designing and disposing of the waste. And as a nation it’s continuing to experience growth even with companies taking responsibility for their waste. In US, tax payers pay the cost of transporting trash from place of use (NYC) to place of landfill (Ohio, PA, etc).

  5. Cultural shift:  Prior to WWII, conservation was in vogue and very well practiced. Waste is mostly a product of poor planning, bad design and hard marketing.

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