By Edwin Kuo
I recently read a blog post on the Fast Company website about a company called Knowaste. They are a Canadian company, which recycles “absorbent hygiene products” (AHPs) or in other words, baby diapers, feminine hygiene and incontinence pads. The Knowaste recycling process can pull out 98% of the plastic and fiber from these products which can be used to create materials to roof tiles, plastic components, tubing, and recycled paper. After unsuccessful attempts to start up operations in Canada, California, and Holland, Knowaste is currently opening several facilities in the United Kingdom. With a seven month old poop machine sitting next to me, I was feeling pretty good about what I was reading until I read this: “Bountiful and cheap landfill space in the U.S., and high rates of incineration in Holland, pulled against recycling things like diapers.” Ouch. That hurt.
Apparently, land is so scarce in the UK that Knowaste has potential growth opportunities there. Since the United States has an abundance of land, it’s not economically viable to recycle diapers. It’s simpler and cheaper to drop them in the landfill. I wonder how people of Staten Island who live near the recently closed Fresh Kill landfill feel about that statement. The issue here is the economic viability and the commoditization of eco-friendly and sustainable values. Our current economic paradigm directs us towards the one-way path of the profit column. While on that path we’re given blinders that will block out any potential distractions towards making money. As long as we still have land to dump on, clean water coming out of our faucets and air that doesn’t choke us, we’re good. Right? Not really. We have a finite amount of natural resources on this planet and once they are gone we can all hope that Mars is ready for us.
The issue is simple, but the path to achieve it is not. We have built an economic system that measures success solely on increasing profitability. So if we commoditize green and sustainable processes and initiatives then everything will fall into place, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. If the path to change begins with education then we must look at the education of our business leaders. In a blog post on September 12, 2011, on the Harvard Business Review website, Michael Beer, a Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at Harvard Business School wrote “What’s needed is a coherent, integrated approach for developing future leaders. If we continue to teach and study in silos, with ethics over here and finance over there, then our students and alumni — understandably — will perpetuate this siloed view of the world within the companies they go on to lead. Some schools, including Harvard Business School, are requiring more courses in ethics, teamwork, and leadership values, but that’s not enough. We need to connect leadership to personal integrity and to everything else that we teach…They start with the development of the company’s purpose and strategy, and then proceed to design performance management, business and human resource policies, and leadership development practices that are tied to essential human values that then comprise an integrated whole.”
The “integrated whole” is what we need to strive towards. How do we integrate the principles and foundations of business with the values of humanity? How do we integrate ourselves responsibly into the ecosystem of our planet? How can I integrate dirty diapers into an effective recycling system? Integration is key. Long-term sustainable success will come when we connect together the people, planet, and profit dots together. This is what will complete the picture.