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An interview with award winning entrepreneur Eelco Osse on zero waste innovation.
In 2013, IRC coordinated an innovative research programme as part of the BRAC WASH II programme in Bangladesh. One of the research studies investigated the potential of converting a combination of human faecal waste and agricultural waste (chicken manure and corn stovers) into energy and fertiliser for the city of Bogura (pop. 780,000). Besides its environmental health benefits (safe removal and treatment of pit latrine wastes), this process is able to produce commercially viable end-products.
Since then we have been trying to interest private sector parties to translate the research concept into a business proposal for Bogura. Entrepreneur Eelco Osse, whose company Boessenkool recently won a prestigious Dutch innovation award, has come up with an even more ambitious solution for Bogura, based on a torrefaction process patented by Ecogensus LLC in the USA, that takes care of municipal solid waste as well.
Zero waste solution
Eelco proposes to include two innovative technologies: the Ecogensus Processing System© and the Despray aerosol recycling system©. After separating glass and metals from the solid waste, the Ecogensus system can safely convert the remaining waste streams (including organic materials, trash and plastic) into biofuel. By adding the Despray unit, aerosol cans be treated separately to produce valuable recycling products. The Ecogensus system is powered by the energy generated from the anaerobic digestion of the above mentioned faecal and agricultural waste.
We asked Eelco why he thinks the technologies he proposes are relevant for developing countries. Water is often polluted by municipal solid waste in developing countries, Eelco says. By collecting and converting solid waste into fuel it solves two – environmental and energy - problems at once.
Aerosols are hazardous (explosive) and polluting wastes, which need to be treated separately from the other solid waste streams. In many countries they try to shred or puncture aerosol cans. “This causes a lot of accidents: fires, explosions, people get killed”, according to Eelco. The Despray aerosol recycling system can safely deliver three valuable products: recycled aluminium/steel, liquid fuel mainly for cement factories and energy-rich LPG gasses such as propane and butane.
The Ecogensus Processing System has been in use in the USA for more than 5 years but in a different configuration than proposed for Bogura. A smaller 20 ton per day (tpd) modular unit is now being field tested in Connecticut, USA. Eelco says his company is developing a project in Uganda, similar to the one proposed for Bogura, He adds that there are already several live projects using the Despray aerosol systems.
The Ecogensus system is scalable so it can also be used for smaller communities. In contrast, the Despray aerosol system is only suitable for larger cities because aerosol cans are just a small fraction of solid waste streams.
Internal knowledge sharing
One of the reasons mentioned by the jury for awarding Boessenkool a national innovation prize relates to their initiatives to promote internal knowledge sharing. Eelco explained that his company focuses both on technical and social innovation. “Even though we only have a small overhead team we still manage to do a lot of innovative stuff”. At all levels, including at the shop floor, staff are encouraged to innovate. “try new things, improve their processes”, not only for customer projects but also internally. “We have developed 5 innovative projects within 4-5 years and we do that with a team of only 50 people”.
From providing products to providing services
Besides praise for internal knowledge sharing, the innovation prize jury highlighted Boessenkool's shift from just selling machines to providing services. "That's a bit ironic", Eelco admits, "because as a machine factory we are used to providing services to customers" such as building products according to customer design specifications, as well as selling off-the-shelf products. The real mindshift came with the production of flywheels for more efficient use of electricity. This is a product, which has different safety, health and environmental requirements, and not every company has specialised health and safety staff employed. Thus more innovative business models than just selling "off-the-shelf" products are required, such as production lease, and/or providing service contracts.
Eelco says he would like to expand the service model as it encourages you to build products that last longer and require little maintenance. "You also want to be part of the circular economy, so you try to develop a product that can be recycled", he added. To remain financially viable, however, a company as small as Boessenkool needs a hybrid business model that includes product sales. To fully implement a service delivery model you need to keep all your equipment on the balance sheet; that requires a big investment.
Sustainable services are based on strong systems
IRC views water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services as part of a complex adaptive system. To deal with complexity you need to adopt a systems approach, which IRC believes will lead to solutions that are more meaningful and more sustainable. The zero waste solution described above will only work if all the stakeholders and technologies are aligned to a set of agreed outcomes. The advantage of the proposed solution is that it already covers the whole sanitation chain, moving beyond household level to involve all steps from waste collection to safe treatment and reuse.
For more information on the waste to energy technologies and systems approaches, see the links and resources below.
This blog is based on an interview with Eelco Osse (Boessenkool) on 20 July 2018. Comments and contributions were provided by former IRC Board member Ton de Wilde and my colleagues Ingeborg Krukkert and Seleen Suidman.
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