Oscar Zhong and Sam Mcgerty, co-founders of Compost Made Smart. Photo: Supplied
Oscar Zhong and Sam Mcgerty, co-founders of Compost Made Smart. Photo: Supplied

Business is BoringApril 16, 2020

The New Zealanders turning waste-busting ideas into eco businesses

Oscar Zhong and Sam Mcgerty, co-founders of Compost Made Smart. Photo: Supplied
Oscar Zhong and Sam Mcgerty, co-founders of Compost Made Smart. Photo: Supplied

Among the endless pile of plastic and food scraps being produced every second, some small businesses are creating a shift in how we treat our waste. Callaghan Innovation’s C-Prize this year has a focus on these initiatives, aiming to reduce the waste we’re sending to landfill. 

Around a quarter of the waste New Zealanders send to landfill each year is recyclable, and a third is compostable. We know that food scraps take far longer to break down in landfills than in compost facilities and when they’re buried with plastics and other waste they also produce methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. We also know that recycling is important to greatly limit the amount of waste in landfills and perpetuate an economy that’s circular, rather than linear. But what’s holding New Zealanders back from practising composting and recycling?

Many Kiwi companies have made tackling this waste problem a priority, and there’s a growing number of startups with big ideas entering the market. Callaghan’s 2020 C-Prize has a focus on these businesses, and has been working with a handful of innovators to develop ideas that will help New Zealanders get their waste under control. 

The current outbreak of Covid-19 has provided the perfect opportunity to consider some of the processes we use every day, and how these could be better, more sustainable and economically efficient. 

Environmental Innovation is the focus for this year’s C-Prize challenge – Callaghan Innovation is asking innovators to develop tech solutions with the power to change environmental outcomes. Business advice, mentoring and R&D expertise will support finalists to turn their concepts into reality. Follow the C-Prize journey.

In New Zealand, some waste collections have ceased over the lockdown period, leaving some of us without adequate recycling or composting facilities. So what can be done to ensure the failure of these traditional systems doesn’t mean chaos? Innovative solutions like those in development as part of Callaghan Innovation’s C-Prize.

Kirsten Edgar is a Callaghan Innovation expert on the circular economy, recycling and waste. She thinks it’s more important than ever to be supporting young entrepreneurs to change our waste landscape, and that there’s always room for people to find more effective ways to manage waste.

“We have large multinationals looking at this, so doing environmental good is not just the domain of small startups… but waste is all around us and we’re creating more waste every single day… the more ideas [for waste minimisation] we get through the pipeline, the better.”

Kirsten Edgar from Callaghan Innovation. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand could be a world leader in waste management innovation, and initiatives like C-Prize can help Kiwi pioneers make their ideas a reality. 

Innovators like Sam McGerty, whose ‘Compost Made Smart’ aims to make home composting a simpler task. It’s a sensing device that connects to an app to tell the user what their compost system needs, and when.

Inspired by a compost system at his house that wasn’t working properly, McGerty and business partner Oscar Zhong looked into an alternative to current compost facilities. They’re now at the phase of rigorous market research and figuring out where they fit into the waste minimisation space.

“What we’re looking for is a consumer who is into self-sustainable living, and I think that’s becoming more and more popular… We’re trying to raise awareness by saying you can manage your own waste in your own household, it is possible by doing things like composting and recycling.”

Following the recent announcement that Waste Management would be rolling out its kerbside compost collection to Auckland, McGerty says he and Zhong are looking at Compost Made Smart’s place in the new composting landscape.

“One of our biggest hurdles has been figuring out how many people are going to start using that kerbside collection, and whether there’s a market for us to step into and how big that market is.”

The most important thing for people with a good business idea to do – before they make any other move – is to conduct comprehensive market research, he says.

“Don’t design a product for somebody, go and ask them what they want and then design it based on their needs. Do your market research, make sure that your idea is viable and it’s needed. When you go and find out the customer’s needs, make sure you’re actually listening to them, don’t assume what you have designed is what they need.”

Bales of mixed plastic in Wellington awaiting export (Photo: Nina Fowler/ Radio NZ)

While Compost Made Smart has its sights set on individual households, another C-Prize finalist tackling landfill waste minimisation is looking to impact how larger businesses and public events manage their waste.

OneBin is a Hamilton-based group whose technology aims to take the guesswork out of sorting waste. With its technology, a consumer can put their trash into one bin which will sort the waste from the recyclables automatically. Founder Carl Lickfold says he understands recycling can be hard to understand. Different regions have different rules, and specifics, like taking lids off bottles and peeling labels off containers, can be time consuming and confusing.

“Individual stream bins – where you have [separate bins for] paper, plastic, metal and glass – get heavily contaminated. It only takes one lazy person, or someone who doesn’t care, to throw their waste into the plastic and contaminate the whole lot.”

Lickfold says spaces like festival grounds and events would be ideal places for a system like OneBin. The system would clear up some of the confusion that leads to punters using the wrong bin for their recyclable cups or cardboard plates. 

“We really want to target events. Often attendees are complacent about where they’re throwing things – they just want to get rid of whatever’s in their hands.”

At the end of last year the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor released a research report which showed the degree to which New Zealand’s plastic waste production is impacting our environment. One of the points made was that New Zealand needs a “national recycling framework that’s simple to use for individuals, communities and businesses.”

Waste Management general manager David Howie says there are many challenges facing the waste industry at the moment, including a lack of local demand for recycled materials. 

“One of the real challenges that we face in our recycling industry is building a local demand for recycled materials. Without a demand for those products that are able to be produced from materials collected for recycling, there is nothing to say that a manufacturer will produce it.

“Building that demand base – and having an awareness that [consumers are] purchasing something that is manufactured in New Zealand from recycled materials -helps to create that demand, and effectively a circular economy approach within New Zealand.”

He does think New Zealanders are beginning to take their waste more seriously, and thinks with that comes a need for better facilities in order to deal with the waste in ways that are friendly to the environment.

“Increasingly we’re engaging with customers who actively want to know where their material is going and how it’s being dealt with. There are a range of solutions for waste materials, and it’s about finding the right balance or the right solution for our current moment.”

This content was created in paid partnership with Callaghan Innovation. Learn more about our partnerships here

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