THERE is nothing I want more than for good minds to go to waste.
I joke not. Brilliant young brains in all aspects of education – especially budding entrepreneurs who could and should be applying themselves to turning waste into lolly…
Too often students and their academic elders are unaware of the raw material with which they have to deal and I’m not really talking fish heads and other pongy plate-scrapings.
I’m talking about waste that, for instance, arises in petrol costs when going to work; parking spaces going spare; unnecessary duplication; or unnecessary purchase of new stock to replace still-viable old stock; or simply seeing fabulous business prospects in the seemingly mundane.
Opportunities for students to think their way through these problems should be brought to light. Who better to do this than the people heading up “Sustainability Units” within universities?
My challenge to institutions
I want to see waste specialists running monthly seminars and lectures to save us from brainpower going to waste – to challenge student minds to find ways of saving and/or generating money from within their institutions’ ecosystems.
Can you imagine how creatively chemists, engineers, biologists, computer scientists and yes, entrepreneurs would respond?
It is a concept grasped enthusiastically by Michael Howroyd, Leeds University’s energetic Sustainability Projects Co-ordinator.
Right now the magnificently-bearded Michael is bracing himself to find solutions to an annual “fest” of wasteful student throw-outs.
From this month onwards, hundreds of post-exam students, under pressure from their landlords to clear their properties to make way for the next wave of incoming students, will be piling perfectly usable furniture, kitchen utensils, etc into skips for towing away.
But how do you get all this stuff to the people who really need it rather than see it vanish in waste-fill?
Michael’s responsibilities include the management of the Reuse@Leeds project, a furniture recycling scheme, where 270 staff have now signed up. Between July 2009 and January 2011 the online network saved the uni more than £270,000 worth of furniture.
But this scheme is for staff, and he recognises that something needs to be done to help students tackle the annual throw-out glut and benefit everyone in the community.
Perhaps, he suggests, they could create a framework for local businesses to offer storage of items which will later be taken to a central point for distribution.
Meanwhile he plans to consult with Amanda Jackson, the university’s community projects co-ordinator and get suggestions from staff and students about how to tackle the problem.
“For me sharing and collaboration is stuff we were doing 50 or 60 years ago. We need more of it,” he says.
Already sophisticated car sharing schemes have sprung up for universities and their wider communities, designed to save small fortunes while at the same time contributing to “green thinking” in society. Have a look at this example from my local university in York.
These initiatives take advantage of the gasp-worthy statistic that there are daily 38 million empty car seats on our roads. What a waste (read on for Uber)! What an opportunity!
Entrepreneurs who thrive on waste
Great examples exist of brainpower going to waste and the resultant flourishing of lucrative initiatives. Often these have come from the lateral thinking of fresh, inquiring minds at higher education institutions.
One of the best of these came from two pals – both studying at the University of York.
Like many, Julian Gladwin and Steve Hall shared a passion for video games but being impecunious students found it hard to buy, or even find, fresh entertainment.
The principle was simple: Offer customers the chance to swap their old games for store vouchers or cash – and suddenly acquiring new games became affordable.
By 2002 after nine years’ rapid expansion, with 64 GameStations throughout Britain and employing 350 people, the two philosophy graduates sold the venture to retail giant Blockbuster for a cool £30 million.
In other words rather than letting old computer games go to waste, they found new homes for them and coined it in as a result.
Then there is Christopher Wilson my Irish friend they call ‘The Spaceman’ – who launched Bransby Wilson on a brain wave. He noticed that there were a lot of empty car parking spaces at hotels and other commercial properties, particularly out of season.
He reasoned: Why not establish exactly where they were then help hoteliers to let them out to firms nearby crying out for space? Naturally he would take a cut. Hotels were happy. His space-seeking clients were happy. He was happy. And I, watching his success over the decades, applauded.
Today, 25 years later, Bransby Wilson, has evolved beyond just finding spaces for cars.
It also provides areas such as out-of-season cricket and rugby pitches for activities like car boot sales, go-kart racing, caravan rallies and volleyball competitions. All on a national scale.
Chris says: “One person’s waste is another person’s space potential. If you can define the space then you would be surprised how people will use it.”
Reinventing the wheel
Of course, Internet growth has made connectivity of supply and demand much easier as “Uberification” bears witness.
Uber Technologies, the multinational online transportation network company develops, markets and operates the Uber mobile app.
It allows smartphone users to submit a trip request which is routed to Uber drivers using their own cars. As of last month the service was available in more than 60 countries and 404 cities worldwide, London included, with other companies now copying the business model.
It may controversially undercut properly licensed cab drivers, but in late 2015 the company was reckoned to be worth $62.5 billion… Sheer thought power re-inventing wheels.
Last word to my good friend, Christopher, The Spaceman. He applauds my suggested campaign and says: “Once the facts are assembled a positive mind-set is created, and the great ideas will follow. Simply light the fuse and stand back…”
Key Learning Points: Waste presents wonderful opportunities. Bright minds can provide answers but they must first know the questions and challenges. We must look to marry up entrepreneurial thinkers with people whose job it is to manage waste and sustainability – resultant projects will be of benefit to everyone, financially, socially and practically. University ecosystems are wonderfully fertile places for people with waste knowledge and challenges to interact with solution-solving souls.