In 2050, 75% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. Today, many of these same cities are struggling to deal with the waste created by around 55% of them, and that’s before factoring in global population growth between now and then.
According to a 2012 report by the World Bank’s urban development department, by 2025 the amount of municipal solid waste will rise from 1.3 billion tons per year – which was the figure in 2012 – to 2.2 billion tons per year. Much of the increase is expected to be generated by rapidly growing cities in developing countries.
Aside from the obvious environmental and health impacts of poor to no waste management, this increased amount of waste also has a huge effect on city budgets. In some developing countries, solid waste management can consume 20-50% of a city’s budget. And that’s in cities that can afford to pay for it at all and have the capability to recycle and reuse what they do collect.
In a growing number of cases, with city budgets stretched to capacity, the baton is being passed to social entrepreneurs to find solutions to waste management; creating a raft of micro-businesses and social enterprises to tackle the issue.
One such business is UK based luxury fashion and home accessories brand Elvis and Kresse, which launched in 2005 with a very particular waste material in mind…
Before the businesses was born, Kresse Wesling MBE, and her partner James Henrit, co-founders of Elvis and Kresse, were already on a long-term mission to launch an environmentally conscious business which tackled the waste problem.
UK-born Henrit, and Canadian native Wesling had been living in Hong Kong for several years before uprooting to the UK to launch their business venture. “After we moved to the UK I started hunting around for a new problem to solve,” says Wesling. “I think that has always been my rationale for business; I don’t really understand businesses that just say: ‘well I want to make money, so I’m just going to make a ton of it.’ I’m more interested in saying: ‘well, we have an enormous amount of societal and environmental problems – let’s have a go at fixing one of them, and try to understand that particular problem better than anyone else.”
It was this logic which led Wesling and Henrit to the London Fire Service, and the fire hose, which became the staple material for Elvis and Kresse’s products. It was love at first sight.
“It was just shock to discover that this beautiful and wonderful life-saving material, which was narrative-rich, couldn’t be recycled by traditional means. It had too much left to give.”
Wesling brought the fire hose back home to Henrit, and the pair set out to research the material that it was made from. On finding out that it’s a double-walled rubber with a nylon tube core, they headed to the place where it was originally manufactured to find out its properties; how much that they could get hold of; where it was; what state it was in; and what process could they apply to it, to transform it into something new.
The first thing that Wesling and Henrit crafted from the unwanted fire hose was a was a trouser belt. And from that day, Elvis and Kresse has expanded its range to include: bags, wallets, travel ware and homeware; all from a material that would otherwise have been classified as waste.
Today the company employs 11 people across two sites in Kent and Istanbul, and is currently in the process of recruiting four more to respond to the increasing demand for its repurposed products. The company makes and sells close to 7,000 products per year through its website and has stockists in 10 countries worldwide. But most importantly, these products are made from the 10 tons plus of material per year that Elvis and Kresse saves from landfill. To date the company has saved over 200 tons of material, and brought it back onto the production line.
But as the quantity of products made and sold by Elvis and Kresse has grown, the company has never been interested in making cheaper products to increase revenues.
“We weren’t interested in making cheap crap. I’m not going to make something from a beautiful and wonderful material; put my heart and soul into it; and then sell it for less that we can sustainably make it for. We get a lot of comments about our prices, and I’m always happy to answer those comments – and we say: ‘ok, we have a team of highly-skilled craftsmen and women; we pay them a very good wage because that’s the kind of wage that highly skilled craftsmen and women command; and also, there’s not a single person in our organisation that earns less than the living wage, plus more.’
“We think it would be deeply unethical to make something at the expense of, or with the potential to exploit something further down the supply chain.”
To date, Elvis and Kresse has donated 50% of the profits made from its fire hose range, to the London Fire Service where it sourced its first fire hose.
“When I met the firemen on the day that I first encountered the fire hose, I said to the guys jokingly: ‘If I ever manage to make this into anything – I’ll give you half.’ it was definitely said in jest, but, as time passed, it became less of a joke and just made more and more sense.
“We rely on our stakeholders to supply us with this beautiful material and they are very much a part of the story, and should remain a part of the story.”
In 2008, the company began reclaiming other materials aside from the fire hose, and today it makes products from 10 raw materials that were otherwise destined for landfill, such as parachute silk and leather. Many of the raw materials are the result of research into items that can be intercepted on its way to landfill and repurposed; and others come through consulting projects which Wesling and Henrit conduct with companies wanting a solution for the redundant materials within its supply chain.
“We’ve found this really interesting,” says Wesling. “There’s currently a massive trend towards purpose driven organisations. Elvis and Kresse is a certified B Corporation and we’re encountering many businesses which haven’t started that way, and they have a legacy of being ‘purpose free’. Its purpose might have historically been to employ people and make money, and now it’s looking for something deeper and it’s not always easy to know how to do that. So, we carry out consulting work around impact development and about transitioning to a circular economy.”
And is this change driven by consumers or the companies themselves? Both, thinks Wesley, and for one big reason.
“I think what you have to remember is that the people who work for these companies are also consumers, so it definitely comes from people but it also comes from science. We are increasingly aware of the limits of natural capital and we’ve spent all of the future generation’s assets. They are gone. We need to get to grips with that. Influencers like Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio have presented us with the hard science on many occasions. Which leads to growing movements of people who eat less meat; people who are vegetarian or vegan; and people who take the decision to fly less, drive less and cycle less; people who buy less but buy better – these things are associated with a single overarching trend that is kind of a super trend. And it has to be a super trend because it’s not just about being popular in six years – this is going to be our life forever. We’ve got one shot to make this work, or its game over.”
There are many countries in which the effect of this environmental impact is being felt more keenly than in cities across the west, and where a greater degree of urgency is felt by those tasked with dealing with waste.
Just shy of 3,000 miles from Elvis and Kresse’s Kent factory you’ll find the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Recycle Beirut was formed in 2014 by Kassem Kazak, to help provide an environmentally friendly alternative to the city’s existing waste disposal system, whilst creating jobs for the recent influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Very quickly, Recycle Beirut felt the weight of a failing countrywide waste management system in its work.
2015 saw a Lebanese ‘garbage crisis’, after the waste management in the country suddenly stopped, making the environmental and social problems of the country’s waste suddenly very real for the people.
“Suddenly, the whole place became full of garbage. There were mountains of it everywhere, and the situation became very bad.” Said Kazak.
Until 2015, waste disposal had mainly been managed by the private company, Sukleen, which collected unseparated and untreated waste, and after minor processing, dumped it in a landfill site just outside of Naameh, a city south of Beirut.
Following an outbreak of protests from residents, the site was closed; it had already been open for 20 years longer than it was supposed to have been. With no provision, rubbish began filling the streets of Lebanon, which in turn resulted in large-scale demonstrations in late 2015. To date, no suitable replacement facility has been suggested.
Today, Recycle Beirut’s team is made up of 17 Syrian refugees and the business is set up as a social and environmental enterprise. It recycles approximately two tons of rubbish per day, from across the greater Beirut area.
“We have our own warehouse, trucks and machinery and we do all the recycling process on our own. We don’t have any co-ordination or collaboration with the government or municipalities,” says Kazak.
“We provide a pickup service for our clients; collecting non-organic material from homes, businesses and other organisations such as foreign embassies, schools and universities. They pay $10 per month for the service.”
And Recycle Beirut’s client-base is growing. “After the garbage crisis, people became more aware of recycling, because it’s the only way to solve the waste problem in Lebanon. They understand that it’s their responsibility to do it and many Lebanese people are starting to pick up the recycling habit.”
Funding the growth of the business, despite the growing crisis in Lebanon and the size of the potential workforce to meet it, has also proved to be challenging. “We are looking to expand to cover all of Lebanon, but our main problem at the moment is that we don’t have enough funding to do that. We are providing a social and environmental service but the government aren’t paying any attention to what we are doing. We have also tried to attract funding from international organisations, but we haven’t had a serious reply yet.”
But the company has found one potential source of income that should help.
“We are currently working with two workshops; one is a carpentry workshop which we hired to make furniture and tables from recycled wood; and the second is a tile factory where we are crushing the glass and adding it to concrete to make tiles.
“We don’t currently have a marketing department to help us sell these products yet but we are manufacturing them, and it helps us to at least get rid of the glass and wood we have. But we are looking for a marketing professional that eventually can help us sell them.”
Over to you Elvis and Kresse…