Upgrading operations to an environmentally and socially responsible manner has become a business imperative. With 11.2 billion people on planet earth by 2100, the whole planet (including public administrations, customers, employees, investors and local communities) are demanding higher ecological efforts. “Sustainable manufacturing”– is no longer a nice-to-have, but has become a 21st century priority. In addition, new standards, regulation and compliance are forcing corporations to innovate, and look into cutting edge technology.
Whether we look into primary processes to turn materials and resources into products or the secondary processes (e.g. facility operation, transport of inputs and products, business travel and other overheads), corporate pioneers are showing that environmental improvements can go hand in hand with profit-making and improved competitiveness. However, many small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs that account for 99% of all enterprises and two thirds of employment across the OECD), are struggling. A majority of SMEs simply don't know where to start or lack the means or knowledge to improve environmentally. Fortunately startups provide larger and smaller players ‘low hanging fruit’ solutions.
An area where tech startups are demonstrating quick wins is quality control. The use of AI driven vision technology and deep learning software is helping manufacturers to improve quality inspection and waste reduction far beyond human capabilities. Each year more sophisticated sensors provide new insights in waste flows, intelligent energy and material storage, asset control and machine deterioration, among others. Blended with new connectivity and computing power, new tools allow to transmit production data in real-time to smartphones, laptops via the cloud and allow remote management of processes. Other manufacturing operations are changing in more subtle ways and offer plenty of startup opportunities. Marketplaces for CO2 emissions, circular construction materials and energy transactions, on demand 3D printing, transport charging stations, are some fields that are in full development with plenty of digital solutions rising.
Next to the production process, waste has never got this much attention, as it should with e.g. 9 million tons of plastic waste entering the oceans every year. Sustainable packaging alternatives are therefore rapidly evolving with plenty of startups looking into biodegradable materials, consumables or closed-loop recycling solutions for plastic. Other cleantech startups are looking into industrial water as its use is still accountable for up to 57% of the total freshwater consumption, making the upcycling of industrial and domestic grey waters as one of the most important challenges of our timeStill the economic play makes it difficult for even the most impactful greentech (renewable energy, closed loops, biodegradable materials) to deliver a decent return on investment. Economic constraints and regulatory rollercoasters unfortunately present uncertainties for structural growth or market adoption. The main challenge will be to stabilize the economics around the volatility of renewable energy, align global policy on carbon taxes and certificates, and create tax shelters and VAT shifts to boost greentech investments. As climate change is our biggest existential threat, hope and new technology won’t suffice. Long term policy, accelerated adoption, SME incentives and stability of pricing will be imperative if we want to evolve radically.