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Excess Materials Exchange: Taking Inspiration From Nature To Give “Waste” New Life

Behind the scenes at businesses large and small, a paradigm shift is quietly taking place. The very concept of waste is being redefined, with materials of all kinds being given new life, in turn saving carbon emissions, preserving natural resources and boosting companies’ bottom lines. It’s all thanks to circular economy pioneers like Maayke Damen, cofounder of the Excess Materials Exchange (EME), who we chatted to for our latest podcast episode. 

“I’ve always been surprised by how we classify things as worthless because we can't use them anymore,” Maayke says. “If you start looking at what we're doing from a systems perspective, all of a sudden it becomes logical that things are still valuable for other players. We see this happening in nature: If a tree dies, its resources are not wasted. All sorts of bacteria and animals and the whole surrounding environment use those resources. How come we, in human society, aren't doing that? Building upon that over my life, I've been looking at how we can replicate that and implement it in our own economic systems.”

Active across four main sectors – construction, packaging, organics and textiles – EME is a digital platform that matches secondary materials and products with their highest value reuse destination. “For a restaurant, coffee leftovers are simply waste,” explains Maayke. “But you can also use them to extract pigments for ink, grow mushrooms, or make bioplastic, fibers or water filters. And this is a lot higher value than just paying to get rid of them.”

EME worked closely with the Dutch Railway Company to add value to its old tracks, which are made of high-quality steel. Rather than selling them for scrap metal (as was standard practice previously), the company now sells them as load-bearing beams to the domestic construction industry at a much higher price. And because the metal stays in the Netherlands and doesn’t require remelting, the environmental costs are significantly reduced. After this initial success, EME then set up an internal marketplace for the company to match supply and demand of materials throughout its nationwide operations.

At scale, such changes can make a huge impact. EME recently gathered ten large corporations, among them the Dutch Railway Company, Schiphol Airport, Philips and Sodexo, to try to find a higher value destination for their waste streams. The results were astounding. Analysing and adjusting just 17 waste streams led to an increase of €64 million in financial value for the companies. What’s more, it saved enough energy to light the streets of Paris for five years and enough water to fill 860 Olympic swimming pools.

The technology behind EME comprises four main tools. The first is a resources passport, a standardised data format, created by Maayke, that provides a detailed digital overview of materials or products throughout their lifecycle. Going back to the railway track example, the resources passport of a piece of track would tell you whether it’s straight or curved, and the duration and intensity of its use so far. Next, the track and trace part comes in, so stakeholders know where the material is located and how to access it. Then, EME’s valuation model calculates the material’s end-of-life value, taking into account both the financial aspect and the environmental impact. “We look at how much energy was used to produce the material and the effects on the environment, and use that information to look for the highest value match,” explains Maayke. Finally, these pieces all come together in the marketplace, where companies can source and sell materials.

The resources passport is also instrumental in prompting companies to reconsider how they actually make products, from the materials used to the way items are put together – screwing rather than glueing components, for example, makes them much easier to take apart and recycle. “When people actually get an insight into how these processes affect the end-of-life value or environmental impact, they have an incentive to actually start looking at the design – and we do see that happening,” says Maayke.

As with all the circular economy players we’ve spoken to this series, it’s clear that for EME, technology is only one piece of the puzzle. One of the key challenges of the work, and a major reward, is the positive change that it engenders. Reflecting on this, Maayke returns to nature for inspiration: “We started the company because I believe that we can do things differently and that it is possible, but making a flower bloom for the very first time is really hard. You have to pave the way for everything because it is a paradigm shift.”

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About the author

Barry O'Kane

Barry is the founder of HappyPorch. With 20 years in the web development industry as a programmer and agency owner, he has a preternatural ability to decipher the systems and processes code that holds many teams back from achieving their goals. Partners say Barry gets to the root of issues quickly and makes it downright easy to deliver good work.    

While he's unbelievably grounded, it's not uncommon to find him sailing through the trees as he paraglides his way round the world.