Wealth from Waste

I’ve just finished reading Katharine Hibbert’s book Free: Adventures on the margins of a wasteful society and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a great piece of journalism, along the lines of Nickel and Dimed, where Katharine lives the life herself to get a level of depth and detail that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

The premise behind the book is to try and find out whether it’s possible to live for free in London. As the credit crunch started to take hold Katharine found herself without a job or the means to pay for expensive rent so she tried to squat and scavenge everything she needed to live in the capital. It was hard to start with but as time went by she learned the ropes and started to realise quite how many empty properties there are and how much food from cafes and supermarkets goes to waste. She also finds a completely informal support network that keeps the whole hidden world slightly safer.

I actually met Katharine a few weeks ago to talk through an idea she has for a startup (I’m sure you’ll hear more about that soon). But what struck me is how many opportunities there are for businesses in this area. In many ways Lisa Gansky’s The Mesh is about the same issues that Katharine is writing about. That book is all about how people are finding areas of activity where there are massive inefficiencies and creating ways of co-ordinating and organising people and resources to create value. Of course, I’m not the first person to have this idea. The title of this blog post comes from a Demos report written by Robin Murray in 1999 which is still (sadly) incredibly prescient today. Perhaps Robin was just ahead of his time — and actually it needed an economic downturn to get people really thinking but I think we’ll see loads of new businesses that turn all kinds of waste into value over the coming years. Some will get more use out of physical goods, others will make property more efficient, others will reorganise whole systems so they operate more sustainably but I can’t help but think that it’s a great area to explore if growth and consumer confidence carry on their current paths.

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