Innovating Our Way to a Greener World

A conversation with Alfred Hambsch, CEO of Barrie Metals / GEEP (Global Electric Electronics Processing)
By Alice Bumgarner
Last year, Americans threw over 2.2 million tons of electronic waste into landfills. Alfred Hambsch believes we need to find a more responsible way to dispose of all that e-waste.

Hambsch is CEO of Barrie Metals, one of Canada's largest recycling companies, and he's arguably the best man for a task that requires sustained innovation. The company has been described as a "factory in reverse,” dismantling components instead of assembling them, then finding new uses for the remaining plastic, aluminum, copper and precious metals.

Alice Bumgarner (AB): How is the global economic climate affecting your industry, with its focus on the environment and sustainability?

Alfred HambschAlfred Hambsch: Even before the recent global economic collapse, when China slowed down its import of America's scrap metal, one of largest U.S.-based waste haulers, Waste Management, said it would no longer put electronics waste into landfill or export it. If we don't put this material into landfill and we don't export it, what will we do with it? I believe e-waste recycling will be the fastest growing industry in North America, mainly because it has to be.

AB: How is the role of innovation reflected at Barrie Metals Group?

Alfred Hambsch: What we're really doing is diverting the waste stream that used to go to landfill or be exported. That's innovation.

The process is that we take e-waste, like unrepairable TVs, monitors, fax machines, computers, cellphones and laptops, and we extract commodities from them. First we use equipment and hand-sorting to separate plastics from metals. Then we use hammering equipment to pulverize plastics and separate out aluminum, copper and precious metals. It's environmentally sound and cost efficient.

We believe we are the most innovative e-waste recycler at the moment. Our equipment – in Canada, NC, Dallas, and soon in Detroit and San Francisco – is the most advanced equipment that exists for electronics processing.

AB: What is the most difficult problem you and/or your team have solved? Were there any surprises along the way?

Alfred Hambsch: The most difficult problem was, how do we justify making the investment in equipment, that was in the neighborhood of $6 million, when there's no regulation around e-waste? No legislators were saying, "You have to recycle electronics waste." People could do what they wanted. Even now, you only have six states with legislation – it's all on a state-by-state basis. So we had to decide whether to make a commitment to invest in the equipment. Meanwhile, our competitors who call themselves recyclers, were loading containers full of e-waste and shipping them to China.

AB: What is the most exciting innovation you've been involved in developing? What factors made or make it so exciting?

Alfred Hambsch: What excites me is that in times like these, when we worry about job security, that we have a possibility to build a new industry and even become a global leader by legislating, diverting hazardous waste stream into commodities. We need governments to legislate and say we can no longer put a TV into a landfill or send our own hazardous material to China. We should process it here, generate new jobs, then generate new commodities we need for manufacturer.

We're also investing in nanotechnology that will turn the recycled plastic, after it's been pulverized into a sugar-like consistency, into a diesel fuel. We've already been successful from the chemical point of view. What we currently have a challenge with is the mechanical side – running the equipment continually. But I think that sometime in 2009 we'll have a brand new product that we generate out of the e-waste stream.

AB: Do your innovations come from inside the company, from consults or outside sources, or a combination of the two?

Alfred Hambsch: Mostly inside. Our philosophy is create joint ventures with other companies who have the same beliefs as us. Since legislation varies across the U.S. and the globe, you can only be successful if you have local people directly involved and innovating.

AB: When teams are working on a problem or developing a product, and they hit a barrier, what do you recommend?

Alfred Hambsch: It gets easier the more joint ventures we create. Now we have many people with many talents. They're trying to solve issues together, whereas before, individual businesses were trying to solve those problems alone.

AB: What are some of the obstacles that prevent teams from creating innovative products?

Alfred Hambsch: Our biggest obstacles are external: People do not see this as a necessary industry. We're investing our own money in technology to generate diesel fuel out of the plastic waste stream. Meanwhile, the government is bailing out an auto industry that hasn't been able to be competitive.

AB: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks such as that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?

Alfred Hambsch: No.

AB: What good books, articles, blogs or other media on the topic of innovation have you read?

Alfred Hambsch: I travel a lot, because I'm involved in setting up our global footprint. So whenever I go to the airport, I pick up magazines. They're always about going green; green is definitely in!

AB: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about innovation?

Alfred Hambsch: Without getting into a debate about global warming, I know that things are changing. We're in biggest financial crisis of my lifetime. And the only way out I see out of it is to innovate around being environmentally friendly.

Share on      
Next Interview »