2019 CommonWealth Economic Forum
Sustainability Is for Humanity, Not the Earth
Arthur Huang, founder and CEO of Taiwan-based Miniwiz, has attracted notice in recent years from China to Europe as a green building architect and young entrepreneur. Wearing many hats as an architect, professor, engineer, and businessman, he has led the R&D efforts of Miniwiz, a company founded by a group of young people working together to put the “loop economy” concept into action by turning waste into new materials.
Sustainability Is for Humanity, Not the EarthBy CommonWealth Magazine
Arthur Huang, founder and CEO of Taiwan-based Miniwiz, has attracted notice in recent years from China to Europe as a green building architect and young entrepreneur. Wearing many hats as an architect, professor, engineer, and businessman, he has led the R&D efforts of Miniwiz, a company founded by a group of young people working together to put the “loop economy” concept into action by turning waste into new materials. Taking a different route, Huang distills examples from all over the world into the new realm of the loop economy. (Read: Serving Clients Like Starbucks and Nike, Arthur Huang Makes Recycling Popular)
Following are excerpts from our exclusive interview with Arthur Huang, edited for clarity and brevity:
CommonWealth Magazine was the first media to interview us 15 years ago. Over time we have gone from being a company that couldn’t turn a profit, to making money and losing it on bad investments, and then starting all over again. In recent years we have taken on many of our projects outside Taiwan, building houses all around the world made from waste.
Some people may wonder why we are always working in developed countries, rather than Third World countries like Indonesia or the African continent? The truth is, that’s because this consciousness only exists in advanced countries willing to pay us to work on these projects.
In one sense we are turning rubbish into new materials, then into things people are interested in buying. Another key is that architecture acts as our foundational force to activate the entire recycling process.
Dedicated to Developing Green Materials
Anything we use - from cloth to cardboard - can be recycled. But getting down to it, why do we recycle? Not because garbage looks dirty, but because it’s possible to reduce toxicity.
Taking the example of an EU ISO4001 certified genuine leather-working process, everyone thinks of it as quite natural. Yet, it’s highly toxic, and emits a high volume of CO2 in the process. Meanwhile, the process used to make synthetic leather from recycled plastic bottles - including machine sorting, pulverizing, and heating - is much lower in terms of pollution, CO2 output, and toxicity.
Where does recycling go?
A recent report on Taiwan said that we’re one of the countries with the highest recycling rate in the world. But in reality this “recycling” is fake - something I’ve been saying for the last 15 years. All we’re trying to do now is to do it for real.
Recycling outfits can actually only use from two to five-percent of materials. But that two to five percent is still huge; the question is just how to turn it into something new? This is the question we’re interested in exploring. That’s why we invented 1200 types of materials over the last 15 years, which let us activate the entire system.
How do we get this data and acquire the technology?
A lot of Taiwanese executives have been willing to give us a try, so we’ve been able to collect data through various recycling projects. Modeling is necessary for any new material or building, which requires this data. We’re currently working with several schools to find ways to make this data and any future applications publicly available for everyone to use.
Although everyone loves to talk about the loop economy, our approach is different from everyone else’s. We start out with applications, turn consumer items into recycling, and direct it back to R&D. So the latest technology constantly fills in this cycle, which is consolidated into a new menu.
What sorts of things can we do in this area? We’re able to take the materials from trash that can be recycled and turn them into something different, systematically and according to a menu.
MIT Machinery, Locally Sourced and Locally Made
What kinds of things can be made out of it?
One thing we did was make a museum out of 1.5 million plastic bottles recycled by Taipei residents.This later became an exhibition hall, and now it is part of the Taipei Water Park. Of course, it had to pass a number of building codes, as well as various analysis to calculate its carbon footprint.
In the final analysis air pollution was reduced by 95 percent, and water pollution by 91 percent. So why haven’t we kept it up? I’m somewhat miffed, myself. This house is cheaper than other ones, which we built at only one-tenth the typical cost for the same area. How much business potential is there with one-tenth the cost?
We’ve made a lot of things around the world by following the same approach. For instance, we used recycled DVDs for everything from exterior walls to interior appointments at Jackie Chan’s film school in Beijing. We also made the machines we produced modular and miniaturized, to be able to make the materials on site, running on solar power and coordinating with the factory to manufacture directly on school grounds.
We can make all the material for a hotel, apart from the glass. We have made interior appointments for shops in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong out of all sorts of recycled materials. In Italy, we turned recycled cigarette butts into a shop that can recycle and purify air. There are two-story flagship stores of this type in Rome, Turin, and Milan.
How about an inverted basketball court that occupies the minimum space, and is suspended from a crane. We cooperated with Nike to turn recycled sneakers into materials used to build stores in New York, Milan, and Beijing. Then there’s the floating island we made for the Rio Olympics, using Brazilian rubbish to make a massive pontoon.
What’s the advantage of this? It reduces toxicity, energy expenditure, and space. Most importantly, we source materials and manufacture locally. So where are the machines made out of locally-sourced materials made? These are all developed in Taiwan, and after machines and equipment are made and scaled down they are shipped to the site, where they are used to recycle rubbish and make materials locally.
Trash Is the Coolest Material of All
We’re also out to prove that trash is the coolest material of all.
Taking the example of our furniture, no glue is used. Instead, we use snap-fit joints to allow for the materials to have second and third lives down the road. This way, some materials with a 20-minute lifecycle can be used for up to seven years. All the high-end appointments in our Milan office - from lighting fixtures, to chairs, and desks - is made from recycled European waste, so as to impress upon people all the possibilities that waste holds in store in the future.
Of course, this also has to do with manufacturing. All of our manufacturing must be close to consumers, to quickly obtain materials from consumers and turn it into something right away. We also have a lot of large machinery, which is a solid production line that can work in the middle of a city, as opposed to a large plant facility. One old project of ours, known as Trashpresso, shrunk an entire recycling system within the area of a 40-foot container, to turn trash from two dollars into 40-50 dollars per kilogram of material.
Recently we just launched a Zero Waste recycling project with the Singapore government, combining AI with cameras to obtain the purist new raw materials, which can be made into all sorts of upcycled materials. In addition, there are also digital rewards and payment systems.
We also do a lot of weird things, like trying to make garbage fly. That’s our ambition. Over the past decade we have done two things under ISO4001 standards, planting 1,580,000 trees and shutting down a coal-fired power plant in Taichung for 49 days.
Sustainability Is for Humanity, Not for the Earth
For investors balancing short-term profits with long-term sustainability is certainly a huge challenge. What is more, environmental enterprises hardly ever make money right away.
Still, it is necessary for us to contemplate what “sustainability” means, which is actually quite interesting. Get rich quick methods are never sustainable, except that in Taiwan where there has only been 30 years of development we are used to making money quickly. The first challenge came to me from my father’s generation, who said there was no way to make money so they wouldn’t invest in me. And I completely agreed with them.
Now I’m 40 years old, with a long life ahead of me. I also want to stay in business for a long time, and don’t want to produce a lot of toxic materials in the production process, which is why I went ahead and developed something on my own.
Next, the earth actually doesn’t need human sustainability, but we need to talk about “sustainability” for the sake of human economics. The world will still be here if human society fails; the earth doesn’t care if we and the environment are sustainable. If you want to establish long-term values, you need to think about things a century into the future; your values will only keep rising. This is how I convince myself to keep going.
In the Future All Enterprises should be Small- and Medium-Sized
The most fascinating thing about loops is that they can really help save you money. I think in the future we’ll see a trend where businesses worldwide will be small- and medium-sized enterprises. Further, recycling should be decentralized. Meanwhile, what incentives are there in the transformation process for enterprises? In fact, enterprises should just reduce their scale of investment, conduct a lot of tests, and develop different recycled materials.
Taiwanese business operators are very shrewd, have advanced machinery, technology, and management knowhow, and employ all means to save money. So it is hard for us to add significant bonus value to Taiwanese businesses. But the key is how to find new business models.
Old manufacturing industry thinking will not work here; rather, we must come up with a new manufacturing industry. Having worked at large corporations in the past, I realized that the only way was for me to go out on my own and start anew, no matter what others thought or did.
My advice to existing corporations and enterprises is go all-in on transformation without hesitation and pare away old burdens. The market moves too quickly, and it’s impossible to make all the right investments at once. Instead, you can work on many different small innovations at once, then bring it all together. Then if you fail, you can fail quickly, and start over again quickly.
Translated by David Toman
Edited by Tomas Lin