"Systems Thinking" Guru Peter Senge on Starbucks, P&G, and the Economic Power of Trash

Trash People sculptures

One of the world's top management gurus is spending a lot of time these days thinking about trash. I spoke with author of The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, because of his work with Starbucks on their pledge to provide recycling in all their stores. But it turns out that his interest in the waste stream goes far beyond that. True to his reputation as the major popularizer of "systems thinking," Senge sees the potential for a whole "underground economy" of great wealth that's literally being tossed away under our noses. "Nobody likes to throw stuff away," he told me. "It’s just antithetical to our sense of being a person. But we’re all habituated to that way of living today."

On the Starbucks cup:

It’s an archetypal problem and I liked it right away. What more compelling icon of the craziness: On the one hand, the convenience that we can stroll down the street sipping our latte, but then, the craziness that we can toss over our shoulder and maybe you feel a little bit better if it lands in a bin instead of the ground, but it really doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Let’s look at the whole system, all the way upstream and all the way downstream: Where does the cup come from? Who makes it? A tree or an oil well."

On the Starbucks "Cup Summits":

So you have a compostable cup, so what? The question is, who composts it? Everybody gets so excited holding a cup that says 'biocompostable' on it. That's what we call a 'happy cup.' The truth is, you'll dump it in a trash can, then it goes in a landfill, that cup will never compost. Quickly we came to the idea that you’ve got to get the whole system in the room: The people who make the cups, the plastic and paper suppliers, International Paper, Dow Chemical, the retailers, the recyclers.

On recycling and detergent jugs:

My friend from the oil company has a great example: look at polypropolene detergent containers. 100% recyclable. Only one small problem: every branded business wants to put their own color and brand ID on their jug of liquid detergent. Consequently, when you grind it up it comes back as this gray stuff that can only be used for park benches.

So just let P&G put on its branding with a shrinkwrap and the value of that recovery would go up tenfold! Then you could imagine P&G would want them back if they had high value—why would you spend all that money for virgin petroleum?

On the "underground economy" and the future of trash:

I'm really interested in how you create a whole new economy of recycling. It's literally the 'underground economy.' All this stuff that on the surface creates growth and profit, ends up with waste, junk, and CO2. So how do you make it economic to bring new players into the ball game?

In principle we have a lot of stuff now that's highly recyclable. It could be a very big business. A friend of mine who retired in petrochemicals said, I have this vision that one day people will adopt the same attitude oil companies have today, exploring the world looking for new reservoirs of oil, except they'll be exploring the reservoirs of waste all over the world, and making it useful for society.

We need this reverse economy to grow. It’s not going to get solved unless there’s an opportunity for innovation and creative solutions.

The essence of the vision is that at some point in the future everyone holding something disposable will think: What am I doing with this? Where does it go?

["Trash People" Photo by Dbking ]

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  • Brooke B Farrell

    I love Peter Senge. We're 100% focused on growing the reverse economy. Every day we see hopeful signs. Companies have been told "thats not recyclable", but in their gut they know it should be. They post their waste on our website, and voila - we find a match with someone who can reuse it instead of putting it into a landfill. Everyone wins. There is so much untapped potential. So much embedded value, carbon, energy, water and other natural resources being hidden in our landfills. @BrookeBF from @RecycleMatch

  • RalfLippold

    Many more fields of action around. Often we are even direct customers and that makes it even more visible as the designers of sustainability.

    However companies are often (not without deep held assumptions and other reasons) entrenched in thinking that their engineers will tackle the problems alone.

    Two years agon when at a surprise visit to TeamAcademy ("The Management School without Teachers") I started a blog focusing on the un-sustainability issues you face as a customer. From rail travel to package logistics or HR service in companies.


    Making the conversation available between the company and the customer will enable a totally new space for future sustainability chances than most of us may even imagine in their wildest dreams.

    Starting this begins with somebody making the first move into the unknown (where no other human has moved in - the first step on the moon must have been a similar experience, feeling of great discomfort until you are part of the change :-)

  • Brooke B Farrell

    Hi Mario - Yes, they were inspirational at Sustainable Brands. How did I not see this post 2 months ago? I love the notion of an underground economy.

  • Carla Bobka

    What if Starbucks used a ceramic cup w/ silicon lid (instead of paper) that you could drop off at any other Starbucks. They could wash it and reuse it w the next customer. It would work for frequent customer/Starbucks addicts (like my hubby). He goes to the same 3 Starbucks M-F. It would also work in densely Starbuck'd geographies - finished 3 blocks later, whip in and drop in the next Starbucks bin, if you leave the cup on the curb, anyone could grab it and take it to 'bucks on the corner. Sure there are hurdles, and iteration will lower them. (I was a Jamshid Gharajedaghi student, love systems thinking)