“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


About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation


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