Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2014

Waste, Recycling and Entrepreneurship in Central and Northern Europe, 1870–1940

by Geoffrey Jones and Andrew Spadafora

Abstract

This working paper examines the role of entrepreneurs in the municipal solid waste industry in industrialized central and northern Europe from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s. It explores the emergence of numerous German, Danish, and other European entrepreneurial firms explicitly devoted to making a profitable business out of conserving and returning valuable resources to productive use, while maintaining public sanitation and in many cases offering nascent environmental protections. These ventures were qualitatively different from both earlier, smaller private waste traders, and the later garbage agglomerates, and have been neglected in an era that historians have treated as a period of municipalization. These entrepreneurs sometimes had strikingly modern views of environmental challenges and the need to overcome them. They initiated processes for sorting and recycling waste materials that are still employed today. Yet it proved difficult to combine making profits and achieving social value in accordance with the "shared value" model of today. As providers of public goods such as health and sanitation and a cleaner environment, the entrepreneurs were often unable to capture sufficient profits to sustain businesses. Recycled-goods markets were volatile. There was also a tension between the constant waste stream on the collection side and a seasonal/cyclical demand for recycled products. The frequent failure of these businesses helps to explain why in more recent decades private waste companies have been associated with late entry into recycling, often trailing municipal governments and non-profit entities.

Keywords: Environmental Entrepreneurship; business history; Entrepreneurship; Health; History; Green Technology Industry; Germany; Denmark; Hungary; United Kingdom;

Citation:

Jones, Geoffrey, and Andrew Spadafora. "Waste, Recycling and Entrepreneurship in Central and Northern Europe, 1870–1940." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-084, March 2014.