Green Element weekly podcast Interview with Dr Michael Groves from Topolytics


Today we’re joined by Mike Groves from Topolytics. Mike is founder of Topolytics, an analytics business that is maximising the utility of waste materials and enabling the circular economy at scale. He has been working in the sustainability area for a number of years now. Mike is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to understanding waste and how it is managed.

Will: So, today we’ve got Mike from Topolytics, it’s an absolutely fascinating company trying to map the world waste. He’s a serial entrepreneur, he has set up a number of different businesses all within the sustainability sector and has been doing that for the last 20 years. I’ve known him for a few years now and I’m really looking forward to talking to him and helping you understand more about such an amazing character. Hi, Mike, welcome to the Green Element podcast, how are you today? 


Mike: Good, Will, thank you very much, nice day in Edinburgh for once.


Will: It is, it was gorgeous yesterday. We went for a walk, it was my other half’s 40th birthday, which was lovely. Could you tell us a little bit about Topolytics and what you do and tell us a bit about it? 


Mike: We’re trying to optimize the way commercial and industrial waste is managed and we’re doing that with data. So, we’re trying to acquire and then analyze better data on this sort of generation and the movements and the ultimate fate of commercial industrial waste materials. So, we’re a data analytics business and we’re looking at a wide range of different waste streams because we think that waste is a system, it’s a system of movements of different materials. Sometimes they intersect, sometimes they go off in different directions but still, there are challenges with that system as we’ve seen recently with stories about stockpiling of clinical waste, stockpiling of plastic waste, etc. So, we think a system level look at the data and the generation of a better data set can help the waste management industry and companies that generate waste to make better decisions about what happens to that material. A lot of that material is still going into landfill and clearly, there’s a lot of material also then go into energy from waste or refuse-derived fuel or whatever you want to call it. So, we think there are opportunities to optimize that system, so that’s Topolytics.


Will: As awesome as mapping is it’s understanding where it all goes because you’ve done a variety of different projects. I think one with RBS where you mapped all the waste that went around the UK because it literally did go around the UK.


Mike: Yeah, so our basic approach to this looking at the system is to map it or two special analytics if you want the fancier term, but nobody understands that, so it’s mapped. If you think about it you’ve got, in terms of the generation of all that kind of material, it’s generated in multiple locations, individual bins then put into skips and those skips are then moved somewhere else. Then they may be taken to a materials recovery facility and from there they’re separated and then they’re sent off to different places for recovery, for recycling or even obviously for refuse-derived fuel. 

So, that system of movements is really complex and it’s really opaque as well, because the waste management industry, it’s not renowned for being the most transparent of industries. Obviously, we’re seeing some sort of challenges around that, so our view is actually looking at it due to space, it gives you a much better way to build a data model to analyze, to visualize and then to generate some kind of useful insights from that data. Of course, those movements could be local, they could be national, or they could obviously be international as well, as we’ve seen with challenges around plastics and cars that have been sent to China for the last 20 years, but that has stopped now. So, the geography of waste we think is really crucial to understanding what happens and then to make better decisions about it.


Will: It will enable more recycling, won’t it, and more reuse?


Mike: Yeah, I do get the question a lot like, “Well, Mike, that sounds really interesting but so what?” Of course, what we are ultimately trying to do, I think ultimately, I guess where all of us in this sustainability, within this environmental management, within this resource management space, we are all trying to optimize the use of those resources because we have a finite level of resources globally, so we’re all trying to do that. Ultimately, I guess what we’re trying to do is really trying to enable people to reduce the amount of waste that the generating. There’s a whole bunch of steps before you get to that point, so we’re starting with, “Okay, let’s look at that system as it stands and try and optimize that. That is, reduce the amount of material that’s just been chopped away because that material has a value of two trillion quid a year that is being put into landfill sites.


Will: Is that just the UK?


Mike: Well, some of that value goes in terms of the material itself, but in terms of actually the financial and commercial value of that material and just optimize that system. So, if that means we help to drive more recycling, we help to drive remanufacturing, refurbishment, it’s really all about trying to maintain that material or it could be products, it could be assets at their highest utility, that’s what we’re about. 


Will: You mentioned two trillion, is that just the UK?


Mike: Well, I think that’s a global figure. There’re various figures floating around, McKinsey has done some work on it looking at and trying to put a value on the map. So, based on market prices on the material, the value that is basically currently put into landfill sites I think the numbers vary. Either way, whichever way you look at it, it’s a big number and there’s a lot of stuff that’s being put into holes in the ground that potentially could be recovered. 


Will: What sort of company do you work with? 


Mike: So, we’re looking commercial and industrial, so we tend to work certainly at this stage with larger corporations that have got lots of waste, multiple sites, operate globally and they manage that waste in different ways. Sometimes, they have a framework contract to manage everything through one supplier. Sometimes, each site will have its own autonomy to manage waste with their own contractors. So, the kind of sectors they’re in will be food manufacturing, construction, obviously, that’s a big area in terms of waste generation to primary manufacturing metals, for example. We’re also working with retailers as well, retailers is an interesting one because of course, they are consumer-facing. Their waste streams are maybe not massively complex, but they have potentially thousands of sites. So, the geography of the kind of flow of materials is quite complicated, even though the types of waste maybe fairly inert whereas on the manufacturing space, you might have a real mixture of complex waste streams plus coming out waste streams. 

So, we are trying to focus in on certain kind of sectors but ultimately, we think being able to see the system and see it as a system we think is the way to start to make better decisions. We think ultimately, the value really will be to the industry itself, so that industry, the waste management industry is a big industry, it’s worth 500 billion dollars a year globally, it’s a huge industry but clearly that’s coming under a lot of pressure to change like a lot of in other Industries, it’s being hit with industry 4.0. So, the internet things, data, analytics, robotics, all that waste is hitting the waste management industry. So, we’re trying to enable a 21st-century waste management industry where the models of waste management will be different, the way that waste is managed will be different, the way that waste is moved will be different. So, we’re trying to say, let’s get better data and drive a different type of Industry. So, we think ultimately our customer will be the industry itself, will be investors into the waste management and will be regulators and policymakers as well.


Will: There’re a few companies that they’ve got some kind of thing on all the bins so they know exactly how much waste is going into the truck and what waste is going into the truck and they’ve got into coal or granular data that must help you in in your process mapping. 


Mike: Yeah, absolutely. The so-called internet of bins, we’ve done a lot of work with IOT sensors because we know that we’re already starting to deal with a significant volume and velocity of data. I think the thing about waste as you know, you’ve done a lot of work in this area too is that it’s quite a messy mixed picture. Different companies classify, even though there are schemes for classifying and measuring, people take a sort of slightly different approach. So yeah, on the one hand, you could have systems IOT bin sensors, which tell you whether the bid is full or not and it helps to schedule the collection of that material. As yet, those systems aren’t really telling us what’s in the bin, it’s telling us whether the bin is full but not really saying what’s in the bin. That’s useful but we don’t think it’s the answer, at the moment, it’s not giving us all the answers, so we need to look at it from a whole bunch of different ways. That’s why we think actually looking at patterns in the data is the way to start to unlock some of the inconsistencies and potentially some of the opportunities in that. But certainly, the IOT piece is going to grow and expand as it is in the other instance.


Will: I have an idea, you know how there are people that are coming up you can take photos of flowers and take photos of meals that you eat and it analyzes it and it knows exactly what’s in that meal or knows what that flower is or the plant is and stuff, you could have a very thin camera that goes alongside the bin, so when you drop things in it knows everything that goes in and analyzes it and then it just records everything that’s gone into that bin at all times. 


Mike: Yeah, absolutely. I think knowing what’s in there I think is the key because that’s the key to then deciding, does it need to be in there in the first place? That’s the first question and then if it does, well should it be in there or should it be somewhere else, should we be separating waste before it is taken away somewhere else. Obviously, as you know, one of the big problems of waste is mixed, is contamination where the material is mixed together. So, yeah, I think there’s some work being done on optical systems for trying to identify what’s in the waste bin. I think quite a bit of work is been done there in terms of when they’re sorting waste, using optical systems and robotics systems for separating the waste because that process is still quite manual and obviously potentially not the nicest job in the world in terms of picking out bits and pieces of contaminated waste. There are definitely all sorts of technological opportunities there and I think that is going to come over the next five to 10 years you’re going to see a lot more of that but in that period, you’re still dealing with a lot of messy data because you’re dealing with a lot of messy mixed materials.


Will: How do you engage your staff, suppliers? How big are you? 


Mike: We’re tiny. There’re four of us at the core and then we work with a whole bunch of other people as well, different expertise from waste management to analytics to data to software, etc. So, we’re a classic startup in that way even though we have been around for a couple of years. So, in terms of the engagement bit, it’s interesting at the moment, you work in this field, clearly, there’s a bit of a zeitgeist at the moment around the waste. Obviously, David Attenborough…


Will: We could have not mentioned him, could we?


Mike: Arguably the world’s greatest environmental communicator host switched everyone onto the ocean plastics issue, but then obviously we’ve seen in the UK we’ve seen issues with the stockpiling, this whole issue with clinical waste, issues with plastic waste being stockpiled because it can’t be exported to China, so there’s a lot of awareness out there at the moment. So, the engagement bit, I’m finding quite easy because people going, “Yeah, wow waste, it’s really important, isn’t it?” Whilst it’s always been important, perhaps it’s been seen as being a bit of a strange subject. In fact, somebody said to me recently they said, “Did you meet your wife before or after you started doing this work, the Topolytics Mike?” I said, “What do you mean?” They say, “Well, waste management” So, the engagement bit is actually at the moment getting a foot in the door, it’s quite easy because people are switching on to the fact that, particularly in the corporate sector that there are opportunities around waste because they’re spending a lot of money on waste management, they want to be more resource efficient. 

Clearly, as we know, collectively this whole push around the circular economy, so we are a C100 company with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which puts us up there as one of the world’s leading innovators around the circular economy. So, that’s starting to have a big impact and you’ll see in the recent thing announcement that the global commitments around the new plastics economy that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been really championing and pushing where we need to move away from the current model of hydrocarbon, plastic-based industry and change the way that kind of industry operates in order to try and reduce the amount of waste that is leaking out of the system. So, I think all those things combined I think we’re certainly getting, there is a receptive ear to what we’re doing within the corporate and commercial space. I think that is also starting to play out within the waste management industry as well, which is starting to recognize that clearly there are challenges there, but there clearly must be opportunities around new models of waste management.


Will: I would say that you’re probably one of the best-placed people to try and change or spearhead change in the waste management world because you’ve run, correct me if I’m wrong, you’ve run a PR Company, you’ve run a sustainability consultancy, and you also manufacture through your child’s seats. So, therefore you have a skill set of lots and lots of things that will have an effect on how you’re able to change. 


Mike: I’ve also set up a cinema company as well.


Will: I didn’t know that.


Mike: Check out a LinkedIn profile. Well actually, the pure company in the sustainability, it was a consultancy that we set up. It was my first company which was Great Circle, it was a sustainability and environmental communications business. So, this was 20 years ago, I used to work in Indonesia, I ran Forest Application, the FSC program for a big Swiss inspection company in Southeast Asia. So, I helped to develop the principles of criteria, the Forest Stewardship Council in the mid-90s and then I ran some of the very early audits in Southeast Asia. I also did Environmental Management Systems and ISO 14001 and one of the things that struck me doing that was that one of the big challenges, as you well know, around environmental management, I’ve been called the tree hugger so many times. I just show them pictures of me standing next to tropical trees, but I didn’t hug, I helped to manage them but it’s communication, it’s behavior change, it’s one of the big things.

So, with 14001, actually, there’s a clause in there which talks about communication but every time you ask somebody about, “How do you communicate this stuff in order to generate the sort of change that you want to generate within the management system?” So, what we’ve got a complete book, okay so, is that it? So, there’s a whole industry out there whether you want to call it PR or corporate comms, whatever, it actually professionalizes the way you can communicate and influence. So, if you put those two together, then you can maybe start to generate change around attitudes to sustainability too, and that’s what this stuff is about. What we ended up doing, we ended up doing a lot of sustainability reports, so these big annual sustainability reports that nobody reads, that are very expensive to produce and that was the business.

We sold that business to a financial and investor conference business back in the day. So, absolutely, my view is the communications peace within the kind of work that you do, that I do, within our world of sustainability or environmental management, resource efficiency, communication is crucial, because if you can’t communicate, you’re not going to change anybody’s attitudes or behavior. That is one of the big challenges I think fundamentally around the whole climate change debate is it’s the argument, putting forward arguments influencing changing behaviors, it’s a massive challenge. So, that’s one side of it, the other side you mentioned Tot seat, the fabric chair harness for babies who lunch, which is a market-leading chair harness for children that when you don’t have a high chair you can safely anchor your child in a fabric product in a normal chair. We sell that all over the world and we are living the globalization dream on that one, we manufacture it and we ship it all over the world and everything else.

So, we’ve learned a lot about trying to run a manufacturing business in an ethical and a responsible way as possible, in terms of using environmentally friendly textiles and inks and dyes and everything else but it’s very challenging when you’re a small company, so that has taught us a lot. So, when I talk to manufacturers and people making products, to a certain extent we have in our own way, we’ve been through that cycle in terms of testing, manufacturing, shipping, exporting, etc. So yeah, I think all of those experiences certainly help in terms of what we’re doing now.


Will: I think people always like to listen to someone who’s an expert, that has been there done that, rather than listen to someone that has read a book about it and has decided that they now know how to help them, that’s from my experience. 


Mike: Yeah, to be perfectly honest, I think certainly when it comes to business, mostly all of my experiences I’ve been involved in running, setting up, selling, businesses for last 20 years and it’s all self-taught really. Obviously, I read around it and I do go to meetings and done the occasional course, but absolutely it’s all been learned on the hoof. Of course, made masses of mistakes, loads of mistakes but hopefully, learned from that as well. 


Will: What would be one piece of advice you could give our listeners to help them with their purpose, thinking about those mistakes that you’ve made. 


Mike: Advice in relation to what though? 


Will: In relation to business and running a sustainable business.


Mike: Okay. I still make this mistake, number one, don’t sell yourself short, I’m constantly doing that but that’s just me, I guess. Number two, persevere, I think one of the things about entrepreneurship, it’s one of the qualities of entrepreneurship that is almost like the elephant in the room, people don’t really tend to focus on it because people see the successful entrepreneurs and they say, “Wow! The success and look at them do great things, nothing else. Of course, they don’t see the 10 years that you had to wait through in order to get to that point. That idea that everyone is a 10-year overnight success it absolutely does take longer to build something. You know that, you’re building a business, it takes longer and it’s harder and you have to make massive sacrifices. So, it’s not easy because I think if it was easy, of course, everyone will be doing it and so perseverance I think is an ignored quality of entrepreneurship. 

Everyone thinks I had all wizzy ideas and innovation and excitements, there are so many setbacks along the way that you’re constantly battling that. At the end of the day what you constantly battling is what’s up here, that’s really where the battle is because you’re bound to be dealing with poor decision-making, difficult people, blah, blah, blah, all that’s the external environment, but actually it all comes back to what’s going on up here really.  So, perseverance is the other thing, but I think the other thing about sustainability businesses and environmental management focused businesses, and we certainly saw this, we did a lot of work with those kinds of companies with our original consultancy. Sometimes I think because what we are doing collectively, we think it’s really important but that isn’t reason enough, that alone will not help you to grow a business. 

Whether that business is a social enterprise or whether it’s a for-profit enterprise, that is not reason enough, because most of the people out there don’t feel the same way. So, you’ve still got to have that really commercial, you’re still going to have that sort of commercial trick within the business even though you might be doing something that is fundamental to the way materials are going to be managed, to the way carbon is managed, to the way water is managed, etc. I think that keeping that commercial aspect to the forefront is absolutely vital as well. 


Will: Running Topolytics, think about environmental management and your carbon footprint when you’re working, I know you’re only a small team but there are so many people that are small teams that do like to think about how they do it. What sort of things do you do from an environmental management, carbon foot printing kind of thing? 


Mike: Yeah, practice what you preach. Okay, well, I suppose from a personal point of view, in my view on this is that actually, again it comes back to this idea that everyone is almost like, we’re all trying to be perfect in relation to the footprints because perfection is, we’re not going to get there. So, we all have to compromise in relation to the way we run a business and my view on this is that it’s a horse for courses thing. If you are a big business with lots of resources and systems, you can systematize a lot of this stuff. So, you can systematize, obviously, we see a lot of companies are trying to systematize the way they manage transport across and within the business, so trying to move away from changing vehicle fleets or moving to different models of vehicle use, encouraging public transport, etc. 

So, we try and do that as much as we can, we’re in a building, we rent a small office in a building that’s probably not optimized for energy efficiency, I have to say. So, I think there are some real challenges around that, I think we try and systematize it and measure as well as we can, but we could definitely be doing more. As our business grows, we will systematize that more and obviously, your carbon management and measurement system that you’re launching, for someone like us, I think is a really useful thing because a lot of that stuff is unattainable for a business of our size. So, my view on it is it’s a horse for courses thing, you need to do what you can with the resources that you have but always be mindful that actually there may be alternative ways of traveling, of operating the business.


Will: That almost change on a weekly basis as well. 


Mike: Yeah, and also, it’s all compromise, perhaps my dirty secret because it’s not so much a secret is that I’ve got a pilot’s license. 


Will: [29:18 inaudible] planes in the future.


Mike: I love flying and actually when you look around the footprints of Aviation, I still fly to get from A to B, we still believe that we have a global opportunity in terms of our business. We operate internationally, I fly places, I don’t beat myself up about that because at the end of the day what we’re trying to do is trying to effect change in other ways. So, there’s an element of compromise, I think, along the way, the purest might well disagree with me but as you say, Aviation is changing, the whole look at fuels, look at other cities to say electrification of Aviation, wow, that’s really interesting to explore as well. So, it’s a really complex picture and I don’t think there is any simple, straightforward answer.


Will: What got you into sustainability? What would you say was your tipping point? 


Mike: Well, I’m a geographer so I think geography was always a bit of an environmental science back in the day. I have an interest in the world, I’ve got an interest in what’s going on in the world, the way the world works, the way people interact with the natural environment, which is what geography is all about. Check out my TEDx, ‘Why Geography is Going to Save the World’. 


Will: Can you give us a link and we’ll put it in the show notes? 


Mike: Yeah, if you search for ‘Saving the World with Geography Microbes’, you’ll probably find it. Yeah, so I guess I’ve always come from that angle and I think that’s probably where it originally came from. In terms of actually working in that field, I remember I did a Ph.D. in using aerial photographs to map forest condition, a forest decline in Germany. Remember the days of acid rain damage but in Germany, they were really good, because forestry is so important as a cultural and economic entity within Germany that they develop these amazing systems for monitoring trees from satellites and aerial photo, so I learned from them. I came out of that and somebody said to me, “So, what sort of job do you want to go into?” I said, “You know what, I’d like to go into environmental management”, this is 20 years ago, 25 years ago, probably, they leaned forward and said, “Sonny, I think you should go and get yourself a proper job.” 

I had my revenge in my own head when I was passing through Preston station about two years ago, and I saw one of these big adverts for job website. It had a little field, a search field and you had to type in what sort of job you were looking for and they actually had in this advert environmental consultant. So, to a certain extent, it came from there, so I guess I’d always come at it from that direction. The thing is what I’ve always said is when I’ve been accused of being a tree hugger, yes, I’ve worked in forestry but I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my own heart. I actually believe that there is a big economic and commercial opportunity out there in terms of the idea that we can manage resources better, we can manage our footprints better and we can still generate economically, there’s a genuine economic upside to that. So, I do believe that not that we can have our cake and eat it, but I think there is clearly economic and commercial opportunity there in terms of environmental sustainability.


Will: What’s the one thing you’d like people to take away from this podcast, to do or to action?


Mike: Well, okay, from a purely selfish point of view, if you know of any companies that are interested in understanding a bit more about their waste and what happens to that waste and doing different things with it then I would encourage them to get in touch via I guess it comes back to thinking about sustainability and where we’re going with that. Those of us that work in this field, let’s not sell ourselves short, but let’s not assume that everybody out there is going to buy into our vision, our mission, we need to work really hard at that. So, the whole communications piece is absolutely vitally important.  I’m not a religious man by any means but keep the faith because there is a job to be done but there is such a huge opportunity out there. So, anybody that’s thinking about starting up a business or doing the entrepreneur things, take a look at sustainability. Take a look at clean tech, take a look at that whole field because there’re some really exciting stuff happening, some amazing tech happening, lots of stuff. As per your thing around carbon management and foot printing lots of stuff around the whole renewable energy piece, lots of stuff around recycling and reuse of materials, lots of stuff around water conservation and water quality. There’s a whole bunch of stuff out there just waiting to be dealt with, so I think there’s a huge opportunity there.


Will: Brilliant. Well, thank you so much today. Thank you for coming on the podcast and thanks for letting us know how and what you’re doing through Topolytics. 


Mike: Well, thank you, thanks, Will, I really appreciate that, I really appreciate the opportunity and see you soon.


Will: Cool, cheers.


Mike: Alright, cheers, Will, see you.



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