Adjust your perception of success — not every startup will become a unicorn but that doesn’t mean you won’t make an enormous impact on the world. Success comes in many different forms and sometimes, making a small difference now will have an enormous impact later on.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Henrik Selstam, CTO of Wastefront, the Norwegian waste tyre recycling company. Henrik is an engineering physicist and industrial developer with an MSc. in Engineering Physics from Chalmers University of Technology, and now has more than 25 years’ experience setting up global businesses within a variety of sectors including IT, real estate and, most recently, waste to energy.
Prior to joining Wastefront as CTO, Henrik worked for a number of exciting tech and green energy companies, founding both Quantafuel and ScandGreen Energy, and a director at MSX International.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Many years ago, I had the fortune to meet with a good friend who was an expert in catalytic chemistry and he taught me all there is to know about gasification and pyrolysis. This was 20 years ago and since then I’ve been looking for different applications for the technology with the aim of reducing waste and finding new solutions that can positively impact the environment.
Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Since starting my career, I would say one of the most interesting things that has happened to me was when my friend and I went to China in 2015 and, while we were there, made an on-the-spot decision to buy a pyrolysis factory we had randomly come across. Neither of us were in the best place financially at the time and had to borrow money from another friend. But, we decided to take the plunge and go “all in” on what we were hoping would be a successful ‘in the moment’ business venture. Two years later, the factory was producing synthetic diesel from plastics waste in what was described by multiple independent laboratories as “best practice”. In the end, the success of this wild endeavor was down to our conviction and determination more than anything else and it has taught me a valuable life lesson about following your gut instincts.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Keep it simple and use common sense. It is no secret that most applications of technology are rather complicated and it can be easy to lose track in the masses of information you encounter. But, by stripping the problem down to its roots and focussing on the core components of the issue, what once seemed a scary and insurmountable task suddenly becomes much more manageable. Generally, by striving to execute good judgement and not unnecessarily overcomplicating matters, I find that everything tends to fall into place far more efficiently and effectively.
Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
At Wastefront, we convert disused vehicle tyres into useful commodities that can, among other things, be fed back into the tyre production chain and help to prevent the estimated 29 million metric tonnes of vehicle tyres that reach the end of their lifespan each year ending up in landfill, as granulates for use in civil construction work, or being burned as fuel for industries such as cement production. By converting disused tyres into liquid hydrocarbons (the main component of the current energy infrastructure) and carbon black (one of the main components in tyre production), we are helping to pave the way for the creation of circular economies in the tyre manufacturing space.
Naturally, the shipping of tyre waste to landfill sites or manufacturing microplastics that are difficult to contain do not constitute sustainable waste solutions and, as a result, represents a major cause of global pollution.
Wastefront uses pyrolytic reactors which utilise a form of thermal decomposition known as ‘pyrolysis’ to break down a tyre’s materials at elevated temperatures. By sending tyres through reactors with a catalyst, a combustible gas is produced, in addition to a liquid hydrocarbon, carbon black and heat. The gas is circled back in to fuel the furnace, the liquid hydrocarbons undergo a refining process as a means of improving the quality and performance, and the carbon black is then washed and milled to upgrade the chemical properties, and can be used as a complement to natural rubber in the tyre production, mechanical rubber goods or as a filler for plastics. The heat is then repurposed locally within industry or to heat nearby residential homes.
The issue of tyre waste is one that should have been solved a long time ago. At Wastefront, we saw an opportunity for innovation and are doing our bit to help reduce the waste problem that is plaguing our planet. Looking back throughout history, so many of the features in modern vehicles have been improved, but for some reason, tyres have stayed the same. Vehicle owners are now significantly more environmentally conscious and, in realising that their disused tyres likely end up in landfill, or are shipped overseas to be burnt in a polluting kiln, are not content in knowing that the extra tens of thousands of dollars they are spending on an electric car is not sufficient to neutralise the carbon emissions from the waste products of the vehicle. This is primarily because, as it stands currently, green automotive manufacturers are having to rely on tyres produced in the same manner as those made for traditional cars.
From the output of Wastefront’s conversion process, tyre producers are able to create new tyres, offering an opportunity for vehicle manufacturers to enhance the environmental credentials of their vehicles. Wastefront’s processes also significantly offset carbon emissions, as the alternative to the recycled commodities is often crude oil, or unrefined petroleum; a fossil fuel which creates a significant amount of air pollution when refined down.
In fact, a recent life cycle assessment of our proposed plant in the Port of Sunderland found that the outputs of the plant in the base-case scenario would avoid 1,815,839 tonnes of CO2e over 30 years, or 60,528 tonnes per year, by replacing the typical sources of these substances i.e. raw fossil fuels.
Of course, minimizing environmental effects like sulphur emissions or finding the right methods to extract fuels from tyres is not an easy task. For this, Wastefront cooperates with the best available partners to utilize state-of-the-art solutions. Through our use of a combination of proven technology and proprietary processes, we are pioneering innovations in tyre pyrolysis as a means of mitigating the negative impact of tyre waste, helping to improve global sustainability and create a circular tyre production value chain.”
How do you think this will change the world?
Circular economies are the key to a sustainable future and our work to convert waste tyres into useful commodities will play a significant role in helping to reduce the enormous amount of tyre waste that ends up in landfills every year, in addition to making a positive environmental impact and helping to revolutionise the way we view tyre manufacturing as a whole.
As the global issue of tyre waste is being brought to the fore, people are beginning to see the value in creating circular economies. I expect in 20 years from now, we will all look back and wonder how we could have been so reckless and ignorant to have been throwing tyres into landfill in the first place.
Climate change is a matter of problem-solving and I believe that with our combined efforts, we can solve it.
No matter how hard we try, rubber tyres are here to stay, and although alternatives have been conceptualised, none have yet been widely adopted. The unintended consequence of having a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to throwing tyres into landfill may mean that the progress being made in replacing conventional rubber tyres altogether slows down. As a result, despite our solution benefiting the environment immensely, it may temporarily halt innovation in the tyre industry as the need to find more environmentally friendly alternatives becomes less of a priority.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
I was having a conversation about electric vehicles with Inge Berge, Wastefront’s CEO and co-founder and, when doing some digging, we discovered that despite the above-average price point of many modern electric vehicles, the tyres are still just tyres — the same tyres you would find on any non-electric vehicle. Following this discovery, we began to look into whether it would be possible to recover end-of-life tyres and, through feeding the output back into the tyre manufacturing process, help to create circular economies for tyre production and start the conversation of using recycled tyres on all vehicles as standard practice.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
The turning point will ultimately be public awareness. If the general public were more aware of the statistics — that 1.6 billion car tyres are produced every year and that most end up in landfill — I believe there would be greater public demand for reform. Ultimately, the voice of the general public is what forces politicians and regulators to act.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be patient — the idea might be great, but the moment may not be quite right to launch it.
- Surround yourself with great people — when building a new business from scratch, it’s important to make sure that you collaborate with people you can trust and who are just as passionate as you are about the projects you are working on.
- Don’t be afraid to fail — not every endeavor will be successful and some may not work out. Don’t give up, your next big idea may be just around the corner.
- Live in the present — It can be very easy to get caught up thinking about the future and forget to focus on what is happening right now. Live in the moment and tackle each day’s challenges as they come. Eventually, you’ll be able to look to the future having built a solid foundation from which to work.
- Adjust your perception of success — not every startup will become a unicorn but that doesn’t mean you won’t make an enormous impact on the world. Success comes in many different forms and sometimes, making a small difference now will have an enormous impact later on.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Never give up and always keep an open mind. Being an entrepreneur is 50/50 patience and persistence. If you believe that you have a good idea, stick with it and the right moment will come along where you can launch it. Sometimes it is a waiting game, but it is also often worth the wait.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Wastefront has developed a local solution to a global problem. With a growing middle class, consumption is rising, which means, in turn, that the amount of waste is increasing. At Wastefront, we utilise a waste product that creates valuable resources that can be reused to produce new products. It’s a circular story.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.