Last year, while changing the nappy of his 2,5-year-old son, Charlie, Arend-Jan Majoor realized a way to combine two of his strongest passions: entrepreneurship and social consciousness. Majoor, who earned his masters at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (UM SBE) in 2007, is the founder of the Dutch nappy recycling foundation, Luierrecycling Nederland
An avid recycler, Majoor discovered that nappies—which consist of paper, plastic and organic material—do not fit into any of the four current recycling categories in the Netherlands, and that 4 million nappies in the country alone are sent to incinerators each year to be burned. And he says it’s a big problem: “When you burn nappies, you lose precious materials that could be reused, and because of the organic waste, you release toxic chemicals in the air, not all of which can be filtered.” He looked for a means of recycling nappies and found there are none—despite the technology, logistics systems and economic model for it already being in place.
He compares it to the plastic recycling system in the Netherlands. “Five years ago, the government said all companies that produce plastic products for consumer use need to pay a small recycling fee. And a fund was created to support that recycling effort. And from there companies began developing new ways to recycle plastic and programmes were launched to inform consumers about the importance of separating plastic from other waste.”
But he says without more pressure from consumers, such action with nappy recycling could still be five to ten years away. “Everyone is waiting for everyone else,” he says. “The waste companies say the municipality should take the first step; the municipality says the government should act first. And the producers of nappies really don’t want it, because it will cost money. Maybe in the long run it will save money, but in the short run it will require an investment by them.”
Majoor decided to reach out to another powerful group: the consumer. He wanted to know how many people would be interested in having a means to separate the nappies from their household or childcare business into special containers that Luierrecycling Nederland would collect for recycling.
“As an entrepreneur, I’m looking at what the best possible way is for me to make progress,” Majoor says. “And I thought if I just start a limited company and decide to do this on my own as my private business, the municipality, producers and government will not want to cooperate. So I chose to start the foundation, and I invited all those actors to become members to coordinate.”
To gauge consumer interest, Majoor set up an experiment with people he knew to see how many would subscribe to his recycling scheme. “This was important,” he says, “because if the consumer says ‘we don’t care,’ we can’t do anything. If the consumer doesn’t want to change, nothing will change.” But within a month, the foundation had 20,000 subscribers. “These are not just individuals,” Majoor clarifies. “These include kindergartens and crèches. And I can see on Facebook that I’ve reached 250,000 people, at least half of which I believe are willing to participate.”The first and second phase of his strategy—first to build subscribers and then to invite other actors to join his foundation—are in the works. In the summer of this year, Majoor hopes to broaden his test phase and provide special bins locally for nappy recycling, and eventually to make it a nationwide initiative.
“All my life I have had something in myself asking, why do we have so much waste. It’s a passion for me. I can’t help it. But I wanted to take steps beyond being a conscious consumer. With an economic background from Maastricht and as an entrepreneur, I want to build a company around this.”Earning a lot of money, he’s learned, is not his primary ambition. “And what is very interesting, I think, is that many more people like me are driven primarily by making changes in the world,” he says. “We are social entrepreneurs. We are making progress, but are not focused on money only.”And fatherhood not only inspired his idea for the foundation, but deepened his dedication to environmental protection. “As consumers, we are living in one of the best times ever. But from an environmental perspective, it’s quite bad,” he says. “If we go on like this, the Earth, in twenty years, will be totally out of balance. And I want to be able to tell my children I did something.”
He says it’s just a matter of learning new systems and understanding their importance. “Two centuries ago, we didn’t brush our teeth. But now it’s a normal thing. And it’s the same actually with waste,” he says. “Let’s stop putting everything in one place to be burned. Let’s separate it in such a way that all waste is recycled. This is something that we need to learn as a generation.”