Decarbonizing the global economy and solving the climate crisis is one of the most important challenges of our time. From regenerative farming and plant-based foods to sustainable streetwear and point-of-sale financing for home retrofits and solar, we are seeing tremendous innovation across industrial, enterprise and consumer applications. Here at NEA we have long-standing interest in backing entrepreneurs that are working on disruptive and highly scalable solutions for a more sustainable future. We are proud to be investors in companies like Aigen, Dandelion Energy, Goodleap, New Wave Foods, Outrider and Unless Collective to name a few. And we are committed to continuing to back world-class teams building smart and scalable solutions for a sustainable future, including our recent investment in recycling technology company, Glacier.
Let’s Talk Trash
As kids, we learned that taking care of the planet starts with the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. For decades, recycling has been at the forefront of municipal efforts to improve sustainability by making recycling a daily consumer habit and a point of pride for environmentally conscious consumers. Yet shockingly in the U.S. today, approximately 50% of recyclable content still ends up in landfills. Looking at it on a global scale, each year the world generates roughly 2.2B tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) with only 13.5% of that recycled, while nearly 70% is sent to open dumps and landfills.
Apart from the climate and human health issues with landfill waste, recycled material also represents an increasingly valuable and supply constrained commodity stream. With today’s technology, more than $120B worth of recyclable materials are lost each year to landfills, dumps, and incineration. While demand for recycled commodities is growing faster than supply, recycling rates are declining as the industry experiences a perfect storm of labor, economic and policy constraints - ones we believe create a unique opportunity for digitization and automation of recycling over the next decade.
- Chronic labor shortages: most recycling facilities still rely on human sortation by hand, a dirty and difficult job, with annual labor turn-over rates in excess of 500%. This creates persistent labor shortages for recycling operators, resulting in rising wages and a reduction in profitability (labor makes up ~50% of opex).
- Lack of automation: Historically low penetration of robotics in recycling - industry is just at the beginning of the digitization curve with <1% penetration into existing MRFs.
- Policy tailwinds: Converging policy shifts requiring both high levels of purity in recycled commodities and higher municipal recovery rates. Manual sortation is rarely able to achieve the desired processing rate of or attain purity levels of 99.5%
While we’ve seen industries like manufacturing and warehousing benefit from tech innovation to manage labor costs and navigate supply / demand shifts, the recycling industry remains underserved and is primed to begin adopting intelligent robotics and automation. It turns out, recycling is badly in need of innovative solutions.
Robotics to the Rescue: Glacier
Glacier is revolutionizing recycling by introducing intelligent robotics for waste sortation. The company is on a mission to bring automation to the recycling industry, accelerate the shift to a circular economy and reduce the emissions impact of our waste stream.
We, at NEA, are thrilled to lead Glacier’s $4.5M seed round. When we first met Glacier’s co-founders, Areeb Malik and Rebecca Hu, in early 2021, we were immediately impressed by their depth of knowledge in the waste management space, their customer obsession, and the performance of their initial robotics installation. Areeb and Rebecca saw an opportunity to bust through the hurdles to automation for the recycling industry by building a solution that was easy to install with fast payback and super performance to human sortation. We believe Glacier is well on its way to solving the industry’s challenge with an intelligent robotics system that is less than half the cost of other MRF robots, is 80% cheaper to install, takes one third of the space, requires no major retrofits, and has significantly faster payback.
Glacier robotics system in action
While we believe that widespread adoption of sortation robotics in the recycling industry is a massive opportunity on its own, we are also excited by the potential of Glacier to unlock computer-vision aided analytics of what shows up in the waste stream. Glacier is not only on a mission to equip every participant in the recycling industry with actionable data intelligence but to unlock insights that will power a broader shift to a circular economy. We’re excited to be an early investor in Glacier’s ambitious vision to end waste.
Rebecca Hu & Areeb Malik, Co-Founders of Glacier