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

70 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2014

See all articles by Geoffrey Gareth Jones

Geoffrey Gareth Jones

Harvard University - General Management Unit

Andrew Spadafora

Harvard Business School

Date Written: March 4, 2014


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 small-scale private waste traders, and the late twentieth-century integrated waste management firms, 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

Suggested Citation

Jones, Geoffrey Gareth and Spadafora, Andrew, Waste, Recycling and Entrepreneurship in Central and Northern Europe, 1870-1940 (March 4, 2014). Harvard Business School General Management Unit Working Paper No. 14-084, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2404487 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2404487

Geoffrey Gareth Jones (Contact Author)

Harvard University - General Management Unit ( email )

Boston, MA 02163
United States

Andrew Spadafora

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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