Ibrahim AlHusseini is not your typical investor. A Palestinian refugee born in Jordan and raised in Saudi Arabia, he attended the University of Washington where his fascination with sustainable economics was born.
He started his first company out of his college dorm room, and soon made millions. He could have stopped there, but everything changed during a trip to the Red Sea. There, he was stunned to find the beaches and scuba destinations he loved as a child choked with plastic. The fish were gone, the coral was dying, and sewage and chemical spills had turned once-bright blue waters a sickly gray.
AlHusseini decided that personal wealth hardly mattered if the planet was dying. So, he set out to fix our global municipal waste problem.
According to the World Bank, the world generates around 1.3 billion tons of municipal waste each year, a figure that is expected to increase to around 2.2 billion tons by 2025 and double again by 2050. Put another way, that’s around 3 pounds of waste produced per person, every single day. And what’s worrying is that our relationship to waste is wasteful itself. This is a resource that should be reused, but instead we mostly bury it in the ground or dump it in our oceans.
AlHusseini’s company, FullCycle Energy, finances global power plants that turn that waste into clean fuel to bring affordable, sustainable power to millions in need in the developing world. FullCycle Energy uses gasification: the conversion of carbon-laden waste into “syngas” for fuel production. This technology exposes waste to extreme heat to break down and strip out dangerous, pollution-causing compounds, which can then be disposed of. Modern gasification does not produce the toxic gases generated by incineration and can be built and operate at half the cost, allowing for much faster global adoption.
Significantly, AlHusseini’s technology lowers these emissions more effectively than other renewable forms of energy production, like solar or wind, as it it does not require toxic and expensive forms or storage like batteries to function reliably. Modern gasification uses the world’s never-ending supply of municipal, agricultural and industrial waste to produce a clean, versatile and valuable synthesis gas that can be used to create liquid fuels, bio plastics, energy or many other forms of value. It’s cost-effective, and something that rapidly developing (and polluting) countries can get behind.
AlHusseini sees the global waste problem as the symptom of a large problem. “Capitalism as we know it must evolve in order for us to progress as a society,” he explains. “Today’s capitalism has pulled billions of people out of poverty and disease and continues to play a positive role in the human story. Still, there have a multitude of massive unintended consequences that we haven’t even begun to measure or understand.”
“As a collective society, we used to think that our oceans were big enough to dilute the pollution produced by industry, or that our oxygen supply was infinite enough that we could withstand air pollution forever,” he continues. “But now we know.”
So, what do we do about it? Government action hasn’t been sufficient, and philanthropy will only make a small dent. For the solution, AlHusseini looks to impact investing: investing in new ventures that solve the planet’s most pressing social and environmental problems, and that also return a profit.
AlHusseini is hopeful. The world’s largest financial institutions including Goldman Sachs have launched impact-investment funds. Stocks of socially conscious companies like Tesla, Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s are soaring. Established organizations such as the World Economic Forum, G8, and Aspen Institute all exploring ways to get involved. Social entrepreneurism is on the rise. And individuals with modest incomes are getting involved too, wanting to both make money and grow a venture that makes the world a better place.
“Impact investing is a core part of ‘Capitalism 2.0’,” believes AlHusseini. “As more people – not just the Bill Gates of the world – get involved, impact investments will increasingly be a tool to create a better world that benefits the economy, society and the planet. This is only the beginning.”