Before the start of his Executive MBA at the EPFL, Emile Scheepers, an engineer working for Vale, the Brazilian multinational mining company, was tasked with preparing a pitch for a business idea with growth potential. “The core of my idea was to do something with the tailings – something that has always been there as a result of the production process. There is value inherent in the tailings, but I wanted to figure out how we could use it, what the product is and what it is not. We discovered that some of our residues were so rich in quartz that it became attractive to the sand market,” Emile explains. A three-minute presentation convinced four professionals to join him and work on his business idea for the duration of the EMBA program.
After eight months of iteration and refinement, Emile explained, the business case became clear when laying out the idea on the Business Model Canvas, a tool to map the nine building blocks of a business model. Giving substance to the notion of “one man’s waste is another man’s treasure,” the final idea was to use existing tailings or residue material from Vale’s iron-ore mining operations and transform it into quartz surfaces (also called engineered stone), an alternative to natural stone like granite. Indeed, Vale produces huge volumes of a quartz-rich residue that combined with resin can be used to replace natural quartz in the production of Quartz Surfaces. The final product can for instance be used to make composite surfaces for kitchen and bathroom countertops.
When presenting his idea, Emile put a lot of effort in demonstrating how strong the business case was. Indeed, the market for quartz surfaces countertops is valued at an estimated 3 billion dollars in the United States alone, which makes up around 10% of the overall countertop market. The key point for Vale was that the volume of tailings produced every year made it a very attractive value proposition. It also helped that this project was clearly aligned with Vale’s strategic plan, with sustainability being one of its three principles, in addition to competitiveness and financial strength.
However, Vale’s tailings have more potential than just for Quartz Surfaces, and at larger volumes, too. As Emile was working on his project, a UN Report on Sand Mining was published, finding that the use of sand greatly exceeded its natural renewal rate. As recently as September 2017, the influential journal Science also warned the world of similar consequences.
Sand is the basis of many products such as glass bottles, concrete and cement, and even smartphones. So, Vale’s quartz-rich residue opens up many additional opportunities for supplying other industries such as in construction or landscaping and in the sports industry, on golf courses and beach volleyball courts. Ultimately, Vale decided to pilot the project that Emile is currently spearheading in his role as Leader of Customer Service Solutions (Europe & MENA).
Although the idea of quartz surfaces itself was not a new concept, convincing Vale to support and implement this idea was not an easy feat. After completing his EMBA in 2014, Emile returned to Vale and to turn his idea into reality, he embarked on a true intrapreneurial journey. To inject his idea into a big established company such as Vale, Emile recalls three critical steps:
Vale’s Quartz Project is a great example of the benefits of the circular economy: it opens up potential new ideas for the company by transforming a residue into a resource from which multiple benefits could be derived, and it allows the company to further reduce its environmental impact.
For further information about the Vale Quartz Project, please contact Nadine Blaser at email@example.com.
Inspired by the innovative Vale Quartz Project but don’t know where to begin? The Circular Economy Sprint can help guide you to unleash the potential of the circular economy for your organization within just 7 weeks. Please contact Jan van der Kaaij, Managing Partner, at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at +31 6 28 02 18 80 to leverage your business opportunities from the circular economy.
Image source: Pixabay/Skitterphoto. This image is for illustrative purposes only and does not display the Vale Quartz product.