May 29, 2019

At City of Austin, the Goal is Turning Trash into Treasure

Reporting Texas

Downtown Austin, Texas. Photo by MJ Tangonan/UnSplash

Want to eco-furnish your home with specialty furniture and art crafted from repurposed plastic? By next year, Austin company re:3d, which prints large-scale 3D products, should be able to fulfill your dream.

On April 29, re:3d’s idea for transforming plastic waste produced by local security-device manufacturer HID Global into useful consumer goods won Austin’s fourth annual [Re]Verse Pitch Competition in the existing business “Growth Stage Innovation” category. The company plans to use its $10,000 winnings to create a 3D-printed home goods line called Design by re:3d that will enable HID Global to divert nearly 6,000 pounds of waste from going to the landfill and save money spent on landfill fees.

This new business venture is a classic example of the circular economy, a zero-waste economic model championed by the city of Austin and promoted by both sustainability and economic development organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In 2016, the world produced 2.1 billion tons of waste annually, and global waste will increase 70 percent by 2050, according to a 2018 World Bank report. In 2017, each Texan threw away nearly seven pounds of trash per day, as reported by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The city of Austin is working to change that. In 2005, Austin signed the United Nations Urban Environment Accords, committing to achieving zero waste by 2040, among other sustainability goals. In 2011, the city adopted the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan, a 300-plus page blueprint for shifting the paradigm from managing garbage to recovering resources. It aims for zero waste by giving discarded materials second lives.

The [Re]Verse Pitch Competition, sponsored by Austin’s Circular Economy Program, connects social entrepreneurs with local businesses looking for a sustainable solution for their waste. The entrepreneurs compete to see who can create the best product from one of the waste streams. Local companies offered five different waste materials this year, including grape skins from The Austin Winery and Styrofoam coolers from cancer clinic Texas Oncology.

“[We’re] working towards an economy where all materials are put to their highest and best use throughout their entire life cycle,” said Natalie Betts, program manager of the Circular Economy Program, a partnership between Austin Resource Recovery and Austin’s Economic Development Department. “We are working proactively to design waste out of the system.”

Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler, former contractors at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, founded re:3d in 2013. Snabes and Fiedler met while volunteering with a NASA chapter of Engineers without Borders. As they traveled to developing countries in Africa and Central America to volunteer, they saw people digging through mountains of plastic waste.

“We thought to ourselves – how can we take that [waste] and grind it up and use it as a raw material, put it in a 3D printer, and make things that are useful for people,” Fiedler said.

re:3d first created a 3D human-scale printer, Gigabot, that used regular plastic filament, but in January 2018, the company received a nearly $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that enabled its staff to redesign the printer to accept ground plastic waste. Snabes said re:3d is talking with local artists, nonprofits, and the city of Austin about how their upcoming Design by re:3d products can best be showcased to boost awareness about zero waste and circular economies.

Last year’s Growth Stage Innovation champion, EVO Conversion Systems, won with its pitch to repurpose spent grain from Still Austin Whiskey Co. as food for black soldier fly larvae, which then are dried to produce high-protein poultry feed called PopWorms!. A year later, CEO Jeffrey Tomberlin said EVO is in the beginning stages of the partnership with Still Austin.

“We take things that are considered waste and convert them to things of value while protecting the environment,” said Tomberlin, who is also a professor in Texas A&M’s department of entomology. PopWorms! are sold in 14 stores in the greater Austin area

The [Re]Verse Pitch Competition is just one tool that the city’s Circular Economy Program uses to encourage zero-waste innovation. The city of Austin also partners with Austin Technology Incubator, an affiliate of the University of Texas at Austin that supports fledgling businesses exploring complex technology solutions to address global challenges, including health care, water, mobility, energy, food and agriculture, and now, waste. In October, ATI launched its sixth program — the Circular Economy Incubator, which works with five businesses, including re:3d.“We try to use technology to solve big problems,” said Mark Sanders, director of ATI’s Circular Economy Incubator. “[The circular economy] is a nascent industry globally … but the ecosystem pieces are coming together [in Austin].”

The Circular Economy Incubator helps zero-waste start-up companies solve technical and business development problems, Sanders said. It also assists start-ups with developing business models and building capability. In its more established programs, ATI often works with businesses in its portfolio for two to three years.

While technological innovation is a vital part of creating a circular economy, simply taking time to donate old items instead of trashing them can be just as powerful. In 2018, Austin’s Circular Economy Program organized [Re]Move and [Re]Use, a campaign rolled out in late July, when most student leases end, to encourage the thousands of UT students moving out of the West Campus area to resell or give away furniture and household goods instead of dumping them in the streets. The 2018 pilot program, which offered temporary drop-off stations as well as convenient re-use collection containers, resulted in 62 tons of material diverted from landfills. The program will be repeated this July.

“One of our original goals … [was] to start raising awareness about the economic potential of these unusual waste streams,” Betts said. “There are these large volumes of interesting, potentially valuable material … in dumpsters that don’t have an obvious, easy solution but may have a solution when you apply some creativity and entrepreneurial savvy to them.

“To me, that’s what the circular economy is all about,” Betts continued. “How do we rethink about waste and how do we reimagine it? [Waste] can be the beginning, not the end.”