Reduce, Reuse, ‘Upcycle’!
Deplastify the Planet is a one-of-a-kind project-based class offered jointly by the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (SCET) and Schoolab, a global innovation studio, where students work with real-world companies with a single goal in mind – ‘deplastify’ the planet. Students from all disciplines and backgrounds work in small teams on semester-long projects. Each team is paired with a corporate partner and spends the entirety of the semester brainstorming, building, testing, and solving for how to curb the excessive use of plastic. (The course is returning in Fall 2020 for Berkeley students! Undergrad | Grad.)
Team Upcycle happens to be one of the many groups that spent four months working diligently on high-impact solutions. They are a group of three hard-working students: Joey Hochman, a Class of 2020 graduate who studied Linguistics and Data Science; Jenny Chiu, another Class of 2020 graduate with a bachelor’s in environmental science and a minor in toxicology; and Shuge Luo, a rising junior studying Global Urban Humanities and Interdisciplinary Studies. Three students with almost nothing in common, except for their shared passion to conserve our environment by building tangible solutions and replacing plastics.
Joey, Jenny, and Shuge were paired with Method, a company that manufactures a wide range of sustainable cleaning products, and Whole Foods, the multinational supermarket chain now acquired by Amazon. The three students were tasked with a unique problem – converting the waste generated at Whole Foods into an input for Method’s products. Little did they know that their brilliant solution would set them up on the path of becoming start-up founders!
Putting their diverse backgrounds to use, the student team spent time researching and drawing on their knowledge of plastics. They soon realized the problem they were trying to solve was much bigger than just Whole Foods or Method. Each year, 90 million tons of plastic packaging is produced worldwide, and a whopping 80% of it astonishingly ends up in our landfills and our environment. Upon further research, they came across the most recent innovation in the field – bioplastics. While bioplastics are incredibly promising and seem to be a clear alternative for traditional plastics, why haven’t they been largely adopted? The underlying problem, the team realized, was the cost of bioplastic. The current generation of bioplastics are not economically competitive with their petroleum counterparts. Hence, companies with incentives to make a profit often look the other way and continue using traditional plastic in their manufacturing.
As they continued digging around for solutions, Joey, Jenny, and Shuge stumbled upon PHA: a bioplastic that is made from organic feedstock and is compostable. They immediately saw an opportunity to transform the organic waste produced by Whole Foods, specifically the cardboard and food waste, into compostable packaging. The new material could then be used by Method for packaging its products.
Team Upcycle developed a unique product: a fully compostable bottle, lined with PHA bioplastic made by fermenting food waste from a grocery store. With its sleek, sustainable design, this bottle is not only eco-friendly but also decreases the cost for sustainable materials.
The high costs of producing bioplastic used to be a barrier for companies, but Team Upcycle’s innovative circular economy model helped them overcome this obstacle with their product. Using food waste as feedstock helped reduce production costs dramatically, a decrease of approximately 45%. Moreover, offsetting packaging material with recycled cardboard and using PHA for coating purposes helps cut material costs further. Through this model, Team Upcycle was also able to ensure they were not just sending more materials to pile up in the landfill, but also bringing price competitive, compostable packaging to market.
Joey, Jenny, and Shuge spent four months working on Team Upcycle and built a tangible solution for a worldwide problem. They incorporated the various things they learned from ‘Deplastifying the Planet’ class – bioplastics, circular economy model, and the technique to replace plastics – and brought it all together for their project with Method and Whole Foods. Over 53 stakeholder interviews, 3 product designs, 53 prototype respondents, and 4 supply chain iterations, Team Upcycle built a generalizable solution to replace the 90 million tons of plastic used for packaging each year. Their next goal is to expand all across the United States and the European Union, targeting a staggering $3.1 billion market, as they continue to make affordable, fully compostable packaging widely available for everyone.
Check out their product pitch video below that won them 3rd place at the 2020 Collider Cup, SCET’s all-start student showcase of the best student ventures from all of our classes:
We all share a responsibility to adopt sustainable practices and help save our planet. For UC Berkeley students who hope to build practical solutions for everyday problems, the Sutardja Center’s project-based classes like ‘Deplastifying the Planet’ empower students to make a tangible impact. The ‘Deplastify the Planet’ course creates an autonomous learning environment conducive to fostering real-world skills applicable to any business. Being able to work with corporate partners helps students step out of the four walls of their classrooms and learn by actually building, solving, and doing. For corporates, it is not only important but very much necessary to think about how their products are affecting the environment. Now is the time to use sustainable, socially acceptable packaging. Now is the time to build the future. Now is the time to deplastify the planet.