Plastic water bottles aren’t the most eco-friendly way to get a drink of water, but they’re convenient. Besides, if you toss the bottle into a recycling bin, you’re doing Mother Earth a good deed, right? Not quite. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only nine percent of plastic waste was recovered for recycling in 2012. Eliminate that bottle’s exposure to ultraviolet light and it could last longer than you—more than 200 years, says David Saiia, CEO of Reuse Everything Institute.
Seeing plastic bottles litter the Ecuadoran villages he visited with his business students from Ithaca College, Saiia, of Inglewood Drive, began crafting a solution. Supported by a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, his “simple, back of the napkin idea” developed into the Radical Reuse Machine. This patented device sorts and cuts waste plastic bottles into strips for thatch roofing, construction or agricultural fencing, greenhouse covers and erosion netting.
“One of the questions I always ask students is ‘What can you do with the things around you?’” says Saiia. “It costs more to make a water bottle out of recycled material than to create a new one. [The Radical Reuse Machine] is a way to keep the plastic as it is and use it in a different way.” After tests in Ecuador, Saiia and his students discovered the thatching formed brighter, longer lasting and better ventilated roofing than traditional materials.
Saiia, who recently taught strategic management and sustainable development at Duquesne University, met Vananh Le while she was studying for a degree in sustainability. In 2013, they co-founded the nonprofit REII. The couple’s mission? Promoting sustainability through creating businesses that encourage environmental efforts and entrepreneurship.
In collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, REII is automating the Radical Reuse Machine. REII staff and CMU students field-tested their prototype at Ecuador’s Fundacion Maquipucuna reserve in August, with hopes to provide additional thatch roofing and a source of income for locals. “We want to do more than create a product. We want to support the community, and small businesses are how a community grows stronger,” says Le, REII’s director. “We’re hoping to start a dialogue and have what we do down there help us in our own backyard.”
REII plans to launch its Jobs Access and Waste Reuse Business program in Pittsburgh sometime this year. The franchise-like system will provide aspiring entrepreneurs with a Radical Reuse Machine, training and support to run their own businesses. These entrepreneurs will gradually repay REII at a decreasing rate, which will provide revenue for the company to create new machines and upgrade its technology. “We care about how to help other people, as well as improve the environment,” says Le. “Our mission is have the social, economic and environmental aspects all work together.”
Saiia notes that, with implementing their similarly modeled Poverty Alleviation and Waste Reuse Business program in Ecuador, villagers won’t have to travel to cities for jobs. “If you keep the brain power and entrepreneur activity in rural areas, you create a better economy,” he says. “It’s the same principle for North America, where we have to put the labor and money back into the community.”
It doesn’t stop at plastic bottles. Le’s jewelry company, Xephyra, works with Vietnamese women to craft accessories from waste fabric. She even plans to collect used neckties and transform them into bowties, and then host a fundraiser where people can purchase and wear a bowtie as their “ticket” to a dinner event. “You can create so many products from older items. The choice is unlimited,” she says. “Little things count when done collectively.”
For more information or to check out REII’s latest projects, visit www.reuseeverything.org.