Mt. Lebanon couple, CMU students work to transform water bottles into useful items
February 1, 2014 10:14 PM
David Saiia and Vananh Le started the Reuse Everything Institute with the goal of turning plastic bottles into a variety of useful items, including roof thatch and construction fencing.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An estimated 300 billion plastic water bottles are discarded as litter every year around the world, 30 billion in the United States alone. When David Saiia of Mt. Lebanon taught business at Ithaca College, he took students to Ecuadoran villages for sustainable development projects and was aghast at the number of plastic bottles on hillsides and in streams and rivers.
During a trip in the mid-2000s, he thought: What if a simple machine could turn all those plastic bottles into something with a lasting purpose?
With $80,000 in grants from the National Collegiate Innovators and Inventors Alliance, he developed a prototype to do just that -- a 70-pound hand-cranked tabletop machine that has an inset for a variety of plastic bottle sizes, a cylinder to turn each bottle and a blade to cut it into strips.
The plastic strips, from one-half inch to three-quarters of an inch wide, are fused into long strips that can be made into fencing for construction, agriculture and erosion control; greenhouse roofing; and tropical roof thatch, among other things.
Now working on the next generation of what he calls the Radical Reuse Machine, Mr. Saiia and his partner, Vananh Le, last year incorporated the Reuse Everything Institute. The nonprofit is their vehicle to begin tackling the plastic bottle litter epidemic with a business proposition for entrepreneurs, both here and in developing nations.
The institute is one of 12 semi-finalists competing for funding in the annual Fast Pitch sponsored by Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh and scheduled for March 6. More than $30,000 and prizes will be awarded.
The Reuse Everything Institute is working with engineering students from Carnegie Mellon University's Engineers Without Borders program. Through that collaboration, 40 to 50 students at a time are taking part in improving the technology and are involved in designing a prototype of the next generation machine, said Mr. Saiia, CEO of the institute.
"After we make one, we hope to keep them in the $40,000 to $50,000 range," he said.
The long-term goal is to get the machine mass-produced at an even lower cost for would-be entrepreneurs who don't have startup capital to launch a business.
"We would provide the training and give entrepreneurs the machine," said Ms. Le, the institute's director. "They would pay back over time and the money will go into more machines, maintaining them and improving the technology."
Ms. Le also has started a jewelry enterprise network, Xephyra, for women in Vietnam reusing fabric and fibers.
The couple met at Duquesne University when he was teaching strategic management and sustainable enterprise development and she, a former Peace Corps worker with experience in nonprofit management, was studying for a degree in sustainability.
"I was doing a project on reducing plastic bottle waste when I heard about this guy who had developed and patented a machine," she said.
Buying bottled water can cost an individual hundreds of times more a year than using tap water. The environmental cost of creating the plastic bottle, filling it with water, shipping it and disposing of the plastic afterward uses an estimated 15 million barrels of oil, according to the Earth Policy Institute.
"To use plastic once and throw it out is really a crime," Mr. Saiia said. "It is an amazing resource. When in ultraviolet light, it takes 15 years to break down but it could last 2,000 years" otherwise.
Plastic strips woven together and used with gravel to stabilize roadbeds would outlast the road.
"What's becoming more clear is the amazing number of things you can make from plastic bottles," he said.
Used in developing countries, the machine could help people get a leg up in starting a business, earning more than subsistence wages and raising the economy of a small village, he said. "It could prevent the brain drain" that's so prevalent in poor areas. "It could also motivate people not to burn plastic," a common and toxic practice.
The first step will be to put the machine to work creating small businesses in the Pittsburgh area.
The couple has proposed their product to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy for use as construction fencing for upcoming projects in Frick and Schenley parks.
"We have had an exploratory meeting and we are looking at what might be possible," said Kate Freed, vice president of development for the conservancy. "It's a fascinating technology, an interesting reuse, and it's wonderful he is using the great talent" of engineering students.
In Ecuador, a footbridge in a nature reserve is covered with plastic thatching that was cranked out from the Radical Reuse Machine.
Plastic strips attached to bamboo can make a much more durable thatch roof, Mr. Saiia said.
The ones made of reeds have to be replaced every few years and they harbor a destructive beetle that cannot live in plastic. Plastic trumps corrugated metal and fiberglass as an option because it allows air to flow through it, lets light through and doesn't make a racket in the rainy season.
"With unemployment as it is, we have to think about ways we can create opportunities," Mr. Saiia said. "Instead of throwing away huge amounts of resources like plastic, we can create opportunities for community-based manufacturing, like what Pittsburgh was based on."
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