from cast-off to startup: using the waste stream in the classroom

waste stream

For a number of entrepreneurship educators, colleges and universities are not merely places for learning about the problems created by our culture’s waste stream — they are places for demonstrating real-world solutions. Consider Dale McCauley, VentureWell OPEN presenter and principal investigator for teams participating in the E-Team Grants program. He teaches and manages the makerspace used by the business and engineering schools at Oregon State University. A couple years ago, McCauley heard about a large supply of surplus athletic uniforms that the university was about to discard, a requirement of NCAA rules that prohibited their sale or distribution. McCauley, who teaches a first-year entrepreneurship course called Launch Pad, had a better idea.

“I thought, this would be a fantastic challenge for my students to really stretch their creativity and figure out what to do with thousands of pounds of textile waste,” he recalls. “And everything was branded OSU, so there was even a school spirit aspect.”

The creative and varied products that his students developed confirmed for McCauley that a university’s local waste stream can be a valuable educational resource. It doesn’t hurt that the resource is free and plentiful: reports have found that campuses in the U.S. annually generate an estimated 200 million tons of waste, an average of 640 pounds per student each year. Around the country, other innovation and entrepreneurship educators are making the same connection, challenging students to see their local waste stream as an overlooked business opportunity.

As the following profiles suggest, the particulars of the academic programs may vary, but ultimately each is using the tools of innovation and entrepreneurship to help students view the waste stream around them as a resource — a lesson that also happens to be of critical importance for society as a whole.

thinking globally, innovating locally

Colorado’s rural Gunnison Valley might not seem the most likely place to innovate around waste, but VentureWell Faculty Grants recipient, Taryn Mead, contends that the area’s wide-open spaces and strong ethic of self-reliance encourage a special resourcefulness. “There’s a culture of bootstrapping that happens in rural places,” explains Mead, who teaches in the School of Environment and Sustainability and the School of Business at Western Colorado University in Gunnison. “There’s an inherent amount of innovation that happens when you don’t have experts to fix everything, and you don’t have access to every kind of material.”

Mead, whose background is in biomimicry, notes that “in ecosystems, there is no such thing as waste. Every nutrient and particle that is discarded by one organism is food and raw material for another.” She began to wonder how this natural model could be applied to the waste stream of the rural communities in the Gunnison Valley. “How can we strategically divert resources and, rather than sending them to the landfill, find a way to repurpose them and create new business opportunities out of them?”

Those questions inform the new undergraduate course Mead will be teaching this fall, entitled Science-driven Innovation for the Circular Economy. The name reflects the class’s cross-disciplinary roots: it’s open to students in the School of Environment and Sustainability, the School of Business, the honors program, the science department, and perhaps engineering students through a new partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder.

The three-unit course will begin with a review of nature-inspired innovation and the circular economy, then explore the basics of eco-design and sustainable design methodologies, and conclude with a half-semester project where students create an innovation that reuses, recycles, or upcycles materials from the local waste stream. Local green entrepreneurs will offer the class guidance along the way, and students will pitch their final projects for a chance to earn a slot in the university’s Innovation+Creativity+Innovation (ICE)Lab Incubator program. (Funding for early stage ideation for the ICELab was provided by a VentureWell grant.)

The course is an offshoot of Detritus, Mead’s broader community vision aimed at helping rural communities move from resource extraction toward more sustainable, place-based economies. That focus on a pressing community issue holds a particular appeal to today’s students, she contends. “If you look at the statistics around what makes this generation of college students tick, they want meaningful engagement and real-world challenges,” explains Mead, who took part in the VentureWell 2019 Green Launchpad Educators Workshop. “They’re not that excited about hypothetical learning and hypothetical situations. They’re more excited about digging in and getting something done.”

unleashing the power of students

In contrast to the hyper-local work of Mead, Ranji Vaidyanathan, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Oklahoma State University and VentureWell faculty grantee, is using his local classroom to take on waste stream issues that are having an impact worldwide — the proliferation of plastic, building debris caused by natural disasters, and the growing problem of e-waste. Backed by grants from the Department of Energy and a large plastic bottle manufacturer, he is leveraging the brainpower of the graduate students in his Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Scholars program to explore the feasibility of what he calls his “wild and crazy ideas” for transforming these challenging waste streams into businesses.

An example: After talking to Julie Hartell in OSU’s civil engineering department, who is working to develop concrete made from recycled structure debris, Vaidyanathan wondered if that material could be combined with new large-scale applications of 3-D printing technology. “If you can use that reformulated concrete and 3-D print houses right at the place where a disaster struck, that means you don’t have to take that material and dump it into the landfill,” he explains.

Is it possible? Vaidyanathan thinks so, but that’s where his students at the Spears School of Business come in. His course will have students dive deeply into both the technical feasibility and the commercial viability of that venture, testing their ideas using debris from campus construction projects.

The goal is to give students hands-on experience in the process of developing a business, but also to help them see that today’s crazy idea might be tomorrow’s transformational technology. “If we teach our students that sustainability and the circular economy can contribute to new products, we can demonstrate to them that it will benefit them in the long run,” says Vaidyanathan, another Green Launchpad Workshop alum. “What we need is a groundswell of champions, and our students are going to be our best champions for sustainability. They have more energy and more dedication to get these things done.”

And if recycling debris doesn’t appeal, students can focus on finding new uses for PET plastic, composite materials, or e-waste. Giving his students a choice of projects is part of the draw, he says, as is the chance to gain experience working in a field that represents a departure from the traditional industries of the region. “We told them, hey, if you have sustainability in your resume, you are going to be pulled into companies,” Vaidyanathan says. “If you do this, this is going to be really good for you.”

finding treasures in trash

The 50 students in Dale McCauley’s three-term Launch Pad course at Oregon State are also tasked with seeing value in materials that others have dismissed — whether that’s old athletic uniforms or components in university e-waste. “My objective is to get them thinking in an innovative manner,” he explains, “to make them aware of all the waste that’s around us, and to realize that there is more to it than just chucking it in a bin.”

McCauley’s Launch Pad class — an expanded version of the Innovation Nation start-up course required of every new Oregon State business student — challenges young entrepreneurs of any OSU major to develop and commercialize a product or technology for the student market. Two years ago, he began requiring that prototypes use specific campus waste, with some rules: for the old uniforms, for example, students had to make three products but only one could be apparel.

“What they created was actually quite extraordinary,” he recalls: stuffed animals, wall hangings, a tablecloth, an oven mitt, even a stadium seat. For the latter, “they found some waste board around campus, framed it all up, built some hinges, and here’s this really neat fold-out stadium seat, all branded OSU. It was very cool.”

Last year’s designated material was e-waste, specifically curated boxes of components pre-sorted from the roughly 7,000 pounds of e-waste produced on Oregon State’s campus each month. McCauley says this material proved far more challenging to students, partly because it offered an overwhelming number of options. Students eventually came up with coaster sets, message boards (from upcycled keyboard keys), and even jewelry (or Jewel-Re, as the team called itself), a venture that McCauley says will be further developed by its founders in subsequent classes, and has the potential to become a viable business.

As in the courses offered by Mead and Vaidyanathan, McCauley’s students are inspired by the opportunity to have impact on a real-world issue. “They love it,” notes McCauley. “We have a lot of demand from students that are interested in starting companies that are eco-friendly in some aspect, or a social venture. That’s a huge part of what’s coming in the door these days.”

By helping students see their local waste stream as a potential resource, educators are helping demonstrate the vital role entrepreneurship can play in addressing this increasingly challenging global issue. In the process, they are helping the next generation of innovators learn that opportunities often lie buried in what others have overlooked.

Visit our Environmentally Responsible Engineering page for tools and resources to help you integrate principles of sustainability into your curriculum. 

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