A plastic-recycling startup created in its founder's garage during the pandemic has gained enough traction to contemplate expansion across Canada by 2024.
[Re] Waste collects and recycles plastic waste on behalf of businesses and other organizations, transforming material that can't be conventionally recycled into products its clients can either use or sell.
"The goal is taking this waste, commercializing it, and providing our clients with opportunities to generate revenue from their waste, as opposed to just looking at it as an expense to work with [Re] Waste," founder Corey Saban told Taproot.
For a flat monthly fee, clients receive collection bins that [Re] Waste picks up or has shipped to its processing facility in southeast Edmonton. It weighs the bins to generate a monthly sustainability report showing how much plastic has been diverted from landfill, then it turns the plastic into something the company can use, while living up to its obligations under Extended Producer Responsibility protocols.
How [Re] Waste recycles the plastic is tailored to the client. Goodwill Industries, for instance, accumulates large volumes of plastic from community donations that [Re] Waste transforms into a variety of products the organization can use in its stores and processing facilities, including construction materials (hexagon tiles and large sheets for wall protection), concrete parking curbs, and — in the near future — concrete planters.
"This is a great example of a massive effort to advance the (circular economy) in Alberta throught the positive power of partnerships and innovation!" wrote Mortimer Capriles, director of sustainability and innovation for Goodwill Industries of Alberta, in response to a post about [Re] Waste's living wall project at the Calgary Impact Centre.
Value Buds became [Re] Waste's first commercial client, enlisting the company to transform waste such as the plastic jars used for packaging into garbage cans and vape-card holders. The cannabis retailer was already developing a recycling program to deal with its large volumes of plastic waste (a major issue for the cannabis industry as a whole) when it heard about Saban's experiments to turn plastic garbage into useful objects.
[Re] Waste's growing client base includes IKEA (for which it transforms packaging waste into plastic flakes or pellets) and other businesses in the cannabis industry. A number of American multinationals have also expressed interest. Saban said [Re] Waste will be in five regions of Canada by 2024, and he hopes to expand stateside in the near future, too.
As the startup grows, Saban is glad to have been accepted to the University of Alberta's Threshold Impact Venture Mentoring Service, which offers guidance to local entrepreneurs. [Re] Waste is also seeking funding to facilitate its expansion plans, which represents a major step in its evolution and a new experience for Saban.
"To work with these multinationals, they want you to serve (more than) just a region, you need to go across Canada or go across the States to work with them — and that was our commitment," he said.
Genesis of an idea
The 2020 lockdown changed everything for Saban. Months into a new job as vice-president of a concrete company, he found himself abruptly laid off. He was home almost 24 hours a day, parenting his three young children while his wife, a health-care worker, continued working.
During this time, Saban was struck by the volume of packaging and other plastic waste his family generated.
"I did some research and there's not a whole lot of material that's actually recycled when you put it in your blue bag," said Saban. In 2018, municipalities across North America were no longer able to send large amounts of plastic waste to China for recycling and disposal, a waste management strategy they had come to rely on. "China didn't want to be the garbage can for the world," Saban said.
This has put pressure on municipal infrastructure across North America, including the Edmonton region. On top of this, much of the plastic produced by consumers and businesses cannot be recycled using conventional means. A small proportion of plastic can be sold, but an ailing plastics commodity market has made this difficult (although the industry says that is now improving).
With so much plastic waste heading to landfill, Saban wondered if there was another way to recycle it. He began tinkering in his garage with a pancake griddle and clothing iron, melting single-use grocery bags together and transforming them into hard, dense tiles.
"From there, I began improving the process, iteration after iteration," said Saban, who is a civil engineering technologist and worked in construction for years. He bought small-scale equipment to further his experiments, including a machine to granulate yogurt containers and another to melt plastic and inject it into moulds. He began making coasters and selling them online, staying up until the wee hours to keep up with the demand.
Saban did a ton of research into the plastics industry and learned about Alberta's new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies. EPR makes manufacturers, importers, and retailers responsible for recycling the waste generated by their businesses. Saban's research made him curious whether there might be a demand for a company that not only collects and recycles plastic, but also uses it to make new products.
As he continued his garage experimentation, Saban took online courses via Edmonton Unlimited and secured a pilot project with the City of Beaumont and a local Starbucks. This attracted the attention of Edmonton media, which in turn caught the attention of Value Buds.
To meet the cannabis retailer's needs, Saban had to scramble to scale up, as he was still working from his garage. He secured a manufacturing facility at the Edmonton International Airport and hired staff. As the company has acquired more clients, it has since shifted its manufacturing to an industrial park in southeast Edmonton and now employs a production manager and two processors.
Saban has made use of local entrepreneurial resources such as Startup TNT, pitching at its Investment Summit IV in 2021 and making it to the top 20. But he hasn't received much funding from investors or granting agencies thus far. This hasn't stopped [Re] Waste from finding new clients and growing.
"Through bootstrapping, staying lean, figuring out exactly what we need to do, we've been able to get to this point for relatively cheap," he said.
And it may be for the best, said Saban, as funding may have made it trickier for his early-stage startup to change course and take risks. Now that [Re] Waste has solidified its business model, the company is looking into opportunities to accelerate its growth.
Saban is on the cusp of an expansion that will transform his startup into a sustainable enterprise. "It's exceeding everything I thought it could be," he said.
None of this would have happened without the global pandemic.
"I would still be working 40-plus hours per week away from home and not paying attention to these issues because my life was just different," he said.