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Obaggo featured on Earth911 Podcast



Obaggo's founder and CEO, Dave New, was recently interviewed by Earth911's Mitch Ratcliffe, where he discusses Obaggo's innovation for recycling post-consumer plastic bags and packaging film waste.


Click this link to listen, or read the transcript below:

Earth911 Podcast: Obaggo's Plastic #2 and #4 Recycling Appliance - Earth911


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Earth911, Sustainability in Your Ear. I'm Mitch Ratcliffe, and we are back with another conversation with an innovator. But first let me just set the stage here. Recycling in the United States, I think we all know is unnecessarily difficult. Plastic in particular is hard to sort because of the myriad forms that it takes. It's often unlabeled, which means you can't identify what kind of plastic you have in your hand when you want to recycle it and finding drop off locations that accept the material you have can be a matter of luck based on whether or not your city does or doesn't accept something for instance, plastic film. With plastic film, you have few or no options today, but that may be changing.


We're talking with David New, who is the Founder of Obaggo, a countertop appliance that turns a variety of plastic bags into recyclable pucks of plastic that don't jam recycling center equipment. Obaggo can compress plastic bags and film including number two and number four plastic shopping bags, those Amazon recyclable plastic bubble wrappers that you get on your front porch, food wrapping, the cereal bags that are in the boxes of your favorite breakfast, and other things.


It really seems to us, and particularly as I read about this, as catchall solution for a problem that we all face. Now, the Obaggo appliance is currently available through Indiegogo, which means it's a crowdfunding startup and it's priced at $229. That doesn't mean that you necessarily will get the product, but I think David is working hard to make this happen. Obaggo offers a potentially groundbreaking change in the recycling of plastic and it's good to have David New here to explain. You can find out more at www.obaggo, that's O-B-A-G-G-O.com. Welcome to the show David, how are you today?


David New:

I'm great, Mitch. Thanks so much. It's an honor to be here.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Well, thank you for joining us. First off, tell us what the Obaggo appliance does and why this puck is easier to recycle than loose plastic film?


David New:

Sure. Thanks so much for setting the stage. Plastic recycling is really difficult. We have so much plastic bag and packaging film coming into our houses now. The estimate is 380 billion pieces of plastic bags and film each year, and it's the fastest growing type of packaging, and there are very few recycling solutions. Obaggo's solution is to create a kitchen appliance that you can take your plastic bags and packaging film, the recyclable kind, and put them in the device, push a button and then in about 15 minutes, they've been thermoformed into a puck. Now, the reason why this is important is because this puck is now no longer a contaminant to the recycling stream. So your recycler who picks up your curbside bin and then sorts all the recycled items and gets them to recyclers for processing can now handle this object automatically, with no labor, and it's economical.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

And one of the reasons it's important that the puck is compact like this is that it doesn't jam the equipment which leads to injuries when people try to unjam the equipment. So it's a good thing for the recycling worker in addition to just solving the problem for all of us. How big is the Obaggo appliance, and I also have to ask, does it represent a potential source of odor if for instance, you put unwashed meat wrapping in it?


David New:

Okay. So first it's very compact. We designed it to tuck away in the back of your kitchen countertop. It's about seven inches by seven inches square, and then about a 11 inches tall.


It doesn't represent a significant source of odors per se. However, you definitely need to use only recyclable plastic packaging. When I say recyclable packaging, it needs to be clean and dry, and one of the recyclable types that you'll find listed either on our website or at plasticfilmrecycling.org, or any of the plastic films that you can take back to the retail store system. Now, generally these plastics, they need to be clean and dry, and typically plastic that's been in contact with meat is contaminated with fat proteins and maybe fish are not recyclable. Those contaminants will create an unrecyclable product for people who want to make products out of it. So just think about if you were to recycle a jar of spaghetti sauce or a jar of peanut butter. Spaghetti sauce and peanut butter really create a contaminated recyclable commodity and no recycler wants to have dirty products so please wash the spaghetti sauce off your jars, your peanut butter out of your jar, and if you have a plastic bag, it's just as washable as anything else.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

One of the reasons I asked about the odor, for instance, is you have a charcoal filter on it so that you do have a way of cleaning the air. But your point about identifying those plastics, if you don't see a plastic number on something, should it go in Obaggo?


David New:

The rule of thumb always in recycling is “when in doubt throw it out!”

But we are going to do the best job that we can to educate our users as to what is and isn't recyclable. There are dozens and dozens of products that you get every day that are recyclable. There are a lot that aren't. And we are also trying to act as a catalyst towards improved labeling and improved sustainable packaging. The trends are all improving in these areas. There's the “How2Recycle” labels, there are other labels that manufacturers are putting on their product specific to their business, like Dow Chemical has “Recycle Ready” plastic film that you might find on let's say, Bear Naked granola. Amcor has a recyclable film that you might find on Nature Valley granola bars and it might have a slightly different label on it, but the trend is towards improved labelling and more recyclable films. So we'll do our best to educate people and also help encourage consumer package goods companies to improve their labeling.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

So if you've done a good job of sorting this, it should be recyclable. Would it be recyclable in a curbside recycling bin, as well as a drop-off location?


David New:

So the goal of our business is to get them conveniently recycled curbside. We have a little bit of a chicken or egg problem, we call it. It's hard to get acceptance in a curbside system when you don't exist, but we're trying and we're making progress. We actually already have a couple of Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) who have said, "We can take your pucks on day one. Not a problem for us," and often these may be material recovery facilities that have manual sorting currently. Maybe they already accept loose bags and they can easily sort out the pucks. So we're going to be accepted in a few curbside programs on day one. We also have retail store drop all off program options, and we're working on other options to make it convenient to recycle these.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

So, one of the things that I've been thinking a lot about since I first saw Obaggo is, I've always understood that different types of plastic were forms of contamination too, from the perspective of recycling each individual type of plastic. So could a number two and four plastic item be recycled at the same time to produce a usable plastic resin?


David New:

Sure. And here I don't want to get too far down into the weeds of the technical aspect of the plastic film recycling, but number two plastic is high density polyethylene (HDPE). Number four, plastic is low density polyethylene (LDPE). So the operative word there is polyethylene.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Yes, it is.


David New:

And in fact, polyethylenes are not really just a number two or a number four, but they are a whole spectrum of densities and manufacturers choose a density of polyethylene based on their application. There are other polyethylenes that aren't even numbered. There's one called linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE) which is usually used for pellet wrap because it's very stretchy in one particular direction and it's very strong. There is medium density polyethylene but the main thing to understand is that all polyethylene films can be recycled together.


David New:

Oftentimes the recycling process uses chemical additives that help them blend together. They're called compatibles and stabilizers, and they help all the different densities blend together into one homogenous ooze which then becomes its own type of a plastic with its own property. And another interesting thing about is it actually not just for polyethylenes but polyolefins, which is the family of polymers which includes polypropylene. So if you make a mistake and you actually include a polypropylene film, which is sometimes labeled as number five, the process can handle up to 15% of this type of material also. So you don't have to worry too too much. If you're doing your best, don't worry. You're not going to just ruin the whole system by making a mistake. But it's important to know that the technology for recovering and recycling plastic film is improving every year.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

And necessarily, so since we're using so much more of it. Now, you're at the prototype stage. When will Obaggo be commercially available?


David New:

Right now, we are crowdfunding the first production run of Obaggo. We expect to ship in about 12 months. Normally the process of bringing a hardware item this to market is about ... well, it's analogous to making a baby. It takes about nine months but given the current environment of supply chain disruptions, we're a little bit more comfortable quoting 12 months.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Okay. Now, what motivated you? Obviously, you've been thinking about plastic for a long time. I understand your father was an early recycling entrepreneur. How long have you been thinking about the challenge of recycling plastic and when did Obaggo come to you?


David New:

Yeah, so I did grow up in a recycling household. My dad did found the Montclair Organizations for Conservation back in the late '60s and helped found one of the first recycling programs in the country in my hometown. I grew up working on Saturdays, unloading cars and sorting recyclables into different bins, and so I've always been sensitized to recycling. I've always been a very good recycler as an adult at home. But I've always had a problem with plastic bags and getting them back to the store and doing the right thing. For some reason, I'd always find myself at the store and remember I left them at home or I'd be at the checkout, and I'd remember I left them in the trunk and I don't know why, but it was just, I felt really bad because I'm supposed to be good at this.


And then I realized that a lot of people have the same problem. They're good recyclers, they want to recycle, and they can do it in the comfort and convenience of their home, but taking stuff other places just doesn't fit their habits and the lifestyle. So I realized maybe this is something that is a problem that I could solve. And I also have a background in supply chain logistics. Is what I've done for a living for the last 30 years, and so I started thinking, why do we have this one supply chain for recycling glass, and metal, and aluminum, and paper, and magazines, and cardboard, and anyway, it works for everything else except plastic bags. Why is that? Could it be as something as simple as just the shape and turns out that it sort of is, and so I decided, "What if we just changed the shape? Could that be a solution?"


So I've been working on this project for ... well, I got the idea maybe 10 years ago but I've really been pushing it forward for about the last five years and we're looking forward to being at market very soon.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

So another element of what you promise a customer is that you'll have an app that shows where drop-off locations are available and it'll also let a user create a drop-off location which raises the question for me, is there money in collecting pucks and then being the aggregator of all that supply to send to a recycling facility?


David New:

Sure, sure. So there’s not a lot of money in plastic bag recycling right now, but yes, we are working on developing a phone app, a map based phone app that will help connect people who have plastic with people who want plastic. You probably wouldn't believe there are a lot of companies out there that want your plastic bags. I get contacted every week by companies around the country.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Yeah, we do too.


David New:

Yeah. There are manufacturers, they're something called advance recyclers, who have this insatiable need to take polyolefins, that'd be polyethylenes and polypropylenes, and they want to convert them back into polymers for recycling. And so the idea of this phone app where you can create a drop-off location. Now, that drop-off location might be your local retail store. For example, you may notice that your local store is not on our map, so you just can add that location.


Because if you go to the plasticfilmrecycling.org site, they'll be the first to admit that they don't actually know all the stores that have drop off locations, and so we'll get users to help identify them. But also some of these manufacturers that want the material can create their own drop off locations. So if you have a business and you need plastic film to make park benches or irrigation pipe, or railroad ties, you can set up some drop off locations in your area and you can get people to bring their plastic bags and film to you..


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

So you could create a hyper-local circular plastic economy.


David New:

We're just trying to connect people who have it with people who want it. It's just a supply and demand thing and there are ideas to make it a rewards based application so you could earn rewards for dropping off material. It's both an interim solution until you can just recycle it in the convenience of your curbside den, but it's also a future solution because why not just try to get it straight from the source to the destination. Why not just bypass the middlemen?


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Now, one of the things you promised to do in the Boston area where you're headquartered, is to collect this. And this is a quote from the site, "Obaggo guarantees to recycle the material to its highest and best use." How you going to collect pucks outside of the immediate region in Boston? How would you create a national network of Obaggo collectors so that you can follow through on that promise?


David New:

Yes, certainly we don't promise to pay for shipping everything back to us. There's economics involved in our promise…


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Well, and it's not a great idea to ship everything all over the country...


David New:

It's exactly, exactly. I mean, our main goal is to get it like I said, from people who have it to people who need it. However, there are a lot of skeptics that material actually gets recycled. They believe that, oh, people are in the business of just greenwashing and they're going to get the material and then they're going to landfill it. But in actuality, we are trying to create a real circular economy for this material. And to the extent that our local logistics system can get the material back to us, we're trying to get all the towns in Massachusetts for example, and in the New England area to collect this material, and we can do milk-run pickups and bring it back to our warehouse efficiently, and then get it to recyclers. We're also going to offer a lot of our early Obaggo users a free year of mail back program.


They can ship it back to us, and we are going to have that reprocessed into something called post-consumer resin, and then have that post consumer resin evaluated for what its best applications are and we'll find out what types of contaminants it contains, and what products it's best used for and make sure it gets used for those products. So that is our commitment; demonstrating that this is good material, it's a resource that's in your kitchen that people want, and we can make it back into good products.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

So let me ask a broader question, and also because you're a lifelong recycling family person, you've got this interesting solution to some of the plastic recycling challenges, which is how do you suggest as you think about this, that we rethink recycling in the United States? Where would you take the recycling system if you were put in charge today?


David New:

Well, if I was in charge, I'd find it to be a very challenging problem because the United States is a big country and it's got very diverse recycling challenges. You've got urban areas with one recycling challenge, you've got rural areas with totally different recycling challenges. However, I do believe that some very simple mechanisms could totally transform recycling. For example, let me just throw this out there, like a landfill tax. A tax on solid waste.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

What about for instance, what was just taken out of the updated infrastructure bill, which was a 20 cent raw plastic per pound tax, would something that help? And I guess the broader question is, do you think that we need to do this at the national level or is it something that can be distributed private and hyperlocal?


David New:

Yeah. So taxes always have both the intended and the unintended consequences and you really need economists to evaluate these things, to try to anticipate what's going to happen. What I like about a landfill tax or solid waste tax is that it encourages people to divert from the waste stream.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Sure, okay. Good point.


David New:

If you had a significant tax on waste, you would see incredible efforts towards reducing, reusing and recycling to avoid that waste. And those efforts would get creative and you'd see progress in all directions. As far as taxing plastic, I think that it is important that the cost of virgin plastic should reflect its recovery cost as well. Some people call it extended producer responsibility, but you shouldn't be able to just make a product for a penny that somebody else is going to have to pay 10 cents to clean up later. And so if you burden that product with that cleanup cost up front, it does make recycled material more competitive and manufacturers might choose recycled resin over virgin resin because it's actually cheaper.


David New:

So yeah, I think that all of those are great ideas and should be either implemented locally or nationally. It's harder to do things like national carbon taxes and so forth, but we really need to get aggressive at the problem. Solving the problem we need an “all of the above” approach. We need to try everything including densifying plastic bags in the household, and I think that if we try all these different things we'll eventually solve at least a big piece of the problem.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Oh, we certainly agree. I mean, we've been saying more ideas, less waste now for almost 30 years. So how can our listeners get involved? Where can they order an Obaggo and think about potentially becoming a drop-off location?


David New:

Sure. Well, first I would encourage everybody, please subscribe on my website, obaggo.com, and we will keep you updated with all the plastic bag recycling news and of course the progress of our business. I would also ask everybody, please be mindful of your plastic bags and film in your kitchen. Look at it, read the labeling if it has it, find out whether it's recyclable or not, and get it to the store for recycling. If you're recycling at the retail store now, great. Don't buy an Obaggo. We're not trying to sell a product to people who already have the solution. We're trying to help the people like me who have this terrible problem, and just have never seemed to be able to do it that way. And if you want to support this project, go to our website and you'll see a link to Indiegogo, where you can pre-order a device that will help support our campaign.


David New:

And then after we launch, if you want to take it to the next level and try to get a drop off location in your town, definitely reach out to us, talk to the department of solid waste in your town about this solution and we'll work together to make sure that everybody in your town has a convenient place to drop off the Obaggo discs.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

Well, I've been getting the newsletter and it's been really useful, and it's kept me interested in this solution too and I think I'm a pretty good recycler, but plastic film is just a major headache. And it's great to see you thinking about this and I will be looking at my Obaggo soon. So thank you very much, David, for joining us today.


David New:

Thanks so much, Mitch. It's been a real pleasure.


Mitch Ratcliffe - Earth911:

We've been talking with David New. Who's the founder of Obaggo and you can find out more about Obaggo at www.obaggo.com. That's Obaggo with two Gs, and this is a really interesting one. We struggle with whether or not to talk about pre-release products because several times we have the products had not come to fruition but David New and his small team have done a lot of work to convince us that this is a valid solution, and we encourage you to take a good close look at this and if you have a plastic film recycling challenge, this may be a really interesting solution. I hope you'll take time to share this and other Earth911 podcasts with your friends, families, strangers on the street, your neighbor's dog, they might get somebody to pay attention if they bark and talk about this podcast enough.


So get this idea out there. Share Obaggo. Share Earth911, Sustainability in Your Ear... Let's change this world, not just sit here and wait for it to happen. This is Earth911. I'm Mitch Ratcliffe, we're going to be back with another innovator interview soon. In fact, our next guest will be Paul Hawken, the author of Regeneration. We hope he'll be here to talk with him next week. So folks take care of yourself, take care of one another, and let's all take care of this beautiful planet of ours. We'll be back soon, and have a great day.

 


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