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Tech Check: The Obaggo Interview

Obaggo founder, Dave New, was interviewed in a Tech Check podcast in 2021. Click the image below to listen, or read the transcript.

Vinay:

Hey guys. Welcome back to the Tech Check for season two, episode 24.


All right, guys. Welcome back to the Tech Check, today we have Dave with us who is the founder of a Obaggo Recycling. So Dave, you want to tell us a little bit about what your company does?


David New:

Sure, Obaggo Recycling is a startup that's focused on solving the plastic bag and packaging film recycling problem. And as most people know, plastic waste and pollution's a big problem, and plastic bags and packaging film are one part of that. Bags are a good material, they're often made out of polyethylene, which is a recyclable material, but a tremendous amount of it is currently getting wasted. It's just all going to either landfill or incineration. And sometimes, you see it out in the environments pollution. So what we're trying to do is provide a convenient way for people to recycle this material.


Vinay:

Awesome. So what inspired the foundation of Obaggo and specifically where did the name come from?


David New:

Well, to be honest with you, I'm not totally sure where the name came from. I knew that it was going to have to have bag in it because it was very related to what the company's doing. But I think it was a matter of just trying to find a name that sounded kind of fun, that could end up being a brand name, something kids could remember. I do remember coming up with the name and telling my six and seven year old kids the name. And a couple of years later they're asking me, they said, 'dad, what's going on with Obaggo?', and I knew that I had found the name if a five-year-old could remember it a couple of years later.


David New:

But the idea for the business started probably when I was a kid. When I first got exposed to recycling and the problem of waste and when I was a kid, my father founded the recycling center in my hometown. And I grew up trying to recycle whatever I could, as we did in our household. And then as an adult, I was very frustrated with the recycling options for a lot of things and in particular bags. After one particularly frustrating event, I think I went to the grocery store to, both bring my reusable bags and also to bring my other plastic film, and I'd forgotten both. I had just left them at home and just thought, a lot of people must have this problem. Somebody has got to solve this problem.


Vinay:

So about plastic, what makes it very difficult to recycle?


David New:

Well, plastic, different plastics have different challenges. Some plastics are quite easy, like clear water bottles are very recyclable, even back into new water bottles. And milk jugs are very recyclable.


David New:

But bags are a problem because the shape of the material, the thin flimsy form of the material makes them difficult for automated machinery to handle. So when you think about what happens to your recyclables, when they get picked up by the garbage man or the waste haulers from the curbside of your house, it goes to a big plant where they sort everything out. And it just turns out, bags are really hard to sort. And they're thin, they tend to squish flat and they tend to get squished between paper and flow with the paper. And you end up with these bales of paper. They are also referred as fiber. And this fiber has all this plastic in it. And the paper mills that try to recover that paper and recycle it, they hate all that plastic. So the bags, although they're a good recyclable commodity, since they end up with the paper, they become this contaminant. And that's the big challenge.


David New:

The other thing is they get wrapped around some of the conveyor belts, and the spindles, and the machinery at the material recovery facility. And because of that, they're just a real nuisance. So most of the curbside recycling programs, just ask that people don't recycle the bags, they're just a big problem.


Vinay:

On a sort of different note. I know that people are doing research into creating more eco-friendly plastic bags, like using seaweed instead of standard plastic. What's your opinion on that? And will it have any effect on the spindle side of recycling?


David New:

Biodegradable bags and bags made from non-plastic materials are a real challenge. I Have real mixed feelings about them. So if you're going to try to replace the plastic bag with something that is, let's say more environmentally friendly, you really have to create something that is totally different. Different looking, different feeling that couldn't be confused with a plastic bag. And the reason for that is when you go to recycle anything, glass cans, bottles, paper, cardboard, it's important to be able to sort the stuff and separate it out because things need to be recycled together with other things that are like them.


David New:

When you have bags that are made out of seaweed or made out of plant-based plastics, or sometimes they'll take like a cornstarch type of thing and add it to plastic to make it break down into smaller pieces. All these things contaminate the plastic film recycling process. So when you think you're making, you're doing a good thing by creating a bag that would break down if it got into the soil or the ocean, but if it gets into the recycling limit, no buyer of recycled plastic wants biodegradable plastic, cause that gets into their product. And now all of a sudden their plastic product could break down when they don't want it to.


David New:

But generally speaking, I'm usually for when it comes to trying to the plastic waste problem. In general, I usually believe in all-of-the-above approach. We really need to try everything and some ideas will end up being winners and we should keep them, and some ideas we might find cause more problems than they solve, and we should look to other things.


Vinay:

Cool. So how does the technology of Obaggo work?


David New:

Yeah, so the idea behind Obaggo is if you change the shape of your plastic bags into something that's not fen and flimsy like the bags and film that they are, and that you change it into a solid object that won't contaminate the recycling stream, and won't get wrapped around and jam up the machinery that maybe that will allow you to take this plastic and get it into the recycling stream where it can be recovered.


David New:

So what Obaggo does is, we give you a little appliance, that sits on your countertop. And when you finish a loaf of bread and you have this empty bag, or you finish a box of cereal and you have a cereal box liner, or you get an Amazon prime blue and white shipping envelope that's recyclable plastic, you just remove the paper from, maybe there's a paper label or there's a paper price tag or something. And you just take all this clean and dry plastic and you put it in the Obaggo device and you push a button. And within about 15 minutes you got something that looks more or less like a hockey puck. And this puck is really good polyethylene that can be made into a lot of good products.


Vinay:

So I guess more in depth, how are these bags' sort of created these pucks? Are they placed in a sort of pressure chamber and over time probably 15 minutes, they just slowly developed into the shape, or is there something else?


David New:

It's, imagine a heating, compressing waffle iron in your kitchen. The device has a little chamber, kind of like a little garbage can, and you take a, I usually describe it as 25 grocery bag equivalent. So if you can think of how much material is in a grocery bag, it's really not much, it's a few grams of plastic. But if you take a whole bunch of these things and you put it inside any one of the other bags, so you just crunch it up into a big ball and you put it in the device. When you push a button, it begins to compress very slowly and apply a little bit of heat. And when it's done, you have an object that's in a different shape and it's kind of encapsulated, shrink wrapped, compressed plastic.


Vinay:

About the future of Obaggo, what do you guys plan to develop or improve on in terms of your technology to help recycled plastic?


David New:

Our first product, we're working on bringing it to market. And this is going to be a home device, which you can use in the comfort and convenience of your home. It could also be used in a business, at the office, any place where people tend to have a significant amount of plastic packaging film. But there are a lot of other markets which were thinking about. There are markets, both domestically and internationally. So our first device will be 110 volt unit for sale in the United States. And then we're going to come out with units for countries where the standard voltage is 230 volts. And this is like the Europe, United Kingdom, Israel, Australia, South Africa.


David New:

And besides other voltages, there are also other applications, which I don't want to go into too many of the other applications, but there are definitely industries that have certain niche requirements that we'll definitely be developing products for.


Vinay:

So just diving a bit more into Obaggo in terms of the entire industry and market. When I was just doing some research, I found, it seemed to me like Obaggo is sort of in its own market by itself. I couldn't really find any other competitors of a similar type of technology. So I was just wondering, what other technologies do you see coming into this industry that could-


David New:

Competition? Well, there's a lot of competition. It's rare you find a business where there's no competition. So the first competition is the garbage can, I compete against everybody who has a garbage can, because people can just throw bags away. And I also compete against the retail store take back program. So you don't have to buy an Obaggo, you can actually take your bags back to the retail store. And in fact, I encourage it. I don't want people to buy a device. A device has a footprint. It takes resources to build, it's another appliance, and I'm all for fewer appliances.


David New:

But it is a big problem. And the retail store take back program has been around for 30 years. And it has been promoted every year, millions of dollars spent on awareness campaigns and it's still only achieves very low single digit percentage of adoption. So that leads me to believe that that competitor of mine doesn't have a lock on the market, there's room for other ideas. So in the marketplace of ideas Obaggo maybe is an answer. There's other competition in other ways of recycling bags, there are actually some recyclers who will pick up bags from your curbside of your house. And it's very few. Less than 1% of towns will pick up your bags curbside or let you drop them off at their transfer station.


David New:

There are a couple others, which aren't really easy to find on the radar screen. There's a program called the Hefty Energy Bag Program, which Hefty sells orange bags that you can put all your plastics in, including your bags. And you put that out with your recyclables and the collectors will take them and they'll take them to a plastic reprocessing facility. Or they may get burned in an incinerator waste-to-energy, or there's a few different end of life options for Hefty Energy Bags.


David New:

And then lastly, probably the last competitor is the potential for a material recovery facility in the future to accept loose bags. You just put them loose in your recycling bin. And then they develop the technology to sort them out of the stream and not have them contaminate the fiber stream paper, and also not have them jam up the equipment.


David New:

So there's a something called the Material Recovery for the Future Program, which is pilot testing this futuristic MRF, I call MRF a material recovery facility, that can handle a loose bag. So there is competition. And I don't necessarily call them competition, I'd say we're all on the same team. We're trying a lot of different ways to get this resource and recover it and recycle it and make it into good products again.


Vinay:

Awesome. So how has Obaggo been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?


David New:

Interesting. So COVID has impacted Obaggo directly in a couple of ways and indirectly in a couple of ways. Most directly, it's impacted us because it's been harder to bring a product to market when it's harder to get into a conference room with people, it's harder to meet with potential backers and potential suppliers and potential business partners.


David New:

But in an unusual way, it's made it easier in that during COVID a lot of bag bans were suspended. Like in Massachusetts, a lot of towns had bag bans and during COVID they stopped that because they didn't want people bringing reusable bags to the store. And I think that the cynical side of me says that the plastic industry was behind that, because there was never any evidence that reusable bags could make you sick, or you could catch COVID from it. But so during COVID we saw plastic bags all over the place. But besides that, the general problem of bags has persisted and it's given me more time at home in my office to work towards getting this product to market. It hasn't really impacted us too, too much.


Vinay:

So what advice would you give to a student who wants to get into recyclable technology, especially with like plastic bags since this is a big concern for this age in the future?


David New:

I would tell people that sustainability is a great area to go into. You don't have to read a lot in the newspaper or watch too much television before you notice that we've got a problem with our environment. We are not living in a sustainable way. We're polluting the atmosphere and we're polluting the environment. And we need to look at all the different aspects of that, including how we get our energy, how we package our products, and what we do with all of our waste.


David New:

I strongly encourage people to explore if they have an interest. Careers in recycling, in green energy, clean technologies, you can really do a lot of good. It's important when you think about a career, to think about not just will you make money, but what are you, what are you accomplishing? What are you doing for society, making the world a better place?


David New:

And I will say one thing, there's been a lot of, let's say negative press about recycling. In specific, there was an NPR story about how recycling was, recycling plastic was a hoax. And that has confused a lot of people I think, is recycling really a hoax? And the fact is that, it's a complicated question ,but no recycling is not a hoax. We cannot just keep taking finite resources and using them and piling them up in a landfill. We just can't do it. It doesn't make, it's just kind of intuitively obvious that that can't go on forever. So the question becomes, well, how do you deal with that?


David New:

There are the three R's. You can reduce what you consume, reduce your packaging. You can reuse it, the longer you reuse it and keep it in play, the less need there is for new stuff. And then finally, all you can really do is recycle it. And if you don't do one of those three, it's going to end up as waste, as landfill, as a resource lost.


David New:

So, recycling is an important part of sustainability and it's not perfect. There have been people and industries who have exploited it for their own purposes. Think of the plastic coating system, where you see a little triangle with a number inside, and that's supposed to indicate the recyclability. And it's so confusing. Some of that's a hoax, you see a recycling symbol with a seven and just chuckle to yourself because that that little recycling symbol says recycling, and the seven says, this is not recyclable. It's 'an other' plastic, which means it can't be recycled.


David New:

We do need to move towards better labeling more sustainable materials, and we do need to keep it, make it clearer and kind of get rid of some of this old legacy of confusing messaging, which can lead people to think that it's all a big hoax.


Vinay:

So sort of as a final closing question, where can our listeners find more about Obaggo? Contact you guys, if you want to learn more, something along those lines?


David New:

So first of all, I'm always happy to talk to people. My name is David New and I'm the founder and CEO of Obaggo. Please visit our website at Obaggo.com, and you can learn more about what you can and can't recycle, and the different types of plastic packaging and what's good and what's not. And there's some videos that explain more about what we do. And if you want to subscribe, we can keep you updated with our newsletter and let you know when we're going to be crowdfunding the product launch. So we're going to be trying to fund the development of this product by asking the grassroots of movement, to get people to step forward and be part of the change that they want to see and pre-order an Obaggo device. And then be on the vanguard of trying to help us roll out this new technology.


Vinay:

All right. Well, for listeners, we're going to put all of that information in our description on YouTube and our social media. So if you want to go check it out Obaggo, please check them out there. I believe that's it from all of us. Dave, do you have any final words?


David New:

No, thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed talking to you tonight.


Vinay:

Thank you Dave, we appreciate you hopping on the podcast. But in the end, that's it from all of us. We thank you all for listening and hope you stay tuned for the next one.


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