“It is almost impossible to convince consumer brands and end-users to change and consider recycled materials….”
Arthur Huang is Co-founder and CEO of MINIWIZ, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. In this piece, Aurthur describes how he is driving a new vision on the circular economy using low-carbon footprint materials, semi-finished goods and building modules suitable for uses ranging from construction to consumer products.
Tim: Please describe the business model for Miniwiz?
Aurthur: MINIWIZ is a mission-based trash technology company that aims to minimize our collective carbon footprint and chemical foot print through scalable upcyling technology. MINIWIZ at the core is an innovative circular material company that specializes in transforming trash into sexy new materials for products and architecture. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to convince consumer brands and end-users to change and consider recycled materials as some viable alternatives due to the existing inertia in the system and status quo in place based on the traditional linear economy model. As a result, in order for MINIWIZ to survive organically we became a full circular solution provider for businesses. Its value proposition is simple, lower price and higher performance with minimal friction during the adoption of the circular method of making and designing. Hence, we turn ourselves literally into a general contractor for any circular projects, doesn’t matter if it is a building, automobile, airplane, or a pair of Nike Shoes.
Tim: Has your business been growing? What is driving it?
Arthur: Yes, the business is growing 15-30 percent a year. And one of the most surprising drivers is media focused on ocean pollution and the recent China trash ban.
I think there are three levels of push that are driving this topic. 1. Moral level: at the most fundamental level we as consumers all deep inside are starting to realize how much waste we are generating, and how our consumption pattern is indirectly or directly influencing the environment negatively. 2. Economic level: this unlimited growth demanded by our capitalistic system is just unsustainable. How can we use a finite decreasing natural resource and provide for an ever increasing demand at lower prices? 3. The Social Level: we know this linear based system is just socially unfair, with more and more income inequality since the TRUE cost of the products that are traded in our system is never factored in the social and environmental cost required to create the product.
Tim: What does it mean to be a part of the “circular economy”?
Arthur: For everyone, you as the consumer are also the material producer. We like to coin the word “RESUMER.”
We create and consume what already exists and re-recycle these materials again to create new products that fulfill our needs, and this process repeats again and again.
Tim: How do you measure whether your products are part of the circular economy?
The criteria are:
- SINGLE MATERIAL: so the material can be re-recycled mechanically again with the least amount of energy and chemical footprint.
- NO glue: so all components are mechanically designed to be disassembled with minimal effort.
- Modular interchangeable parts: So a particular system or design can extend its product life cycle.
- 100% or Highest percentage possible post-consumer recycled material content: This gives recycled material a new life cycle.
- Traceability: Material value can be tracked through its product life cycle. Hence, the value of the material is partly generated by the story of where the material is collected from.
- Local material sourcing: Local manufacturing to allow the local community to benefit socially and economically.
These are the minimal requirements that force us to innovate every day. People are welcome to judge MINIWIZ projects and products based on these criteria.
Tim: Is it cost prohibitive for most consumers to buy your products, assuming they are “circular”?
Arthur: It is not. It has nothing to do with whether a product is circular or not but it has everything to do with our consumption psychology. We humans in today’s society do not buy for pure necessity. We buy for pleasure and disposable goods provide that constant gratification of “newness.” If manipulating our psychology to change our consumption pattern is the only way for the mass adoption of circular products, then pricing low actually is detrimental to the cause because we as consumers actually do not value cheap goods since cheap goods are equally temporal or disposable.
Tim: Do you see lack of data on the actual life cycle cost of many objects we buy as an ongoing challenge?
Arthur: Yes, there is fake info everywhere or no info anywhere. For example, everything you buy these days you will see some sort of recyclable logo, but does anyone know what that means? Does it mean it is made from recycled material, or does it mean it can be recycled? If you look into the actual descriptions, there is NOTHING about re-recyclability or about being made from any recycled content and if you call the company, they will tell you the logo represented that you can “try” to recycle the packaging or the products. Ocean plastic is another big scam, as even manufacturers and brands are claiming that their goods are made from plastic collected from the ocean. Please do read the fine print in many of these marketing materials, as I am confident most of us will find it so appalling but that is the world we live in today.
Tim: Do you see increasing claims of being a part of the “circular economy” which lack verifiability?
Arthur: Everyone can partake in the Circular economy, and the increasing claims from all the green washing companies are even more disorienting. If you can’t trace where the material is recycled from and where the material is being manufactured, how can anything be verifiable? It is our responsibility as the steward of this planet and a responsible consumer “resumer” to be curious about many of these claims. It is actually fun to debunk many of these claims, that is what our connected digital world is designed for, and we now have the power to verify!
Tim: How do we bring down the costs of implementing a truly circular economy?
Arthur: SCALE SCALE SCALE. MINIWIZ is fortunate because it can play with material at the minimal required scale machine production volume through our architecture projects with MINIWIZ acting as its own contractor and material supplier. If MINIWIZ were a product company from the start, we would never be able to kick start the material re-compounding process to invent a single new application for the second life of a particular trash material. We are buying close to 20 tons of recycled materials per building project, so just imagine how long it takes for a single product to use 20 tons of material. Of course, currently upcyling technology is also at its infant stage, so many large-scale infrastructure projects are missing this upcycled technology. I personally think this is a great opportunity to scale through localized collection and production technology in a digitally interconnected decentralized way instead of investing billions trying to centralize in a scale trash re-production facility. This is because the reality of the circular economy means the trash transportation cost will truly kill all the margin, is highly unsustainable due to its footprint, and no one wants trash in their back yard. An example of economical portable systems is our Trashpresso project, where we built a series of portable upcycling plants to take back the low-grade trash material and transform these materials into valuable architecture products within hours with zero footprint.
Tim: What is the best way to scale the circular economy in time to matter for addressing climate change?
Arthur: MINIWIZ got this far without institutional funding and has been a testament of what the digital information age can do to help to scale any disruptive technology globally. We just need more conscious creatives to focus our effort to address climate change quickly. Time is never on our side when we are dealing with culture shift. I believe there are only two ways to scale quickly in time to save our climate. One is by tricking our future consumer or “resumer” with beautiful sensory experiences, like what we are doing with HOT House of TRASH in Milan, where beautiful, desirable, designed objects are just within reach. Second, educating the next generation of designers, architects, engineers and the future “resumer” on the circular way of making goods will hopefully snowball the circular concept into a scalable global movement. We are opening our material data base and manufacturing specification to educators and students worldwide. Please see: www.materialdb.miniwiz.com