One Company’s Quest to Make Recycling ‘Sexy’

March 15, 2019, 12:51 AM UTC

Trash can—and should—be turned into furniture, clothing, boats, planes, and even pneumatically adjustable airport pavilions, argues Miniwiz CEO Arthur Huang, whose company specializes in making products and building materials from waste.

But a more sustainable future that depends on more recycling will require recycled products that are, in his words, “sexy”—meaning those that can compete with conventional products, he told attendees at the Fortune Brainstorm Design Conference in Singapore last Wednesday.

Appropriately enough, Huang made his remarks wearing clothes made from 100% recycled materials. His company built an entire airport pavilion from half a million recycled plastic bottles. The pavilion isn’t just environmentally sound; it’s technologically advanced, too. A digital sensor can control the internal pressure of the structure.

“So every time there’s too much wind or too much rain, the structure actually becomes stiffer or lighter,” he said.

Miniwiz is involved in a large number of other sustainability projects, ranging from a portable solar-powered recycling plant to a recycling bin controlled by artificial intelligence. The company is even dabbling in using recycled materials in boats and planes.

Huang’s goal is to help to accelerate the shift to a closed-loop economy, where as much material as possible is used repeatedly, and nothing goes to waste. According to Huang, there are three obstacles currently standing in the way.

The first? Trash contamination. It’s difficult and expensive to separate different types of trash cheaply and effectively so that they can be used again, Huang said.

The second is transformation—turning trash into something valuable isn’t easy, he said.

The third is a lack of scale. Even if companies like Miniwiz can make something valuable out of trash, Huang said, they still need to find a way to make enough of it to be a viable business proposition.

A closed-loop transformation will require a significant rethink about current models of sustainability and recycling, the founder-CEO said. Traditional corporate initiatives can only go so far, because there’s often very little incentive for companies to become more sustainable.

“Sustainability is also completely unnecessary in today’s economy,” he said. “Just because you use green product doesn’t mean you’ll have better sales. Just because today you’re selling coffee doesn’t mean your consumer will buy it just because you’re trying to be sustainable.”

Huang said companies like his own will need to aim for “moonshot” solutions which will lead to products that can compete with any other. For example, the airport pavilion was equally durable and half the price of a conventional structure.

Said Huang: “We want sexy products.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.