Your correspondent gets anywhere from 10-20 emails per day from public relations professionals wanting me to write about their client’s sustainability-related project.
Most of these mails are about businesses that I wouldn’t consider investing in personally, that aren’t focused on climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, or that aren’t otherwise my cup of tea.
Some of the pitches crossing my desk sound cool, but I think I would have a hard time writing a full-length, differentiated, market-related article about what they are doing. In those cases, I grudgingly have to respond, “I’ll pass this time.”
However, after being influenced by ex-Economic Hit Man John Perkins’ ideas of changing the world through person-by-person action, I decided to start a new feature for this column called Cool Products.
Once or twice a month, I’ll publish short articles about companies whose products are 1) interesting and helpful from a climate change adaptation and mitigation perspective (i.e., “Cool”) and 2) something within reach of everyday people (i.e. “Products”).
I am not receiving any compensation for writing about these ventures and I don’t own any of them either. I simply think they are Cool Products!
I’m happy to say that the inaugural Cool Product is Nuno, a Salt Lake City-based start-up that sells funky, silky clothes and accessories with distinctive, colorful designs, all made from recycled plastic (PET) bottles.
(“Nuno” is Japanese for “fabric”, by the way – the name was the first thing that attracted your Japanese speaking correspondent to the brand.)
Not only are the items beautiful and distinctive, the fabric is amazingly soft. The company’s founder, Ann Hintze, sent me a sample and when my daughter ran her fingers along a bit of it, she immediately exclaimed “mechakucha yawarakai!” [Translation: “It’s so soft and smooth!”]
When I first read about cloth made out of recycled PET bottles, I must admit that I envisioned something that Dave Letterman might have worn as a gag. This impression couldn’t be farther from the truth!
Nuno’s NeoSilk scarves, kimonos and other products are so beautiful and soft-to-the-touch that my fashion-conscious daughter can’t wait to sport some Nuno Love next time she ventures outside of our Covid-19 cocoon.
Why Nuno Is Important
Plastic is not harvested from trees in Borneo. It is created from petroleum products, liquid petroleum gases (LPG), natural gas liquids (NGL), and natural gas to be precise. The IEA forecasts that plastics manufacturing will be a key driver of petroleum product demand through 2050 – offsetting any gains from reductions in petroleum demand related to increased efficiency in the transportation sector.
Long story short, effective, wide-spread recycling of plastics means that fewer petroleum products need be mined. That’s a positive.
Effective recycling is a big deal because plastic consumption is growing about 3-4 times faster than global population is – largely due to demand from developing countries. Plastic bottles are a big part of the waste problem.
Unfortunately, human civilization has a long way to go before we can consider our plastic recycling “effective and widespread.” We all like to think we are helping the planet when we throw a water bottle into the recycle bin but over 90% of what goes in ends up getting burned or dumped into a landfill.
Structural issues in the recycling world came to widespread attention when China implemented its National Sword program. National Sword limits the amount of recycling raw materials allowed to be imported into the country. China did not do this out of spite, Donald. They were just sick of being buried under the developed world’s cast-off plastics and other trash.
After National Sword started, the recycled input market became so oversupplied with inputs that recyclers charged money to take in used PET bottles (that means a negative cost of goods sold for all you accounting types out there…).
Companies like Nuno, that are finding value-creative, usable, and stylish applications for recycled plastics are generating demand that have the potential to move the market.
More demand for recycled plastic means new recyclers will see an opportunity and start operations. More operating recyclers means a higher percentage of plastics will be recycled. More recycled plastics means the volume of petrochemicals needed to be mined and processed into virgin plastic will fall. The markets work if provided the right incentives.
Yes, it’s better for you, me, and the world to spend two seconds before we leave the house and fill up your own, washable water bottle if you think you’ll get thirsty on the road, but until all 7.8 billion of us start doing that routinely, it’s best to figure out a way to soak up some aggregate demand for recycled plastic! (Developing countries also struggle with water quality — an issue that the Gates Foundation is trying to correct.)
What better way to soak up demand than by sporting a fashionable, eye-catching, and colorful kimono or scarf!
Just as I was getting ready to post this article, I got a note from another entrepreneur, Malte Niebelschuetz (a German national now living near the ocean in sunny San Diego) that has started using material made from recycled PET bottles to make cute stuffed ocean animal toys. Malte’s toys require six PET bottles each to create and recycled fabric is used for both the stuffing and the soft, shell as well.
Malte’s venture is called Shore Buddies, and each of the four toys in his product line come with a name and backstory that teaches kids why plastic waste is so damaging to aquatic ecosystems.
Malte’s products have a strong educational component and a portion of his firm’s proceeds go to support ocean clean-up and information programs for kids. He also posts some fun YouTube videos.
Ann and Malte know, as I know, that we will have to reorganize our economies and think about resource usage in a new way if we are to continue to thrive on this lovely planet of ours. What good is capitalism if it doesn’t help us live better?
Intelligent investors take note.