Celia Dolan graduated from Stonehill College in December 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies. While studying at Stonehill, she was a Moreau Student Minister, Writing Consultant and Writing Fellow, Teacher’s Assistant, member of the Handbell Choir, Real Food Calculator for Food Truth, and Community Engagement Coordinator. Celia participated in a HOPE trip that visited the peaceful, sustainable Agape Community in Ware, MA; traveled to Italy with The Mindful Palette: Food, Art, and Sustainability class; and went to Oregon and Northern California with the Coastal Pacific Northwest class. Another of her favorite classes was Nature Writing where she combined her love of the environment, art, and creative writing. She currently works as the Assistant Farm Manager at The Farm at Stonehill where she strengthens her passion for sustainability, farming, and food justice while exploring her interest in outdoor and agricultural education. When she’s not working, you can find Celia hiking, listening to music, reading, and writing in various ways (think: nature writing, poetry, and articles for NOFA, Ecopreneur, and other non-profit organizations).
Despite increasing concerns about single-use plastics and their impact on the environment, only three states – New York, California, and Hawaii – have banned single-use plastic bags. Although such bans may be a positive first step in reducing the number of plastic grocery bags in circulation (an estimated 500 billion single-use bags each year in the United States) many citizens resist such bans on the premise that they contradict American notions of freedom of choice or may not be the best method to eliminate plastic bags. Even if all states ban plastic grocery bags, that would only be one corner of the plastic market no longer going into the waste stream. Consider plastic bread bags, paper towels and toilet paper wrapping, cereal liners, and other plastic bag items that consumers simply throw away. Now, thanks to David New, the founder of Obaggo Recycling LLC, consumers can easily transform thin, flimsy, non-recyclable, single-use plastic bags into recyclable materials in their own homes!
New grew up in a family that cared about sustainability and recycling, making recycling second nature for him as an adult. However, as much as New wanted to recycle, he often found it time-consuming and inconvenient. “As an adult, I couldn’t do all the things my father could do – taking bags back to the grocery store, bringing reusable bags – because I was too busy. When you are a professional, have kids, coach soccer…not everyone has time to recycle their plastic bags. I thought, if I can’t do this, imagine how hard it must be for others who weren’t big on recycling.”
Yet, New recognizes the importance of continuing to recycle. He argues that banning plastic bags does not get to the root of the plastic problem, which is complex and oftentimes overwhelming. Until enough pressure is put on companies to produce sustainable and recyclable packaging, “There is always going to be more plastic packaging and we need to know how to deal with it.” Producers must take responsibility for the end life of their product and its packaging. Before that becomes reality, though, New states, “We need an all of the above approach to plastic…We should try to reduce what we use and recycle what we can.” So, he developed an appliance to help consumers do just that.
The Obaggo appliance heats and compresses plastic material into a soft “hockey puck” that can be put into a homeowner’s recycle bin along with other recyclable materials. Once the materials are collected and brought to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF), the pucks are separated out and Obaggo buys them back from the MRF to guarantee it will be recycled. The pucks will be turned into plastic pellets that can be used to make new materials, such as composting bins. Obaggo recognizes that organic waste is the heaviest of any waste stream. Therefore, their device addresses not only the problems that plastic bags present – polluting, going to landfill, and botching recycling – but also reuses those plastic bags to make a product that further diverts waste, thereby taking away both thin plastics and organic materials from the solid waste stream simultaneously.
These seemingly flawless devices underwent a lot of experimentation and testing to develop the best model. New started with presto-burger appliances, and then put two appliances together for more even heating. However, he realized, “It’s not a good idea to melt plastic bags in the kitchen” because that could release harmful chemicals and gases. His prototype underwent testing in a lab by environmental health and engineering experts, and results found that it produced less gas than a George Foreman grill and other heating appliances. So, “The Obaggo appliance is safe and can be kept in the kitchen.”
With this good news, development of the appliance continued; the stainless steel Obaggo appliance is made out of as many recyclable materials as possible and designed to last 20 years, considering a typical household would only need to use the appliance about twice a week. If for any reason the appliance malfunctions, breaks, or homeowners no longer want it, Obaggo invites customers to ship it back free of charge so Obaggo can dispose of it. New says, “We want to be responsible from a producer perspective…We want the devices to be used as much as possible, and we don’t want to be part of the waste problem.”
Obaggo is not just conscientious about contributing to the waste stream though. The company is also aware of potential financial challenges for customers. Oftentimes, consumers hesitate when purchasing sustainable products because they can be more expensive. Currently, the Obaggo appliance costs $149. Obaggo plans to bring a simpler, cheaper device to market soon. The potential also exists for the state to subsidize the cost of the appliance currently on the market. Obaggo encourages savvy shoppers to share the appliance with friends, family, and neighbors, and apartment buildings could provide the device for multiple tenants to use. Furthermore, the appliance does not greatly contribute to customers’ energy bills because of its efficiency. According to New, “The appliance uses 1 penny worth of electricity, which is less electricity than making a piece of toast.” For customers with solar panels, the deal is even better. New says, “They wouldn’t need to worry about burning fossil fuels to create the pucks” because their solar panels would supply all the electricity they need to use the appliance.
Not only is the device sustainable and cost-effective, it is also easy to use. Consumers may fear they do not know what items the appliance can accept to make pucks. Obaggo is developing an app that will help customers properly use the device. New reveals how he hopes the app will work in the future: “Ideally, the customer would be able to take a picture of the plastic item they want to put in the device, and the app would be able to tell them if that was ok or not.” Until then, Obaggo will post a list online that aligns with documentation by the Association of Plastic Recyclers and includes what can and cannot be put into the appliance. Customers can also go to plasticfilmrecycling.org, a site the plastic industry uses, to learn what is acceptable for their appliance. Generally, “The rule of thumb is that whatever the grocery store take back program takes, the device will take.”
For anyone still tentative about using the device, keep in mind the vital role such an appliance plays in reducing plastic trash and improving recycling. Until the spring of 2018, China imported 70% of the world’s plastic waste, totaling about 7 million tons a year, about 700,000 tons of which came from the U.S. alone. However, the tons of imported trash became a problem for China – recyclable materials were contaminated, making the process expensive and difficult; and plastic waste was brought in illegally, leading to dumping and pollution. The Chinese government took notice and implemented National Sword – a policy with stricter recycling regulations that prevents China from accepting recyclable items “more than 0.5 percent contaminated.” Wealthy nations, including the U.S., are now scrambling to dispose of recyclable items that China no longer accepts. As a result, America’s recycling and waste management facilities are saturated with materials that they do not have the technology to recycle or cannot separate and recycle profitably. Instead, items are sent to landfill and incineration facilities. These core recycling issues – inundating and polluting China with American waste, lack of well-developed recycling programs and technology in the United States, contaminated recyclables as a byproduct of consumer misunderstanding, throwing away recyclable items – are complicated problems with many causes and potential solutions.
Luckily, Obaggo’s appliance directly provides one tangible solution to these problems for American consumers. Because plastic bags are not currently recyclable, they contribute to the waste stream, they contaminate recycling streams when recycled incorrectly; for example, if they don’t get picked up by the screening process at material recovery centers, the thin, flimsy, plastic material goes into the paper stream, polluting paper recycling and damaging recycling machines. Obaggo makes recycling these bags easy and affordable.
A lot more work remains to address the problem of plastic packaging. New points to toothpaste tubes as just one example, and kitty litter bags made of PVC, which New says “no one wants to recycle.” Although the amount of plastic packaging left to tackle may be daunting, the Obaggo appliance is proof that more positive work can be done. Obaggo offers a glimmer of hope in a world seemingly overrun by single-use plastic packaging. Obaggo “Started to rethink the problem as a challenge or opportunity” and this resilient mindset is what will help Americans be successful environmentalists, following the lead of David New and Obaggo Recycling LLC. According to New, “The responsibility of the world really falls on everyone.”
Visit their website at https://www.obaggo.com/ for more information!
Kennedy Muise’s interview with David New
Gibbens, Sarah. “See the Complicated Landscape of Plastic Bans in the U.S.” National Geographic, 16 Aug. 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/08/map-shows-the-complicated-landscape-of-plastic-bans/.
Jacobo, Julia. “Despite War on Plastic, Study Shows Only Few States Have Banned Plastic Bags.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 6 June 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/Health/war-plastic-study-shows-states-banned-plastic-bags/story?id=63529555.
Joyce, Christopher. “Where Will Your Plastic Trash Go Now That China Doesn’t Want It?” NPR, 13 Mar. 2019, http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/13/702501726/where-will-your-plastic-trash-go-now-that-china-doesnt-want-it.
Pink, Kevin. “What Is the National Sword?” Center for EcoTechnology, 3 July 2018, http://www.cetonline.org/what-is-the-national-sword/.
Kummer, Frank. “At Least Half of Philly’s Recycling Goes Straight to an Incinerator.” The Inquirer, 25 Jan. 2019, http://www.philly.com/science/climate/recycling-costs-philadelphia-incinerator-waste-to-energy-plant-20190125.html.