Carla: Our take-make-waste economy is unsustainable. According to the World Bank, we generate over 2 billion tons of solid waste a year, and that number is projected to grow to 3.4 billion by 2050.
With a finite number of resources available here on Earth, not only is our current way of doing things untenable: the environmental implications are catastrophic. And as much as some want to push finding solutions off, this isn’t a someday problem: it’s impacting our most vulnerable populations today.
But there are those who are currently working toward a more sustainable future by tapping into something called the Circular Economy.
Garry Cooper: The GDP of 44 of the current 50 states don’t equal the economy of the under use or not use of things. And so literally there is an economy of the things we don’t use and that is called the Circular Economy.
Carla: Today, I sit down with Dr. Garry Cooper, co-founder & CEO of Rheaply [reap-lee], a company that is helping businesses be more green by making them think circular.
But first, we hear from Nzambi Matee, an entrepreneur with a powerful vision for plastic pollution in Africa.
Nzambi Matee: What we wanted is we wanted to use the plastic waste problem to solve a basic human need. And what are the basic human needs? It’s food, shelter, and clothing. So we settled for shelter.
Carla: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I’m your host Carla Harris. And we’re telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Carla: Around the world, plastic waste is piling up. It’s one of the biggest forms of waste we create – around 400 million tons annually – and less than 10% has ever been recycled. But in Nairobi, Kenya, one entrepreneur is finding potential beyond the landfill.
Nzambi Matee: So in Nairobi we generate about 500 metric tons of plastic waste every single day. For me, I felt something more has to be done.
Nzambi Matee: My name is Nzambi, Nzambi Matee, founder of Gjenge Makers Limited, and Gjenge Makers is an alternative affordable building product manufacturing company based here in Nairobi, and our first product line is pavers made out of recycled waste plastic. Our goal is to make affordable housing blocks. So my background is in material science and engineering. When I finished my undergraduate, I moved to the oil and gas space where I was a data analyst. So having worked in oil and gas for two and a half years, I realized that it was not my purpose. So I quit my job in 2017 and then I went and sat down to fulfill my purpose in life. And that’s how we started Gjenge.
Carla: Gjenge Makers extends the life cycle of plastic waste by turning it into construction pavers – bricks used to pave driveways, walkways and roads – across Kenya’s capital. Nzambi was born and raised in Nairobi, the bustling economic hub of East Africa commonly referred to as the “green city under the sun” for its swathes of mountain forest and grasslands in and around the metropolis. But residents question how Nairobi will maintain this status.
Nzambi Matee: Plastic waste is unfortunately a very visible problem, here in Kenya and in most developing countries. Here in Nairobi we have an area where the Nairobi River passes.
The plastic waste creates like a really thick layer to the point that you can literally walk on top of the river.
Carla: Plastic waste represents a unique challenge. For a long time, plastic had been sold to consumers as nearly guilt-free waste because of its potential to be recycled. But, recent years have shown folks otherwise, with numerous reports highlighting that very little of the plastic we throw away is recycled because that process is often more expensive than it’s considered to be worth.
Nzambi Matee: Recycling plastic is not the problem. The logistics behind recycling the plastic is the problem. Until we find a solution that makes economic sense to plastic pollution, we kind of have our work cut out for us.
Carla: This is where the Circular Economy comes in. It’s a concept championed by policy makers and advocates, including Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing. But before we go further, let’s get one thing straight: recycling is merely a piece of the journey towards a Circular Economy. Recycling still relies upon people discarding products as waste. But, in a true Circular Economy, waste does not exist. So, items never make it to a landfill. Instead, they are kept cycling through the economy for as long as possible. This is an important distinction for many plastics, which can only be recycled a few times before they become unusable. So finding a place for plastic waste in the Circular Economy is essential.
Nzambi Matee: This problem is a whole new entity altogether. You have this plastic, you don’t know where to take it. And because we don’t have proper recycling facilities, we ended up throwing them where we’re throwing them: in the river, in the roads, everywhere.
Carla: As Nzambi waded into the plastic waste problem, she realized there were complexities she hadn’t considered. Generations of plastic waste had already built up.
Nzambi Matee: When I entered into this space, I really started empathizing with the government and empathizing with the people within this space, because this is a huge problem. And to make matters even harder, it’s an intergenerational problem. Having this at the back of your mind, you will constantly ask yourself isn’t this a losing battle I’m fighting, but then you’ll see your impact. You see the impact in your community day to day, because we have a saying in Swahili: (speaks Swahili). That means small actions will result to a big thing. Like an ocean is made out of drops.
Carla: Nzambi took her engineering background and began a period of research and development focused on a central question: how can we turn plastic waste into something valuable?
Nzambi Matee: What we wanted is we wanted to use the plastic waste problem to solve a basic human need. And what are the basic human needs? It’s food, shelter, and clothing. So we settled for shelter. Our goal and our core business and our vision as a company is to actually properly disrupt the affordable housing space.
Music Cue – a-ha moment / feeling inspired
Right now, as we speak, we are in the R&D process of making a complete house by the same technology. And so by the end of this year, inshallah, we’ll have a proper house.
Carla: Gjenge Makers made their first brick at the end of 2018. The longer lasting alternative to cement pavers is created by combining sand with plastic to create a product with more value than the original plastic.
Nzambi Matee: Our bricks are stronger. They’re about five to seven times stronger than normal. They’re cheaper. They’re about 15% cheaper. And they’re lighter. They’re about half the weight.
Carla: Since that first brick, Gjenge has covered around 100,000 square meters with their pavers. Their work relies upon principles of upcycling, an essential first step in the transition to a more circular economy.
Nzambi Matee: We have been able to recycle about 115 metric tons of plastic waste. And by the end of this year, we project to move to almost 200 metric tons of plastic waste. Remember in Nairobi, we generate 500 metric tons a single day. And for us, it has taken us about – what? – two years to recycle 200 metric tons.
Carla: In 2020, Nzambi and her team received the Young Champions of the Earth Award from UNEP. The award brought not only new opportunity but a validation of her business and the mission they were striving towards.
Nzambi Matee: It just opened us up to those that we had never even imagined. So for me, I’m really honored. And my team, I am really honored because it felt good, someone finally sees that hard work we’re doing and saying, “Thank you. We appreciate it and we see it.” And then also it’s bad. The sense of responsibility of now that you have this platform, what do you do for everyone else? What do you do for your community and what do you do to lift others up?
Carla: With this responsibility in mind, Nzambi is dedicated to creating economic opportunity for her fellow citizens most in need.
We walk with people to a dumpsite and every single week we go to this place and you smell the smoke in the air, you smell the decomposition of organic materials, and you think, how can someone live in here? But at the end of the day, this person has no elsewhere to go. So, first of all, it’s to humanize this space by properly investing in this space, because I truly believe there’s so much potential in this space.
We started with, “Okay, what if we make a brick?” Two years later, we made a brick and like, “Okay, fine. What if we make our own production machine?” Three years later, we are doing our own production line. Now you’re asking, “What if you make a house?” – because I want to live in a nice house. I want the people who are working the dumpsite to have affordable and decent housing. So why not make that a reality?
And so for me, I am really honored to say I am happy to be part of the best team in the world.
Carla: Gjenge Makers is on the path to creating a Circular Economy of plastic waste in Nairobi by extracting economic value before it piles up in the streets. Ultimately, Nzambi wants to change the mindset around plastic waste.
Nzambi Matee: Somewhere along the lines with the whole journey of globalization, we shifted to a consumer mindset. What do we do once you’ve finished consuming this thing, where do I take this? Can we extract value and give it another life?
Carla: We have work ahead of us on the quest for perfect circularity, but innovators like Nzambi Matee are bringing us one step closer by extending the useful life of the more than 6 billion tons of plastic waste that exist on Earth today.
Our next guest is keeping goods from ever becoming waste, and he’s got big plans to help scale the Circular Economy through his company, Rheaply, an online platform that businesses can subscribe to to exchange everything from office chairs to heavy manufacturing equipment. Dr. Garry Cooper holds a PhD in Neuroscience from Northwestern where he made the observation that would change the course of his career. Garry believes that not only will the Circular Economy put us on the path towards a more sustainable future, but can also help address unequal access to capital and resources. I sat down with him to learn more.
Carla Harris: Garry, thank you so much for being here with me today. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show. And are you ready to jump in?
Garry Cooper: I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me. Let’s go.
Carla Harris: So Gary, take us back to the beginning. Where are you from? And when did you discover your passion for science?
Garry Cooper: Yes, so I am a Midwesterner through and through. So I am from Dayton, Ohio – DYT shout out. And you know what? I was seven year old, I was in second grade, and I did an experiment in a science fair around, ‘How do trees, how do leaves get food?’ I remember that very well, and I think that was kind of the start, but, I majored in mathematics, so did a BS in math. And then I did a BA in chemistry. And then in ‘08 I came to Chicago, in Illinois, one state over, at Northwestern where I pursued my PhD in neuroscience trying to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. And so it started early on, but it’s been throughout my career and quite frankly, the company that I run today: we think like scientists. So we run experiments, we have hypotheses and we go out and try to prove them out to market.
Carla Harris: Wow. Well, congratulations on all of that. Now, while studying your PhD, you mentioned that you also made a discovery about the waste of resources in research departments. So, you know, what was that ‘aha’ moment and how did that then lead to the founding of Rheaply?
Garry Cooper: So I happened to be in a very well-funded laboratory at Northwestern University, in fact, probably one of the most well-funded labs in the United States. Across the hallway, there were other labs that were junior faculty members, most of the time women or minority faculty members, labs that were smaller, didn’t have the same resources. I would go to lunch with their graduate students and they would say, “Man, if I only had what you had in your lab, or that thing over there, we could do these experiments and maybe move this science down the road.” And I thought, why is it that we have stuff that we’re not using? And you have stuff that you need that we have that you need, and we’re not even communicating, we’re not sharing? So I just started a resource sharing program where I would, you know, put on a cart that things that we weren’t using in my lab anymore, push it around the floor I was on at Northwestern and just redistribute the things that we weren’t using. Not very, you know, Einsteinian, and it turns out people liked that. People started doing it on other floors and other buildings at the medical school. And six years later that is now a company that builds software to do that for a large business.
Carla Harris: Now I know you love data, as a scientist. So there had to be some other data that you looked at that said to you, wait a minute, this data tells me there’s a market. What was that?
Garry Cooper: So there’s a couple of things out there now. So one of the things is, you know, like any entrepreneur, or really any scientist, when you have an idea, you start to kind of think about: Is it just my idea? Is this just my experience? Or do other people experience this?
So one of the first things we did at Northwestern is we surveyed about 200 scientists and said, “Hey, is Gary’s experience in his lab the same? And what we’ve found is like 97% of people surveyed said something like they had over $20,000 of stuff that they’re not using in their lab each year. That’s just one university. That’s just 200 people at one university and there’s about 6,000 universities in the country. Fast forward a couple of years into the business, the Federal Reserve publishes under utilized capacity of assets. There’s about $630 billion of cap ex – capital expenditures – that go underused every single year. And about 60% of those go to landfill. The GDP of 44 of the current 50 states don’t equal the economy of the under use or not use of the things. And so literally there is an economy of the things we don’t use, and that is called the Circular Economy. So the whole thing that we’re trying to build at Rheaply is a technology to map who has what, what’s underused and to connect those two people.
Carla Harris: Okay, so let’s break it down. Let’s go right there. Describe the Rheaply product. What is it? And how does it work? Rheaply is…
Garry Cooper: So Rheaply is a way that business professionals can share physical items that they no longer use. So whether that be a chair, you’re getting a new chair? Maybe a table, maybe you’re getting a new table? Or a new monitor. What happens to the old monitor? What happens to the old table? What happens to your chair? Similarly for things like equipment and manufacturing. So instead of sending them to landfill, instead of putting them on the curb or, you know, putting them back alley, what Rheaply helps do is find new homes for them, whether they be in the community, whether they be at a university next door, whether they be in a nonprofit, whether they be to a peer business or sometimes, and this is the magic, sometimes it is just down the hallway.
Carla Harris: Now you’ve referenced Gary, this idea of the Circular Economy. So for our listeners, let’s help define the difference between the Circular Economy and the Linear Economy. And explain why, in your opinion, the Linear Economy is just completely unsustainable.
Garry Cooper: Absolutely. So the Linear Economy is the one that we mostly operate in today, which is a ‘take, make and dispose’. So a manufacturer takes something out of the ground, they make a product with it, you buy it, and when you get done with it, you throw it away. And that is the so-called Linear Economy. The Circular Economy is one that says, “Hey, if we actually use all the stuff that we currently have above ground – all the things that we’ve already made – we actually don’t need to take new things, we don’t need to generate new resources below ground. And, importantly, we don’t generate trash.” It’s really just about, how can we make a circular loop between the end of life of something and the beginning of the life of another use? The sustainability benefits are kind of overwhelming. There was a seminal paper published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is the leading foundation that thinks about the Circular Economy, with Google in 2019. What they said in the paper was: if we move, if we electrified our entire grid. If we all stop eating beef. And if we move to all renewable sources of energy…we still would not abate the effects of climate change completely. We would only do so about 55%, the other 45% – in fact, the paper was called Completing the Puzzle – the other 45% comes from scaling a Circular Economy, because no matter how much you green the grid and all these things, we still consume net too much. So we had to scale the Circular Economy to really fully abate climate change. Our view at Rheaply is, there’s no technology to scale the Circular Economy right now. The world’s about 8.6% circular. So in order to scale the Circular Economy, we need technology to help us and centrally that’s what we’re building at Rheaply.
Carla Harris: Wow, and how do you think the Circular Economy will change the landscape for access to capital in the country?
Garry Cooper: Oh, so that’s a great question. So a couple things. The first thing is, if you think about that number we started with – 630 billion – and let’s just say some small part, 10%, is capturable. Well, instead of sending that to landfill, we’re going to send that to community. Like I always like to say, instead of sending…you know where most of the landfills are?
Carla Harris: Inner city.
Garry Cooper: They’re in the most low income. So instead of sending trash to the low income areas, why not send value? So the first thing is, can we start businesses? Can people be their own entrepreneurial self with a lower cost point? So, as I said, if I’m starting a beauty shop or barber shop or whatever it might be, can I get all of the furniture and stuff for free, as opposed to buying that? Can I get all these things? And that just allows people to start businesses easier. The second is health. Let’s be honest the White House has published that for every ton of carbon in the atmosphere, it costs about $51 adversely to healthcare. So if you think about the problem that we’re facing with climate change on the order of hundreds of billions of tons of carbon in the atmosphere, there’s a health problem. I think that health problem hurts people starting businesses because we all know people who want to start businesses, who can’t because they can’t lose their health care by their employer.
I think the Circular Economy has a lot of great answers, and that’s why it’s a global four and a half trillion dollar economic opportunity. When people think about the Circular Economy, they shouldn’t think first of sustainability. They should think of the single biggest economic opportunity over the next 20 years. Bigger than electrification, bigger than EV. It is the single biggest thing. The thing is we just have to go build it and we have to be intentional about building it, and I’m glad to say that Rheaply is one company of many that are trying to help build a Circular Economy, at least in the United States.
Carla Harris: So what’s next for Rheaply?
Garry Cooper: You know, I’m always in fundraising, “Hi, Mr. And Mrs. Investor out there.” [laughs] So, you know, as a CEO, growing the company. One little bit of knowledge here is that I’m very aware of where we are. If we are able to do our next round, which is one of our 2022 OKRs, Rheaply will be one of the most well-funded circular economy businesses in the United States ever, and I will have raised the most venture capital money of any other Black person in the history of Chicago. And I think that’s exciting both from a diversity perspective, but also from a sustainability perspective. And it shows that a person from Northwestern and a PhD can run a business. And it shows that a person of color can lead a green movement. And it shows that green businesses are very, very investible. I think probably one of the best asset classes to be investing in the future, so we hope we get that done. But, otherwise we’re heads down just trying to make the working world less wasteful through circularity.
Carla Harris: Well, Dr. Gary Cooper, you are already on your way to doing that. So I have no doubt that that vision will certainly be a reality.
Thank you so much for giving us some time today and taking the time to put so many great playbook points out there for our listeners. Thank you, brother.
Garry Cooper: Thank you. Be well.
Carla Harris: Alright. You too.
Carla: I want to thank both Dr. Garry Cooper and Nzambi Matee for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity.
What did you think of today’s episode? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.