May 22, 2020Print | PDF
Lauren Barnes, a business administration student in the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, and her brother, Lucas, a recent graduate of the same program, have spent the past few years finding new and inventive uses for plastic that would otherwise end up in landfills.
Through their company, Last20, they’ve been selling t-shirts, each made from six plastic water bottles that have been shredded, melted and extruded into yarn, and collecting and recycling thousands of bottles destined for the trash.
Recently, though, they’ve begun thinking about a larger-scale project: plastic pavement. They’ve teamed up with a local researcher to develop asphalt that uses film plastic from old plastic bags to supplement bitumen, a binding agent used in traditional pavement. The result is a pavement that’s more durable, cost-effective and waterproof – and finds a use for potentially huge volumes of plastic garbage.
About 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year but less than 10 per cent gets recycled. Since plastic takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, the rest ends up in landfills, gets incinerated or pollutes oceans, waterways, cities, wilderness and countryside.
Where recycling facilities and curbside collection don’t exist, plastic goes directly into the trash. Even in places where recycling programs do exist, if recyclables aren’t sorted or cleaned properly, they end up in the landfill too. Other plastics, including Styrofoam and plastic bags, aren’t recycled at all.
Most efforts aimed at addressing the plastic problem have focused on finding alternatives to plastic or educating people on how to recycle properly, but Lucas and Lauren wanted to find a way to reuse, or upcycle, plastic waste so it can have a second life.
The sustainable apparel idea came to Lauren in 2017 while she was learning about the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals in a first-year business class. In her first term, she began preparing a business plan for the apparel company and, in the winter term, she pitched it at the Lazaridis School’s annual BDO New Venture Competition.
Lucas was drawn to the idea too. That same year, he made the venture idea the focus of his fourth-year entrepreneurship class. He interviewed 30 students, met with suppliers and put together a financial analysis. By the end of the winter term, he had a blueprint for Last20.
With encouragement from Laura Allan, assistant professor in the Lazaridis School, Lucas and Lauren joined Enactus Laurier and hired six students through the organization. They also received funding and support through the business school and the Sustainable Hawk Fund.
“Laurier has supported us in so many ways, including through classes on entrepreneurship, pitch competitions that helped us refine our business plan and networking opportunities,” says Lauren. “If we hadn’t had these opportunities, we wouldn’t have gotten as far along as we have.”
The sustainable apparel idea came to Lauren in 2017 while she was learning about the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals in a first-year business class.
Last fall, Lucas and Lauren began brainstorming new opportunities for Last20 to help combat plastic waste. Through their connections with plastic providers and recycling facilities, they learned that plastic bags are one of the most common items in landfills.
“There is literally no use for waste film plastic from a recycling perspective,” says Lucas. “There’s not much difference between the cost of buying virgin film plastic and recycling waste plastic so there’s no real incentive for companies to take a more environmentally friendly route.”
They learned about plastic pavement, which has been used to build roads in India for more than 10 years but is only beginning to be experimented with in Canada. Sina Varamini, an adjunct professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Waterloo, is one of the foremost researchers on the topic in the country. He has been developing the pavement with support from a large asphalt company and is eager to work with Last20.
Lucas and Lauren hope to one day position Last20 as a sustainable pavement consultant company. Since there are many grades of film plastic and different ratios required for different uses and climates, an intermediary between developers, asphalt companies and plastic providers will be needed.
They hope their pavement will one day be used to build roads in Canada, but they’re starting with smaller-scale projects. Last20 is already in discussions with private and public developers, including the City of Waterloo, which is considering using plastic pavement in the soon-to-be constructed Hemlock Park in the Northdale community.
“Once we’ve completed these pilot projects, it’ll be easier for us to get more work,” says Lucas. “We’ve already had a lot of interest from road builders across Ontario, but they just want to see strong data that this is going to work and that it’s tried and true.”