Reduce, reuse, recycle – how many times have you heard this mantra? Probably hundreds, if not thousands of times; it is a great saying with an important message, but in reality, not enough organic materials are actually being recycled.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2014, in the United States, about 90 million tons of municipal solid waste, out of the 258 million tons generated, were recycled or composted. This equals a 34.6% recycling rate, not even close to half the total. Recycling and composting however are not the only ways to reduce waste. An increasingly popular option for recyclable materials is to repurpose them; that is exactly what the charitable organization, soon to be nonprofit, Alumin8 is doing.
Noticing a flaw in the current recycling system, co-founders of Alumin8 decided to do something to help in their local community of Lincoln, Nebraska. Out of the 34.6% of recycled materials, metals such as aluminum or tin contributed only 9%, and in Nebraska specifically that total was less than 4%.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) College of Engineering junior and Alumin8 Executive Director, Dominic Nguyen, explained that all aluminum cans have the potential to be recycled. The first time that the cans are, generally they are transformed back into more aluminum cans, which can result in the possibility that the cans will not be recycled again after this. Alumin8 hopes to help solve this problem by repurposing aluminum cans and then donating these repurposed objects to local shelters.
“Our cause helps minimize the metal waste generated by removing aluminum from this flawed sustainability cycle and transforming it into more permanent forms,” Nguyen said. “We want to Alumin8 [illuminate] the world one can at a time by promoting sustainability in an interactive way, while also giving back to the community.”
While an intern with NASA in Silicon Valley during the summer of 2016, Nguyen met a fellow intern who had started his own company while still enrolled in college. Intrigued, Nguyen started thinking of founding his own company. Shortly afterwards, in August of 2016, Alumin8 was established. The idea for Alumin8 was always in the back of Nguyen’s mind, he recalled that even as a child he would find new uses for everyday objects such as boxes, cans, and even toy objects such as Legos.
“I enjoyed turning simple objects into something more valuable,” Nguyen said.
Various entities of the university such as the UNL College of Engineering and the Nebraska Innovation Studio have helped Alumin8 in their sustainability efforts, through open-endorsement, can drives and other similar activities.
One of the leading contributors to Alumin8 is the UNL Association of Students of the University of Nebraska’s (ASUN) Green Fund. The Green Fund is a student-funded grant program designed to provide funding and guidance for student-led environmental sustainability projects at the University. Alumin8 is one of the first organizations to receive funding from the Green Fund. Approximately $9,000 will be allotted to the organization; all of the money provided through the Green Fund is collected from the University’s students as a part of their student fees. About $1 each semester, per student is collected to help support the Green Fund. Alumin8 is also a registered student organization at UNL; interested students can easily become a part of this organizations sustainable effort if wanted.
“The goal of the Fund is to enhance the overall campus sustainability,” UNL College of Business Administration senior and ASUN Green Fund Committee Chair, Cale Brodersen said. “The Green Fund is actually small for the size of the university, but it’s really big in terms of that this is what starts to change the culture on campus.”
Nguyen and his associates at Alumin8 decided on aluminum as their product focus area for several reasons; aluminum is available in many forms, mostly cans, making it easier to collect and produce a greater quantity of products, and aluminum has a much lower melting point compared to other metals.
The repurposing process after collection is to first melt the cans into aluminum ingots. Then through a process called Green Sand casting they create their products. Throughout this process members will 3-D-print their design with the help of the Nebraska Innovation Studio, and then create a mold of the design. Once the molds are created, the ingots are melted down again and casted. After the final polishing and any additional treatments needed, the repurposed aluminum products are donated to communities throughout the Lincoln area. Products the organization hope to make through this process include cups, nightlights, trophies and plaques, toys and more.
“Alumin8 is different from other organizations because it benefits the community in two ways; one by educating the public about sustainability in a fun way and the other by giving back to the homeless community,” Nguyen said. “Additionally, every recycled product is made from the contributions of environmentally-concerned people. At Alumin8, anyone can be a part of something bigger.”