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December 05, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Four companies pursuing ideas after being selected during “Sustainability and Recycling Pitch & Pilot Competition”

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

If you face a challenging problem, who better to turn to than enterprising entrepreneurs who are passionate about the issue?

That’s exactly what the City of Chattanooga and CO.LAB, the community’s entrepreneur center, did on late September when they announced the “Sustainability and Recycling Pitch & Pilot Competition.” Now, the winners of that event are testing their ideas and will be reporting the results to the city.

The idea came together very quickly, according to Christine DiPietro, Director of Programs for CO.LAB. “The city approached us and wanted something like Sevier County has,” she said, referencing the county-wide program where 70 percent of the waste stream is diverted through composting and recycling.

Diverting a large part of the waste stream could also help the city which had to suspend its curbside recycling collection for three months, starting in early August, due to a shortage of drivers.

So, during October’s “Startup Week CHA” which CO.LAB coordinates, a competition was held, and four winners were named. We had the opportunity to meet three of the four during a recent visit to the Gig City and connected virtually with the fourth a few days later.

We also met DiPietro, CO.LAB’s newest employee, who literally was in the process of relocating from Austin to Chattanooga. She’s very passionate about the environment, calling the pitch competition “probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” For contextual purposes, DiPietro was a resident of Chattanooga for nearly a year in the mid-2010s, later lived in South Africa where she earned her MBA at the University of Cape Town, and subsequently managed the inaugural “Techstars Impact” and” Techstars Austin” programs while living in the State Capital of Texas.

The four winners received between $3,500 and $5,000 each for the pilots, but the enthusiasm they exhibited during our discussions suggested they possessed a winning lottery ticket.

For Norm Lavoie, one of the Founders of New Terra Compost, which captured an additional $2,500 as the favorite of the audience, the focus is on diverting food waste through composting. He told us that he started composting in his backyard in Hixson about a year ago.

“My backyard worked for 3,000 pounds a year, but not for 3,000 pounds a day,” Lavoie explained. He now has a State of Georgia permit for a larger composting facility there, and the project that the city funded is a pilot involving restaurants and schools separating their organic material from other waste with New Terra then picking-up the organic material.

“We want to take a resource and get it back into the soil,” Lavoie says.

For Mackenzie Tapley, a Senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it’s all about education and accurate information. She told us about organizations like Green Steps Chattanooga that is focused on reducing litter in ways such as organizing monthly community clean-ups. Yet, those who participate in these events face a real challenge in understanding the ever-changing landscape of items that are being accepted for recycling and those that are not.

“Signs are non-existent or crude,” DiPietro noted. Tapley’s solution is to have more signs and a QR code that will allow anyone to easily access the city’s 311 site which is fed by a database that can be quickly updated. She even produced a YouTube video explaining her efforts.

“Our project will be a little more long-term,” Tapley said.

The third project was pitched by Olivine Glass and is, as Carrie Lawson described, a “very, very early pilot.” The idea is to partner with restaurants to divert their glass items from the waste stream and turn the glass into sand which can then be sold to garden centers, art stores and, eventually used for concrete aggregate.

The final project was pitched by Chattanooga native Brian Wright who now resides in Atlanta. He told us that he thought, “This is pretty cool,” when he heard about the pitch competition. Then, while Wright and his wife were on an anniversary trip to the West Coast, he observed how robust recycling was there and decided to submit an idea.

Green for Good, as he named his project, is actually three small pilot programs: one at home, work, and school. The first involves 100 homes in Chattanooga’s Jefferson Heights neighborhood and the Hefty EnergyBag Program. For the school component, Wright is working with Chattanooga’s Battle Academy using the NexTrex educational materials developed by Trex Company Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of wood-alternative decking and railing made from recycled materials. The at work component involves replicating at partnership between Habitat for Humanity and Novelis that encourages recycling where Habitat benefits financially.

“Three million recycled cans can fund one Habitat house,” Wright says.

For CO.LAB’s Chloe Morrison, a longtime journalist before joining the organization, the symbolism of the pilots underscores the transformation from the dirtiest city in America, according to the late Walter Cronkite, to a very progressive one.

“This is exactly what Chattanooga should be doing,” she says.

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