Steps to Sustainability

These Orfalea alumni want to protect the planet, and they’re finding innovative ways to do it.

It began with a plastic bottle, a price tag and a thought: there has to be a better way. As fourth-year Industrial Technology & Packaging student at Cal Poly, Scott Edwards saw a problem. “Why are we paying so much for plastic and water that costs a fraction of a cent?” he asked himself. After a little research, he found two reasons: production and transport. His solution was Drop Water, a company set to revolutionize the bottled water industry and eliminate a whole lot of waste.

According to Edwards’ research, in 2017, over 480 billion bottles of water were produced worldwide. Stacked end to end, that many bottles would go around the equator 2,500 times, or to the moon 250 times. But plastic waste isn’t the only problem; transporting that many bottles creates energy waste too. Edwards sees this energy inefficiency as equally harmful. “One pallet of bottled water weighs a ton and requires large, gas-guzzling trucks to deliver,” he said. “Basically, when you buy a bottle of water, you’re really paying for the ticket to get it to you.”

Drop Water’s solution is “decentralized bottling.” They ship empty, collapsible, 100 percent compostable bottles to strategically-placed vending machines that are smaller than normal, yet hold over five times the number of products. These machines draw from water lines like drinking fountains do, filter it, then add the user’s choice of all-natural flavors and vitamins. The paper/bio-polymer bottles cost 50 percent less energy to produce and 1/30th of the energy to transport. Edwards and the Drop Water team “want to be good ancestors to future generations. This means reducing the drastic amount of plastic waste going into our oceans and the energy wasted taking it there.”

What began as Edwards’ senior project at Cal Poly has since grown into an innovative startup, receiving national attention from venture capitalists and corporations alike. Drop Water recently installed their cutting-edge vending machines at the San Jose International Airport and took second place out of 7,800 companies nationwide in FedEx’s Small Business Grant Contest.

But even with all the recognition and growth, Edwards still maintains close relationships with fellow Cal Poly alumni. In fact, the entire four-person team is made up of Mustangs. Ron Sloat, senior mechatronics engineer, was Edwards’ Week of Welcome leader. Marc Rauschnot, software engineer, met Edwards in the Central Coast Wakeboarding Association, Cal Poly’s unofficial wakeboarding club. And Britni Heter, head of business operations and nutrition, has been Edwards’ partner since their time at Cal Poly.

They’ve had plenty of Learn by Doing opportunities along the way, from meticulously testing various materials to create the most sustainable packaging option, to formulating recipes in the lab they affectionately call “Flavortown,” to pitching potential investors. But just like they did in their studies, the Drop Water team has been bold in their endeavors and uncompromising in their approach. “Our mechanics, our materials, our funding have changed,”

The garbage truck doesn’t need to stop at Christine Liu’s house anymore. There’s nothing to collect. That’s because since 2015, Liu has been on a journey to reduce and eliminate her household waste, and through her increasingly popular blog and social media presence, she’s inspiring others to do the same.

Liu began her career as the sustainable packaging program manager at Cisco, where she helped reduce waste through sustainable packaging design. After hours, she pursued her creative outlets as a blogger, photographer and videographer with a rapidly growing internet following; a following that has expanded so quickly it’s allowed Liu to take up blogging full time.

Liu’s passion for sustainability began at Cal Poly in her plastics and consumer packaging courses. She was appalled to learn “the sheer volume of non-biodegradable waste we produce in the U.S.” One fact that still sticks with her is that the U.S. constitutes five percent of the world’s population but produces 40 percent of its waste. She remembers sitting in class and thinking: “there have be steps we can take as individuals to fix this.”

So, she started taking action. In addition to reducing her own plastic waste, Liu co-founded Cal Poly’s Net Impact chapter, a professional organization focused on using business to serve the local community. Then, her senior year, Liu earned a fellowship with The DO School in Germany, where she created sustainable packaging solutions for H&M. At the same time, she cultivated a social venture called “Packageless,” which would later become her blog, simply by christine.

Take one look at Liu’s blog and it’s apparent that she’s a sustainability polymath, a renaissance woman. Her posts range from fashion to recipes to travel. She writes with the same confident knowledge about interior design as she does about beauty routines. Each post is accompanied by beautiful photos or videos, shot and edited herself. And in every post, she gives practical, non-judgmental tips on reducing waste, baby steps toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

She encourages her followers to “start small. Start where you can. Whenever you throw something away, think about how you can eliminate it next time.” Liu’s online community consists of people from around the world at different stages in their zero-waste journeys. She engages with them online and occasionally organizes real world meet ups. “It’s inspiring to see each person pursuing a sustainable lifestyle in their own way, in their own culture and part of the world,” she says.

In 2017, simply by christine caught the eye of a publishing industry executive who had been searching for a sustainability writer. Liu spent the next year writing her book. She drafted the content, took the photos and designed the layout. The final product was Sustainable Home, a beautifully rendered book full of “practical projects, tips and advice for maintaining a more eco-friendly household.”

With a book tour in the works and an ever-growing online community, Liu keeps her focus on what matters. “After going zero-waste for a year now, I’m even more motivated to continue,” she said. “If we all take little steps toward a more eco-conscious lifestyle, together we can make a huge difference.”

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