Plastic is not created equally,” says Heidi Kujawa, CEO of ByFusion. “It’s super complex, which is why this problem is really broken.”
The very short version of the problem goes like this: Despite all those triangle-arrow recycling symbols on the bottom of your bottles, most plastic is not recyclable. And the stuff that is often isn’t recycled anyway, because the process is dirty and cumbersome. Which means your recycling bin may be emptied into a landfill.
Kujawa wants to fix this. She had a successful career in entertainment and tech, but was looking to do something more meaningful. Around 2015, she heard about a company that had developed an interesting concept: It smushed old plastic into blocks, which could be used as construction material instead of concrete or bricks. “They had a prototype and it kind of worked, but not really,” Kujawa says. The company had since closed, and the patent had lapsed. “I said, ‘I know I can make that better.’”
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Now she has. Her company, ByFusion, builds machines that literally fuse up to 30 pounds of plastic — no matter the type or how dirty it is — into blocks that can be used to make walls, furniture, small structures, and more. Its work is starting to appear around the country: A park bench was installed in Boise in February, followed by projects in Tucson and Los Angeles.
On the following pages, you can follow the process of building a block — as well as Kujawa’s journey to reviving a once-failed idea, and putting old plastic to real use.
→ launching a radical idea
As Kujawa looked to fund her company, she knew she was in a bind: She’d innovated inside the waste management and construction industries, both of which are in need of new ideas — but “waste management and construction are two massive industries that VCs typically never invest in,” Kujawa says. How can entrepreneurs get funding in an overlooked space? First, prove the idea: Following the sale of her last company, she bootstrapped the first few phases of ByFusion herself — establishing the market and tech before going to investors. Second, seize the moment: As the culture shifted, with the business community talking more about climate solutions, “VCs started to say, okay, I guess we have to start focusing on this,” she says. She’s raised a $1.5 million seed round.
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→ back to basics
“I grew up with a hammer in my hand, not necessarily a Barbie doll,” Kujawa says. She always loved construction–“but I realized early on that it’s probably not a good career path back in the ’70s and ’80s for a girl.” That’s why she went into tech and entertainment. “But I never dropped the hammer.”
→ who’s the customer?
ByFusion’s plan isn’t just to sell blocks of plastic. It sells the machines that make the blocks, and has designed them modularly so that a broad range of clients, from waste management companies to municipalities, can utilize them to fit their needs and then produce the blocks themselves. Kujawa pitches it as a financial, logistical, and landfill diversion solution: Instead of transporting worthless plastic and dealing with associated compliance issues, cities and companies (and even universities) could create these blocks. ByFusion will buy back any surplus and sell to market on their behalf. “As we saw with the pandemic, there’s been a shortage of building materials. So let’s give them the ability to create their own material.”
Image Credit: All Photographs by Amy Lombard
Related: The Business of Sustainability