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Daily Inspiration: Meet Lauren Choi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lauren Choi.

Hi Lauren, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
I spent the summer of 2019 building a machine in my garage. The goal was to build a small extruder that could recycle plastic into yarn. What sparked the idea was an article I read about recycling in the US.

It talked about how we ship most of our waste to other countries and really lack the infrastructure to recycle domestically. I was shocked. As someone who has always been interested in sustainability, I was surprised how little I knew about what happened to plastic after it went into the blue “recycling” bin.

This project was the perfect combination of my interests. At the time, I was a junior studying Materials Engineering at Johns Hopkins and had just worked to start an LA-based swimwear company, which gave me a peek into the world of fashion. At the time, a lot of articles were coming out about how plastic water bottles were being recycled into polyester yarns and fabrics. Sustainable fashion had really taken off as a topic of discussion.

I thought I’d give it a go and see if I could do it myself. I spent three months building a machine. It didn’t work for the entire time. I went back to school in the fall and had a new idea: Red Solo cups. College campuses use thousands and thousands of cups. I put a Solo cup into my machine and out extruded yarn.

For the next two years, I worked to lab test the materials at Johns Hopkins. With much support from the student body, I launched a pilot collection program where we directly collected Solo cups from student organizations. We received thousands of cups from an undergraduate population of 6,000 students. We were overwhelmed by how many Solo cups we collected.

About two months into the pilot collection program, COVID hit, and classes were canceled. I knew The New Norm needed to pivot. I have now spent the last year testing new sustainable fiber blends with labs in North Carolina. The purpose was to replicate my fibers on industrial machinery, scale production, and create knit and woven fabric.

I have also partnered with Dart, the makers of Solo, and Terracycle to create a sustainable, transparent supply chain for collected Solo cups all over the US.

Today, I am now at the stage where I’m working with recyclers, apparel companies, and domestic manufacturers to produce sustainable yarn on a large scale. I have to say, I’m incredibly excited about what’s ahead.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Being an entrepreneur takes diligence, persistence, creativity, and motivation. One must constantly be ready to react to problems, pivot, and be fast on one’s feet, which is very hard to do.

In my first few months of working on The New Norm full time (after graduating from Johns Hopkins), navigating each problem that came my way was incredibly difficult. It took a lot of practice and self-reflection to work through each obstacle.

The New Norm is a startup that involves a lot of moving parts. I work with engineers and laboratories, suppliers and manufacturers, and apparel companies. Working remotely through the pandemic, many factors were out of my control. Experiments failed, international shipping slowed, manufacturing took longer because people couldn’t work in person, etc.

You just have to work through it all. You have to keep going. I found that taking some time every day, every week, to reflect on progress and challenges has been an incredibly grounding practice that helps me look at the big picture, which is something people often lose sight of.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
The New Norm’s mission…

The Problem: The major barrier to our present-day recycling infrastructure is the staggering amount of different plastic types entering the recycling stream. Most plastics labeled with the typical triangle logo indicating their recyclability are highly engineered and actually cannot be recycled at scale.

Our Solution: The New Norm addresses this issue head-on; we offer a solution that makes use of plastics that are not accepted by our existing recycling infrastructure. We transform plastic into sustainable, wearable fabric.

Our first trial successfully incorporated the red Solo cup —a material not recycled in the U.S. and not used in fabric—into a fiber that can be manufactured on industrial machinery. Our material has been lab-tested and woven and knit into fabric samples.

This year, we are applying our technology to other types of recyclable plastics. Our newest materials are made from recycled ocean plastics and Solo cups. Our materials are naturally dyed by their recycled inputs, eliminating one of the most polluting steps in the fabric manufacturing process.

What I do as a Materials Engineer: I like comparing what I do to baking…  Because just like everyone else, I also learned to make sourdough during the pandemic and found it similar in ways to what I was doing for The New Norm. Fibers are incredibly delicate. This is why it’s difficult to make yarns and fabrics out of recycled materials.

Recycled materials, when added to a fiber blend, act as a contaminant. It is my job to create a successful recipe (fiber blend) that incorporates high percentages of recycled materials. Just as a baker adds specific amounts of baking powder, salt, and eggs and bakes their creation at a specific heat for a specific amount of time, I too have to experiment with finding the right additives and processing parameters.

The first 10 fiber blends I created did not work – yarn did not extrude out of the machine. It took a lot of time and experimentation to create the perfect blends.

We’d love to hear about any fond memories you have from when you were growing up?
I am lucky to say I have many. I grew up next to my two best friends who are twins and am very close to my younger sister. The first memory that came to mind was neighborhood hide and seek.

One person would count and the rest of us would hide in our neighbors’ front lawns. The person counting would have to look behind bushes and trees to find the people hiding. More and more kids on our block joined us so it became a team game. It was SO much fun.

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