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A business idea to turn biomass into fuel, fertilizer and other useful products won first prize in the Northwest Arkansas Council’s recycling pitch contest held April 21 at Botanical Garden of the Ozarks.

SIEV Technologies took home the $4,000 prize with its plan to use a catalytic system developed by University of Arkansas researchers. Their plan is to convert food waste into the chemical building blocks for ethanol, jet fuel and other mixtures.

Judges heard the seven teams’ ideas for reusing plastics, glass and construction materials, and for reducing the waste that occurs when university students move out of their dormitories each spring. NWA Recycles, the recycling initiative of the Northwest Arkansas Council, convened the first Rethinking Trash event to highlight entrepreneurship’s vital role in keeping waste out of the landfill.

Ranil Wickramasinghe, a chemical engineering professor and SIEV’s co-founder, said the technology could use a portion of the tens of millions of tons of food waste created in the U.S. each year, nearly all of which goes into a landfill. It would also simplify existing catalytic processes.

Wickramasinghe and his partners have been working on the technology for years, winning a $256,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2021. But he told the judges that the team is in the process of applying for a larger grant and could partner with several recycling and waste-related organizations represented in the audience.

Second place went to the Carbon Chicken Project, which captured a $1,000 prize. Founder Jody Hardin’s idea is to combine poultry litter with biochar from sawmill waste to create a replacement for fossil fuel-based agricultural fertilizer that can also help improve water quality in Northwest Arkansas.

Contest judges were Wendy Bland, executive director of the Benton County Solid Waste District; Robyn Reed, executive director of the Boston Mountain Solid Waste District; Jeff Amerine, founder and managing director at Startup Junkie Consulting; and Shane Red, strategic account executive on the Sustainable Solutions Team at WM.

Entrepreneurs and local businesses make recycling and diverting waste easier, more accessible and more successful, and this event is one step toward helping others follow their lead. Thanks again to all of the judges, entrepreneur panelists and other partners who helped make it possible! They of course include our keynote speaker, Dr. Andrew Dent, who is executive vice president at the global materials library and consultancy Material ConneXion and has been featured in a TED Talk and on NPR.

Should we hold this event again? Any other thoughts or suggestions for supporting entrepreneurs in recycling? Let us know at danholtmeyer@nwacouncil.org.