“The environment is silent,” he says, “so we tend not to focus on it, rather we heed the things that make the most noise. By the time you recognize the problem, it’s too late and too expensive. We’re not only looking to build awareness but also a paradigm shift, destroying the notion that waste is garbage and not simply raw material that can be used to create a myriad of products.”
With struggle came innovation
Things weren’t always as promising. When he was a child, his parents divorced and his family had to relocate many times all over the island. At 13, the last of his family members chose to emigrate, leaving him alone in his grandmother’s house. He had just begun high school.
Water and power in the house were turned off. With the darkness came chronic hunger and desperation. “I think I was a recycler from way back then when I was picking up bottles to earn pocket change,” he says wryly now. “I got help from neighbors who gave me food when they could, but often all I had for dinner was dumpling and butter. I had to fend for myself the whole time I was in high school, working on T-shirt designs and murals to get by.”
Undaunted, he did his homework by the street lamp and pushed on after high school to acquire art training and become an art teacher, serving in the classroom for 15 years and moonlighting as an artist.
The idea for his business, 360 Recycling, came from a desire to reduce all the plastic and glass waste he saw in the neighborhood of Olympic Gardens in Kingston. Cole remembers asking himself, “how many of these materials can I remove from the environment – and how many jobs can I create? It’s what I called balancing the rate of disposal with the rate of transformation.”
He began by producing African-head flowerpots and realistic tree stumps in concrete, but customers complained about their overall quality. “The tensile strength wasn’t good, and the weight made the pots heavy and prone to cracking,” he says.
From papier-mache to upcycled drywall
It was time to innovate. “I’ve been inventing since I was a child, using found objects,” he recalls. “Because I studied science in high school, I was always curious about material properties. I worked with papier-mache at first. At some point, I did intense research on lightweight material with good tensile and compressive strength, using mostly waste material. Then, I experimented with the same pot designs using the new material.”
His experiments made his signature creations a hit. “Sometimes,” he says, “making products from recycled material is tricky and the items aren’t very desirable. But being an artist, I designed them in a way to compete and allow customers to take them inside the house.”
Enter 360-RM, his proprietary substance made primarily of foam, plastic, and paper. From household goods to buildings, the applications of this material have been exceeding expectations.
360-RM can be formulated in variations that are 30-70% lighter than concrete. The substance can be used to create drywall, building blocks, outdoor wall and fence components.
Moreover, by using Cole’s own process of tying plastic bottles together to form a skeleton, 360’s core technology is able to create his distinctive line of outdoor picnic furniture and decorative wall panels. “I call the plastic my molecules,” he explains about the bottle-tying technology. “That’s how we get such dynamic forms.”
For the past six months, the Jamaica Bureau of Standards has been testing the recycled mix for patent registration and compliance with international stress standards. “We will pioneer the region’s eco-building industry,” he promises, “saving energy by using renewable materials. We’re also working toward ISO rating.”
A zero-waste enterprise model
In 2015, Cole focused on producing consumer products that could provide employment opportunities for youth, what he calls “creating a circular-waste economy based on localized community engagement.”
A year later, he established 360 Recycle Manufacturing Ltd.
Cole saw his green business idea as a solution for youth unemployment, particularly among young women. In the beginning, he needed innovation to create more jobs and keep his enterprise competitive. He began building custom playground installations and picnic furniture to boost the modest revenue they were making from selling planters and trash bins.
The company now has 12 full-time staff and 10 other company-trained personnel for ad-hoc work. “In all, we’ve trained 50 people to handle certain aspects of the work. We’re even establishing a training program with Mico University in Jamaica to teach industrial design.”
His plan is to expand through community empowerment: First, establish a 360 Recycle mini-center program using an open-source concept in which communities near high-trash areas outside of Kingston can set up their own collection, sorting, and pre-processing activities. Each center is also expected to collect data to evaluate waste patterns and behavior change; unit teams will be able to own and expand the enterprises. As an incentive, top-performing mini-units will receive coupons for products and services from program sponsors.
To date, 360 Recycling is the only company in the CARICOM region transforming consumer plastic, paper, and foam waste into a unique raw material. They are also the only ones producing entirely new products from a new substance.
“Every plastic bottle is welcome,” Cole asserts. “What I want to see is a zero-waste model vs. the linear model, in which waste only goes from the consumer to the dump or landfill. Reversing that process and making it more of a circular one can close the crime and poverty gap.”
Funded by the government of Canada through infoDev, the Caribbean Climate Innovation Center is part of the Entrepreneurship Program for Innovation in the Caribbean. It is one of eight CICs established across the world with counterparts in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Vietnam, Morocco, Brazil, and Ghana.