Love Letter to New York City: Trash to Product? Circular Economy MFG Opens on Governor’s Island


Trash to Product? Circular Economy MFG Opens on Governor's Island

A month ago, in a hotel lobby somewhere in Detroit, Michigan, I had a conversation with a man named Barent. I asked him about his current project, and passion oozed out every cell in his being. We talked for well over an hour about his life, his career, and the road that led him to where he is today.

Barent started his career in architecture and a particular visit to an industrial designer changed his life. A particular visit to a bottle manufacturing facility opened his eyes. After seeing the production of plastic products at a scale of 3 bottles per second, he had a “light bulb” moment.

“Where are all these bottles going? I know they are not going to degrade into the ground, so early on I realized we have a huge problem here. The system is out of balance and we are generating a lot of things that are not going anywhere for centuries, and barely recycling any of it.”

After a couple of failed attempts at creating a sustainable design firm in the ’90s and early 2000s, Barent pivoted to teaching with Sustainable Works, a non-profit in Santa Monica, California. When love would lead Barent to move to New York City, he discovered the New School, a college dedicated to sustainable design. He started teaching there and loved teaching, his students, and the classroom. He took his class on a field trip to Sims Recycling, the largest recycling facility in the world, located in Brooklyn.

“Look out over this pile of stuff. It’s all here because a designer created it. A designer is responsible for all of the plastic you see. This got them to think about the ramifications of what they were doing, and the responsibility we have as designers.”

The design at the beginning of a product’s life can have a massive impact on its end. This is the first time Barent was able to realize a dream; the opportunity to bring his classroom to life, and here is how.

In 2019, Barent entered a competition called the Curb to Market Challenge. The founder of competition, Chris Graff, is a serial entrepreneur, mostly worked in manufacturing in the Midwest. Chris came to New York to invest in businesses that were more sustainable and circular. In New York, it was so obvious that there is trash, huge bags of trash, so much trash. And if you have ever stepped foot in New York, you are always wondering what is happening to this trash. You see the streets lined with trash by night, and it’s gone by day. It feels wrong, but you don’t know what to do with all this trash, and it can feel helpless.

“I told my design class to look out over this pile of stuff, because a designer created it. A designer is responsible for all of the plastic you see. And this got them to think about the ramifications of what they were doing, and the responsibility we have.” 

Enter Governor’s Island; a car-free oasis a short ferry ride away from Manhattan. As Chris is relaxing on the Island, there is a recycled plastic Adirondack chair. Chris turns the chair over and realizes it was made by his uncle’s company. Then he contemplated the life cycle of the materials of this product and how the chair was made. This process sounds something like this; the recycled material comes from some metropolitan city in the US, was sent overseas, likely to China at the time, then came back to Indiana to be assembled into a modern-day Adirondack chair out of recycled material, to then be shipped back to New York. He then thought about all of the trash he was seeing on the New York City streets and wondered why the milk jugs in the recycling bags are going around the world several times before being converted into a product. Why can’t we just make something from this material right here on our own streets?

This led Chris to open up applications for this competition. Barent applied and won the competition, resulting in his current role as the co-founder of Circular Economy MFG, located, elegantly enough, on Governor’s Island.

Circular Economy MFG is a portable, renewably powered MicroFactory to locally produce well-designed products from sustainable material cycles for the Circular Economy. The winning concept is a 100% solar-powered MicroFactory capable of recycling single-use plastic into durable eco-friendly products using our innovative, energy-efficient, rotational molding process.

The micro-factory has glass as walls, representing transparency. It is solar powered, and has a 3 part vision, Barent shared:

We are going to start by selling small products to citizens. So we are going to turn this into a little light, we are going to sell planters. We are going to sell a number of products directly to citizens, both here on the island and on our website.

We also recognize the opportunities to sell basic urban infrastructure to cities; traffic cones and bike lane bollards and construction barrels and construction barriers. All of the urban infrastructures that are currently made with virgin plastic, and made in a big fossil fuel oven can be done using a solar power micro factory and recycled plastics, like ours.

The third piece of the vision is the entire unit itself. We think we can and will start selling the whole unit in some sort of franchise or lease agreement around the world.

“I’m just incredibly grateful for the opportunity to now bring my classroom to life and really walk the walk.”

I spent the day with Barent on Governor’s Island, and even though we had to take a boat over, I can certainly tell you, he is walking the walk!

Come visit Barent on Governor’s Island. He’s passionate and would love to share his knowledge. 


Thanks for reading! 

This letter is a part of Brian Rashid’s “Love Letters to the World,” a global initiative bringing stories of hope, humanity, and travel/tourism to our world.

A huge thanks to Bradley Tusk, the sponsor of this series called, “Love Letters to New York City.” Bradley is owner of Tusk ventures and Founder of P&T Knitwear.

It’s a real pleasure sharing their story, here.

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Thank you so much for being here on what is literally my dream coming true.

Oh so true!

With Love,

Brian Rashid