How One EO GSEA Global Finalist Plans to End Plastic Pollution
Can one ingenious product eradicate the global plastic waste problem while addressing economic inequity?
At Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), our vision is to build the world's most influential community of entrepreneurs. One way we encourage young entrepreneurs is through the EO Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), EO's premier competition for students who own and operate a business while attending college or university. The intense, international competition culminates with the Global Finals, where "studentpreneurs" from 50+ countries compete and make connections with both seasoned entrepreneurs and their fellow competitors. We asked 2018 EO GSEA Global Finalist Giselle Mendoza Rocha of Mexico, founder of GECO, about her entrepreneurial journey. Here's what she shared:
What inspired you to become a social and environmental entrepreneur?
As a child, I witnessed the challenges facing many vulnerable communities in my hometown including indigenous children, children with cancer, single teen mothers, low-income families and the elderly. I realized that entrepreneurship would allow me to channel my feelings of powerlessness over social inequities into a tangible way to generate high-impact solutions to social and environmental problems.
I was shocked to learn that the world generates 200 million tons of plastic waste every year that takes more than 1,000 years to decompose. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of plastic waste in the ocean, is the size of France!
When I went to university to study economics, I also joined the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the Monterrey Institute of Technology and founded GECO--named for our vision of becoming a Group of Ecological Companies--with the dual intentions of eradicating plastic pollution and improving socio-economic conditions in Mexico.
Why did you choose oranges as the base for GECO bioplastic?
Mexico is the fifth-largest producer of oranges in the world, with an average annual volume of 4.5 million tons. However, 40 to 65 percent of an orange's weight is discarded as waste.
I agree with Singularity University professor Dr. Jos Luis Cordeiro, who said, "In the future, there will be no trash; just raw material in the wrong place."
I saw an opportunity to replace plastic with a more environmentally friendly solution while simultaneously closing the economic inequality gap in Mexico.
I chose to make bioplastic from oranges because they are an important fruit worldwide due to production volume, per capita consumption, and their curative and nutritive properties. They're also an important source of employment and foreign exchange in countries that produce and export them.
However, due to overproduction, prices have decreased and we're wasting a portion of our orange crop. The rotting fruit affects the health of nearby communities. I thought there must be a way to use orange waste!
How can your product be applied?
GECO is developing a 100 percent biodegradable bioplastic made from orange peels and bagasse, the pulp left after extracting the juice from oranges.
Our bioplastic is a matrix technology with many potential applications, including:
- Biomedicine. Our product may be used as a skin substitute for the treatment of burns and wounds, corneal transplants, bone tissue replacement and wound coverings, as well as blood vessel substitutes;
- Packaging. Bioplastics can be a substitute for raw material in common plastic products such as biodegradable packaging peanuts and cellulose acetate for packaging, among other products;
- Agriculture. Bioplastic nanoparticles can lengthen the duration of fertilizers and pesticides without harming the plants or soil due to their organic origin;
- Food industry. We're developing "Nata de Coco," a low-cost food with high nutritional value as an accessible solution to malnutrition.
What environmental impact will bioplastic have?
We've become a plastic-generating society: In the last 10 years, more plastic has been produced worldwide than in the entire last century. Forecasts indicate that by 2050 there will be more plastic waste than fish in the sea, and plastic production worldwide will reach 33 billion tons.
GECO will counter this toxic plastic juggernaut by offering a 100 percent biodegradable alternative to plastic.
Our bioplastic is an ecological and versatile material that replaces pollutant plastics derived from oil. It reduces decomposition time from 1,000 years to only 90 days when exposed to organic matter, offers competitive pricing and will eventually disrupt the pollutant plastic industry that generates 200 million tons of plastic waste each year, which is killing one million birds and 100,000 marine animals annually.
How do you balance being an entrepreneur and a student?
Balancing the two is a daily adventure. Being a passionate student and entrepreneur at the same time is very challenging, but I would not trade it. It requires total dedication, time, discipline, ingenuity, a hardworking team and a lot of resilience to pursue excellence in both. It's also very important to me to dedicate quality time to my love for God, my family, friends and myself. I confess that I have not yet found the perfect balance--has anyone?--searching for it is the biggest challenge in my daily life.
How do you envision the future of GECO?
The mission of GECO is to be a catalyst for tech-based entrepreneurship with high social and environmental impact. We are developing technology that will close the economic inequality gap in Latin America and provide solutions in multiple sectors, including environmental, health, industry, food and labor.
In addition, GECO is focusing research efforts on developing plastic alternatives with in-demand properties including transparency, flexibility, resistance, biodegradability in natural conditions and high thermal capacity, so that our bioplastic will pass the mechanical tests necessary to convince industries to change their raw materials to a more environmentally friendly alternative.
What was your biggest takeaway lesson from competing in GSEA?
As I experienced EO GSEA competitions on the regional, national and global stage, I also faced the most difficult and challenging times of my entrepreneurial journey. I've recognized that it's necessary to have endless strength, faith, determination and resilience to overcome the obstacles of entrepreneurship.
I see the EO GSEA competitors as young agents of change, leaders making empowered decisions through our innovative technologies and high-impact solutions. It is inspirational to learn how all of them are working each day in their amazing businesses. I am grateful to have met so many brilliant studentpreneurs worldwide who truly believe, as I do, that our global problems can be solved.
BY Thomas Koulopoulos