Another Man’s Treasure // Trash Backwards Aims to Reduce Waste

By Nancy Goll

Let’s say you’ve got some polka CDs you don’t dance to anymore. You could Freecycle them, sell them, donate them or— gasp—toss them into the landfill. It’s that last, easiest option that the team at island startup Trash Backwards hopes more people will stop choosing.

Trash Backwards created a web tool that helps users find new uses for things—mainly plastics—that would otherwise end up in the trash. It’s the brainchild of Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, two close friends who share a love of science and the outdoors, and are deeply committed to living sustainably. It was nominated for a 2012 Sustainable Seattle Award, the City of Seattle named it “Best City App” in 2012, and King County awarded the team $10,000 toward the development of a mobile app.

“The reason we got into this is because we see every kind of plastic in the environment,” Clark said. A couple years ago she took her kids for a winter walk at Point No Point. They were astounded by the amount and variety of plastic junk they saw on the beach and in the water. “That was kind of an ‘aha’ moment,” Clark said. The next day, Rockefeller and her kids returned to Point No Point with them. They collected all the plastic they could find with the intention of creating a public-awareness campaign that they hoped would inspire others to keep plastic out of the waste stream. Clark, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, documented their work.

They and several Odyssey students created “art” with the plastic and displayed it at Bainbridge Performing Arts in 2011. “Plastic is Forever” showed in shocking color the range of items they’d found on the beach—everything from bottle caps and binkies to snack wrappers and toothbrushes.

Looking for ways to teach more students that plastic is indeed forever, Rockefeller and Clark thought they might clean, package and sell their collection as an educational tool. They founded Trash Backwards with their friends Scott James and Teri Bellamy. But then they had a revelation: Yuck. “Scientists convinced us that plastic is simply too toxic to mess with,” Rockefeller said. “Beach plastics especially.”

They realized that what they really wanted to do is stop more plastic from getting into the trash or the environment in the first place. “We wanted to help people refuse single-use items, reduce their waste in general, upcycle or transform their waste, or give it to someone who can use it,” Rockefeller said. So instead of bringing junk to the public, they created a web app that curates ideas for moving your trash backward.

The user interface at TrashBackwards.com is simple: Type in the item you have and click either “Get rid of it” or “Reuse it.” The app will tell you that you can use your polka CDs as candle coasters or to create jewelry or garden art. When possible, the app also provides information about recycling, although when it comes to plastic, the Trash Backwards team hopes to encourage more reuse than recycling. Recycling plastic into something else requires the creation of even more plastic.

The app caught on quickly, fueled by the team’s use of Pinterest, a virtual pinboard. Rockefeller, one of the original moderators for Bainbridge’s popular IslandMoms online community, is well-versed in the power of social media. Using Pinterest propelled Trash Backwards into a huge community of reduce/reuse/recyclers. Within the first six weeks of launching, their Pinterest influence, according to research done by Pinreach, scored 48; during the same period Oprah’s was 55 and Whole Foods’ 57. “We’re currently in the 96th percentile at Pinreach, which measures 10,000 Pinterest accounts,” Clark said.

The team is busy developing a cross-platform mobile app, which they hope to launch this spring. And having received and incorporated data files from the King County government about reuse and recycling options, they are seeking similar data from other municipalities.

In the meantime, the two friends still carve out time for what they need the most: being outside. Last fall they began a Bainbridge beach circumambulation, during which they hope to walk the island’s perimeter, collecting and cataloging plastics along the way.

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