• Todd Petrella

UP Cycle Design Makes The First Step!


First Step Experience logo

Continuing with the theme of pitch competitions, and our very own UP Cycle Design story…

The story this week is the First Step Experience at the University of Delaware. First Step is a year-long extra-curricular program that allows students to choose a health-related problem and do research into that particular issue to help solve it. During the Fall semester, student teams research their area of interest, and then pitch what they find on the problem, typically at the end of the semester or over winter break. All teams will continue to work on their idea, while being provided some funding for prototyping. In the Spring, the teams are tasked with generating a conceptual solution. At the end of the semester, each group presents their solution and two winning ideas are awarded funding.


Sierra and Michelle applied and started participating in the fall of 2020, where they researched the health effects that textile and plastic waste have on humans and the environment. The research took them all the way into January, when they pitched their problem to the judges for First Step. A good portion of the research revolved around interviewing different companies and organizations, some of the big ones being companies like the Delaware Solid Waste Authority and Terracycle. The latter is a really cool recycling company (check out their website!) that equips you or an initiative with the means to recycle if you don’t already have them. After interviewing “so many”, the team needed a way to balance out and visually look at all the issues they found out about. So, Michelle, being the brilliant designer she is, designed a mind map so that her and Sierra could visualize everything and see how it all connected.


Michelle's mind map to connect pollution problems
Michelle's mind map

Another thing gained from the interviewing experience was a LOT of landfill management facts and statistics, some of them Sierra quoted as things she thought she would never know. For example, in 2019, there were 284 tons (yes, tons) of plastic bags that were disposed of, and 191 tons were reclaimed in Delaware. As for some stats on the textile industry, 37,000 tons of textiles were thrown away, and only 16,000 were reclaimed. Globally, they found out that a lot of textiles that are donated to other countries are just thrown out, mainly because they do not have a waste management system in place. And last, but definitely not least, the team found out how all this waste can affect human health.


Essentially (without boring you all with the science behind it), burning textiles releases carcinogens into the air, which means that they cause cancer (for those who don’t already know). Also, plastic bags, or any plastic for that matter, don’t break down naturally in the environment. Over time, UV rays from the sun break down plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, leading to the creation of microplastics, which are a whole other topic for us to get into another time. This process is called photodegradation, and much like the burning of textiles, it also releases those cancerous carcinogens into the air. I personally have an idea in mind for what I think is a good solution to dealing with plastic waste, so you will have to check back next week to find out about that (wink, wink).

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Getting back to the First Step competition, and moving on to the Spring semester, Sierra and Michelle pitched their solution, which to put simply is UP Cycle Design. They described this pitch in particular as their best one to date (despite the fact that they forgot to break down their costs...oops!), and it won them the $1000 innovation award. However, they think that their solution was a little bit removed from the context of the competition because the panel of judges was made up of nurses and doctors who worked mainly in hospitals. Pollution is invisible and can be hard to track how it can affect one’s health locally.


After the Spring solution pitch, the competition ended. Overall, Sierra and Michelle placed 2nd, which is pretty great considering all the hard work and time they put into their problem and solution!


Let us know what you think about First Step in the comments below. Always feel free to share your thoughts and opinions; we love to hear from you! We’ll see you back next week on The Upcycled Thread!


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