An Interview with The New Norm Baltimore

FS interviews Lauren Choi, founder of The New Norm Baltimore, which turns red Solo cups into fabric

I: How was The New Norm Baltimore born?

L: It started about two years ago, I literally remember the moment when my mom sent me this article… It was right around the time when China was banning all of the U.S. recyclables. As someone who thought they knew a lot about sustainability, I was surprised to learn that we don’t recycle in our own country! I’d assumed that whenever you put something in a blue bin it is made into a new product, but that’s rarely the case. In reality, we literally put it on boats and ship it to other countries to be recycled.

At the time, I’d been running a swimwear company in LA with my sister, and that was kind of closing out, so I had the experience of working in the fashion district of LA with wholesale fabric distributors. I knew that as much as ‘sustainability’ is really big in the fashion industry right now, there aren’t many tangible solutions being implemented for the future.

All of that really bothered me. It was my junior year at Hopkins and I was a Materials Engineering major. I ended up going to my school’s entrepreneurship center, receiving some grants, and I actually built a machine in my garage last summer. A lot of companies are doing plastic water bottle recycling into leggings and shoes and I was like, OK, I’m going to make something that turns plastic water bottles into fabric!

I: Wait… tell us about the machine that you built in your garage!

L: It was hard because I’d never built a machine before, and it didn’t work for the longest time, like there are so many videos of me fanning at the machine because there were fumes coming out of it and black gunk dripping from it… it was just terrible! The machine I’d built was a mini-version of the industrial plastic recycling machines. Now I have a lot of hands-on experience and understand how the industrial-scale process works.

This is probably not the case in St Andrews but in the US… red Solo cups are everywhere on college campuses. It was such a random idea… I was like why don’t we try putting these into the machine and it really worked! It worked on the first try. From there it took off. It actually became my senior research project…

I: When you first started, how did you collect the red Solo cups from college campuses?

L: We did a pilot on our campus and worked directly with the student organizations. We gave their houses red trash cans which looked like giant red Solo cups. Like a curbside collection program, we would tell them to put their solo cups in the bin at the end of the weekend and we’d pick them up every Monday. There was definitely a learning curve but once we made it into a competition on social media it got super competitive. Some fraternities were bringing in thousands of cups each week! It would be really great to do this on college campuses with tens of thousands of students.

I: Who has helped to create The New Norm Baltimore?

L: Hopkins has a fairly young entrepreneurship ecosystem, and I pretty much lived in their offices. I think, by the end of my senior year, I’d swiped into the building as many times as the employees that worked there! Essentially, it was a space where you could work with mentors. I am still in contact with all of my advisors that I met through that. My department was insanely supportive, it’s a very small department and I think that’s why everybody kind of knows each other but they were just very supportive in terms of getting the word out, doing some things in terms of articles and blogs, supporting me anytime I had a competition that needed votes online. From both a business development side and an engineering aspect I had a lot of support from those two groups.

Networking is kind of this random process, and I think it’s easy to miss out if you aren’t super proactive about reaching out. Now, I probably meet one new person every week or two over Zoom or through mutual contact!

My contact at the Solo cup company example is a great example. I was in contact with my lab, and he knew someone, who knew a recycling consultant, who knew an employee at the recycling plant, who put me in touch with our contact at DART (Solo’s parent company). That’s five links in the chain! Along the way I had no idea it was leading to something productive, I was just talking to people and they were all providing me with really good information.

I: How has The New Norm evolved since you graduated last year?

L: It has changed so much! While at school I was creating everything by hand. I was using a hand loom that they used hundreds of years ago to make fabric samples! Making sample pieces that way is not a scalable process at all. Once COVID happened I realized that we couldn’t collect on college campuses and were probably not going to be able to for one or two years. So, at the beginning of the summer, I found two labs and literally started back at ground zero in terms of product development.

Then, the main engineering challenge is trying to create a fiber-blend that can be produced by scale and that abides by all of the wearable textile guidelines. Can you wash it? Can it stretch? Will it tear when someone puts it on? Things like that. The material found in Solo cups is not typically found in clothing. Polyester and nylon are typically used in clothes but Solo cups are made of poly-styrene. So, making sure that the poly-styrene can be incorporated into a wearable blend of materials has been our biggest challenge.

I: What is a “blend”?

L: All synthetic materials, like polyester, nylon, are made of plastic. And mixing different types of plastics is kind of like mixing oil and water. They don’t stick super well so we need to add additives to the mixture. For example, our Solo cup blend incorporates the recycled poly-styrene but our next blend will incorporate plastic that was collected out of the ocean. The goal is to make something with the highest possible percentage of recycled materials. When you use recycled material you can’t just use recycled plastic because each time it's processed there's a bit of degradation to the material.

I: Can you give us a step-by-step of the manufacturing process?

L: When you're working with synthetic material, it comes in the form of a pellet, it looks like dog food but different colors. That’s put into a machine that heats it up and churns it into this melt and is extruded. When you were a kid, if you had those Play-Doh molds, that is exactly what’s happening in the machine. The thread is spun through all of these different spools and then it is collected. There are a bunch of different ways you can make yarn, but that’s the most basic form. Then it’s knit or woven. I’m looking at my shirt right now, and the fabric looks like one cohesive thing… really it's lots of yarn that's been knit together really tightly.

I: What is the New Norm doing now?

L: We are working with a company called Oceanworks. They collect plastic from all over the world. Actually, the plastics that we’re trying to incorporate in our next blend are old fishing nets and ropes collected near the UK! Our Oceanworks blend comes out as a greenish-grey color whereas the red Solo cup blend comes out as pink.

It’s really exciting for us to be working with companies with extensive networks like Oceanworks. In the near future that’s going to be our route, working with the existing collectors to get the input plastic. As we grow we also want to develop the college network for Solo cup recycling.

I: What have you learned while building your business?

L: I’m still figuring it out. That line, “you don't know what you don't know”... it’s very true. Constantly being open and flexible has been crucial. Even in working with the lab, I feel myself asking a lot of questions. I know that if I don’t ask, then I’ll miss out on that learning.

I’ve also realized how much I rely on mentors to make sure that I'm on the right track. It's helpful talking to people who have been in these spaces for decades and to hear, “this sounds about right” or “maybe not, do something else”.

I: Where do you see The New Norm in the future?

L: I’ve been reading some reports on the advertising of sustainability and how there's yet to be a proper way to convey ‘sustainability’ whereas that’s communicated better in other industries. In fashion, there's still a huge opportunity to grow.

Our goal is to create a whole library of these sustainable fabrics, and that's the beauty of all of these blends and trying different ones. Hopefully, we’ll have a bunch of materials that we could then showcase to apparel companies that are trying to shift towards sustainable practices. We want to work together on marketing campaigns that properly communicate our sustainability mission.