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A business idea to turn biomass into fuel, fertilizer and other useful products won first prize in the Northwest Arkansas Council’s recycling pitch contest held April 21 at Botanical Garden of the Ozarks.

SIEV Technologies took home the $4,000 prize with its plan to use a catalytic system developed by University of Arkansas researchers. Their plan is to convert food waste into the chemical building blocks for ethanol, jet fuel and other mixtures.

Judges heard the seven teams’ ideas for reusing plastics, glass and construction materials, and for reducing the waste that occurs when university students move out of their dormitories each spring. NWA Recycles, the recycling initiative of the Northwest Arkansas Council, convened the first event to highlight entrepreneurship’s vital role in keeping waste out of the landfill.

Ranil Wickramasinghe, a chemical engineering professor and SIEV’s co-founder, said the technology could use a portion of the tens of millions of tons of food waste created in the U.S. each year, nearly all of which goes into a landfill. It would also simplify existing catalytic processes.

Wickramasinghe and his partners have been working on the technology for years, winning a $256,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2021. But he told the judges that the team is in the process of applying for a larger grant and could partner with several recycling and waste-related organizations represented in the audience.

Second place went to the Carbon Chicken Project, which captured a $1,000 prize. Founder Jody Hardin’s idea is to combine poultry litter with biochar from sawmill waste to create a replacement for fossil fuel-based agricultural fertilizer that can also help improve water quality in Northwest Arkansas.

Contest judges were Wendy Bland, executive director of the Benton County Solid Waste District; Robyn Reed, executive director of the Boston Mountain Solid Waste District; Jeff Amerine, founder and managing director at Startup Junkie Consulting; and Shane Red, strategic account executive on the Sustainable Solutions Team at WM.

“Entrepreneurs and local businesses make recycling and diverting waste easier, more accessible and more successful,” said Dan Holtmeyer, the Council’s recycling program manager. “This event is one step toward helping others follow their lead.”

The event coincided with the release of the 2023 Regional Recycling Report, the second annual compilation of the region’s recycling efforts. Community and nonprofit programs processed more than 45,000 tons of cardboard, glass, tires, electronics and other recyclable materials in 2022.

This year’s report is the second published by NWA Recycles and includes several programs that weren’t included in the first, such as Madison County and the bike-recycling nonprofit Pedal It Forward.

The report also includes a directory of the area’s recycling-related organizations and businesses.

Among the report’s findings: Northwest Arkansas’ single-stream curbside recycling collections are burdened by more than 40% contamination, or non-recyclable trash.

“The latest report highlights the good work recycling programs do, as well as the importance of addressing shortcomings in the region’s knowledge of and participation in recycling,” said Nelson Peacock, Council president and CEO. “NWA Recycles plays an essential role in creating a more circular and sustainable local economy.”

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