Bright Side of Business: uOttawa social enterprise turns plastic waste into everyday items

The POLY machine “turns plastic waste into possibility.” 
Editor's Note

The Bright Side of Business is presented by Star Motors.

If you ask Jennifer Kerwin, plastic waste doesn’t have to be wasteful — heck, it doesn’t even have to be ugly. 

Kerwin, a student at the University of Ottawa, takes part in Enactus, a student-run entrepreneurship club that involves various faculties and allows students to experiment with social enterprises. As part of that work, Kerwin has dedicated much of her time to POLY: a social enterprise developed by students at the university five years ago that “turns plastic waste into possibility.” 

In partnership with local industry, students is creating a small-scale recycling system made up of a shredder and injection molder. The shredder breaks down plastics, while the injection molder melts and compresses the plastic, which is used to create everything from phone cases to jewelry to flowerpots. 

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“(The students) had seen a lot of plastic waste in our communities, either being thrown on the streets or just not being recycled properly,” Kerwin says. “(They) decided that educating people on how to divert plastic, as well as being able to divert it locally with small-scale systems, would be the best idea.” 

Jennifer Kerwin, above, Ha and the POLY team plan to sell systems to as many communities and schools as possible, starting in Canada and expanding into the U.S.

Five different departments make POLY run smoothly, including education, business development, operations, sales and marketing. Kerwin took over as co-project manager last year, alongside fellow student Thuy-Vi Ha.

The POLY systems are small enough to fit inside a garage or small community centre, Kerwin says. Just one of the systems can divert 1.5 million plastic bottles per year. 

POLY can create a plethora of designs in the plastic. Kerwin’s favourite is called galaxy, which uses a black background speckled with colour. “None of them are exactly the same, which is something that we pride ourselves in,” she says.

The students nurture community partnerships, including with the university’s Telfer School of Management, where the team created an art piece for the business building.

Kerwin, Ha and the POLY team plan to sell systems to as many communities and schools as possible, starting in Canada and expanding into the U.S. 

“We are looking into a retail model to be able to (sell) our products at local stores as well,” Kerwin says. 

The price tag is $40,000 per system, which might seem like a hefty price, Kerwin says, but it’s due to the high-powered machinery, as well as strict safety features. The social enterprise offers grants and other financial resources to help with the purchase.

Over the past five years, POLY has grown from strength to strength. In March 2022, the team competed in a regional competition, which won them a spot in the national rounds of the Enactus Canada National Exposition, where they were named one of the top five front-runners.

The Bright Side of Business is an editorial feature focused on sharing positive stories of business success.

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