Pots That Rot

Hawai‘i Youth Sustainability Challenge x Aloha+ Challenge Spotlight 

Cardboard compostable pot (left) & paper compostable pot (right)

Cardboard compostable pot (left) & paper compostable pot (right). (Photo Credit: Sus-Attainale Team)

The Sus-Attainable team won first place in the 2020 October Maui Economic Development Board STEMworks Solutions Challenge: Pots That Rot, with their design for a compostable pot made from recycled paper and rice paste. Samuel Kim, a Junior from Kalani high school, recruited three of his friends Andy Au, Zitao Li, and Codie Nakamura, to help design a sustainable, compostable alternative to the plastic planting pots used at Maui Nui Botanical Garden, the community partner that proposed the challenge. 

As the winners, the Sus-Attainable team joined the Hawai‘i Youth Sustainability Challenge (HYSC), a Kupu and Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation program. HYSC supports student-designed sustainability solutions that contribute to Hawai‘i’s state-wide sustainability commitment, the Aloha+ Challenge. Their compostable pot design helps move the needle on the Aloha+ Challenge goal for Solid Waste Reduction by diverting and repurposing paper waste from H-Power and eliminating the waste created by discarded, used plastic pots. Students selected for the HYSC receive mentorship, up to $1000 in funding, and training on project planning, strategic communications and marketing, and entrepreneurship to help them implement their projects now and develop personal toolkits for the future.

The Pots That Rot design challenge became a practice in iteration, “We’ve gone through a huge number of prototypes, at least fifteen. It was a really long process,” said Andy. For their first prototype, they plastered wet shreds of recycled paper over plastic pots. Now they have evolved to filling pot molds made from a 3D printer with a blended paste of paper, cooked rice, and water. While they are proud of the resulting increase in strength, the team is still working to decrease the production time and increase the water resistance in their pots.  

Left: 3D printed pot mold,                                             Right: Paper v.s. paper and rice pot prototypes (Photo credit: Sus-Attainable team)

Andy reflected that his favorite part of the challenge was working as a team. Especially during the pandemic, this project allowed them to hang out and work towards a common goal. It also forced them to learn how to communicate better with each other. 

At the beginning of this challenge, climate change was not on their minds, “we came into this project not really concerned about sustainability. We were just a group of engineers trying to have fun,” reflected Sam. Throughout the process, the group learned a lot more about the field and started to see how it affects every part of their lives. This new appreciation motivated them to use recycled paper as the primary ingredient in their pots; they wanted to help divert waste from the waste stream.

The group hopes that one day their pots will be sold as a sustainable alternative to the plastic pots in nurseries around Hawai’i, like Maui Nui Botanical Garden. In the meantime, Zitao is saving one for his grandma, who loves to garden. 

Left to right: Zitao Li, Samuel Kim, & Andy Au holding pot prototypes and molds. (Photo credit: Amy Bolan)

By Amy Bolan (Hawai‘i Green Growth Communications VISTA)