Ideas and discoveries

25 January 2023

It makes sense, claim Plastic Guys, winners of the BUT Student Entrepreneurship Award. The proof is in their work

The founders of Plastic Guys, Marco Aulisa and Ondřej Venclík | Autor: Jan Prokopius

In cooperation with the South Moravian Innovation Centre (JIC), the project GO to BUSINESS! offers entrepreneurial know-how and the opportunity to receive funding for a start-up through the BUT Student Entrepreneurship Award competition. The latest winner was a team of architecture students from the Faculty of Civil Engineering BUT with their successful company Plastic Guys. Their plastic boards are becoming an increasingly popular item in various architectural projects.

It all started three years ago at an Erasmus stay in Sweden when Štěpán Macek got excited about open huts available to people who needed a place to sleep as long as they cleaned up after themselves. After returning to Brno, Štěpán convinced Ondřej Venclík and Marco Aulisa to join him and together they planned to implement the concept in the Czech Republic. "This is how we came up with the project of a shelter covered with recycled plastic plates. We named it Plastic Crystal as a symbol of cleanliness. But when we had everything ready to go, the project was scrapped due to COVID-19 and we were left with just a model shelter at the Faculty of Civil Engineering. But thanks to this we found out that people were more interested in the material rather than the shelter and the faculty also wanted us to continue in this direction," Ondřej recalls.

The students found out on the internet that recycled plastic could be produced easily, but they couldn’t find anyone who used recycled granulated plastic to produce boards. So they took it as a challenge and started doing it themselves. "We began trying out different technologies, from an old kitchen oven to a hot air oven to a warming press, which we developed ourselves based on our experience. The press speeds up production, allows us to produce larger formats and the board is clean and smooth on both sides," explains Marco. One of Plastic Guys' first projects was a table for Natural Wine Shop in Pekařská street in 2020. "It was a giant table made from a single piece of molded plastic which we made by melting the granulate into a liquid paste and molding it. Gradually we poured grey and black plastic into the mold and mixed them together until we got a marble design – actually producing a big marble table made of plastic!"

In the spring of 2021, the budding entrepreneurs decided to take part in the BUT Student Entrepreneurship Award, though without Štěpán who continued his studies in Prague. And to their great surprise, they won. At that time, they had already started their own Ltd. with the help of their entrepreneurship-savvy fathers. Nevertheless, the courses they subsequently took opened their eyes in many ways. "We confirmed what we already knew and also learned a lot of new things, including how to price boards correctly and the importance of having a well-functioning website. By joining JIC, we also received a number of enquiries because we became popular and recommendations spread further," Marco highlights.

The future architects had to improve their knowledge of chemistry to understand the material and learn to distinguish the composition of the different types of plastic. "The plastic boards we produce are actually a basic universal product that can be made into anything else – they can be reheated and reshaped. Plastic is a very interesting and durable raw material and as such it is also dangerous. Nature doesn't know how to deal with it once it's been used, but we can help by compacting the plastic and using it to create a new product," explains Ondřej, adding: "Plastic sheets can be recycled and reused at least 13 times. We don't know exactly how far we can go yet – that’s all in the future."

Autor: Jan Prokopius

Plastic Guys get their used plastic from companies already shredded or they shred it themselves and then press the material into boards. "We only use one type of plastic each time. We deliberately don’t mix the different types so that the product is recyclable again," emphasises Ondřej and Marco adds, "We can make colour combinations where we can throw in a few pieces of black with the white to make a dalmatian, but always from the same type of plastic."The plastic they receive from companies is often contaminated with pieces of other material. "In production, they might accidentally drop a screwdriver or a piece of paper into the mix, which would cause complications, so they prefer to send the whole thing to the incinerator. And that's exactly the product we're looking for. We can save maybe a tonne of material this way," says Ondřej. They also use leftover filament or failed products from 3D printers which they can then use to create interesting designs on the boards. Another advantage of plastic is that it can be processed with wood-working tools so they don't need any special machines. "You can cut any shape out of a board with a milling machine or a flow water jet, so we're kind of like plastic woodworkers," laugh the newly minted architects.

For now, they are mainly producing boards which are mostly requested by architects and designers, but eventually they would like to design the final products themselves. "We've already started, we've designed a few projects ourselves, but we can't keep up. We put a big investment into equipment, so what we make we largely return to the company," says Marco, and Ondřej adds: "Surprisingly, we have been in the black from the beginning. So far, we have a good distribution of roles and it's working, but we may have to bring in extra manpower for the workshop or office next year because we won't be able to keep up. The development is very lively."

The Dutch plastic board manufacturers who started three years before Plastic Guys now have a gigantic company and the BUT graduates would like to follow in their footsteps. There is no classic competition in this industry. "We each have a different source of material, so our products also look different. We already have followers that we have inspired, which means there will be more of us to save the planet and we will advertise for each other. Each customer chooses what they like or we mix a special texture to suit their taste," Ondřej and Marc agree. One company can generate up to four tonnes of plastic waste per week, which Plastic Guys can process in a month, so they are not really in danger of running out of material.

Recent major projects where Plastic Guys' plastic boards have been used include the relaxation room CheeZ for students at FCE or café Punkt in Kartouzská street. The variously coloured and decorated boards can become attractive table tops, shelves for exhibits and even original wall paintings. The possibilities are countless. In cooperation with a concrete recycling company, their products have been used as seat boards for outdoor benches that do not become cold even in winter, thus creating a joint 100%-recycled product. "The boards of this strength are durable, unlike garden furniture, which becomes brittle and degrades due to the sun. The material which – unfortunately for nature – will never decompose suddenly becomes an advantage for us," agree the entrepreneurs from BUT.

Their cooperation with a wiper manufacturer, who uses the plastic boards in their interiors, also offers an effective combination of materials. "Whenever we are invited to cooperate, we find new ways of using them and therefore learn. Architects are frequent partners; we work with Chybík+Krištof, for example. Those are beautiful projects that we love to represent ourselves with."

The pair of young architects agree that plastic is a wonderful but dangerous material and must be treated accordingly. "Today we are already talking about the Green Deal 2030, 2050. By then we will all have to change our habits and this is one of the ways we can tackle the problem. The important thing is that plastics don't end up in nature, in a landfill or in an incinerator, that they can serve a purpose and look interesting. Since plastic has come such a long way since its inception, it would be absurd to generate all this just so we could drink from a PET bottle."

These are the beliefs of last year's winners. "If you are young and have an idea, now is the right time to start your business, ideally at school, because you will never have more time. Thanks to the Student Entrepreneurship Award, the right people will know about your project and doors will open for you. BUT has a well-developed marketing and thanks to social media, tens of thousands of people will suddenly be informed that you have won the competition. We experienced this and it was great publicity for us!"

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