Search
National Geographic
Search
Emerging Explorer

Arthur Huang

Engineer

Picture of Arthur Huang

Photograph by Theodore Kaye

Building a better environment with stuff you’d throw away

​Whether you’re building a retail store, a piece of furniture, or even an airplane, Arthur Huang wants your trash to be involved. He’s helped Nike turn old sneakers into construction brick for stores around the globe, used beer-brewing waste to make a mass-manufactured “hops chair,” and is working to get recycled material into planes, cars, and boats.

For the past decade, the Taiwanese engineer has been turning post-consumer waste into “high performance materials” via the company he founded, Miniwiz. And as it turns out, the endeavor involves a lot more intrigue than you might expect. Read on to see how adventures in recycling can be quite treacherous, if you’re not careful. —By Christina Nunez

 

A lot of times when we think about architecture, we think of immobile structures. But you’re also trying to use recycled material in things that move. Why?

We always use transportation as a way to inspire ourselves. It’s taking recycled material to the highest form of product engineering.

If you can prove to the general public that recycled material can be used for cars and planes, what can you not do? Clothing is easy, housing is easy, food packaging is even easier—because all the requirements for that are a lot less than the safety requirements for protecting the human body at high speeds.

Right now, the airplane has zero percent recycled content. If we can get just 1 percent recycled content in an airplane, we’re golden.

“People can talk about green, but in reality, the actual implementation has not caught up to the consciousness of the consumers, or what you expect for developed nations. We are trying to bridge that gap.”

—Arthur Huang

How did you become interested in this?

I was working with carbon fiber in the engineering lab [as an architecture student at Cornell and later Harvard]. We had been playing with the idea of using lighter material to make something stronger. That has been part of a quest for a long time. Except carbon fiber is one of the highest-footprint, highest-toxicity, completely unrecyclable materials that you can find in the market. Because of that, sustainability is a big issue. Fortunately for the sustainability of the planet, the traditional carbon fiber manufacturing process is so manual that it is hard to scale into mass market.

Where I grew up, for the last 20 years, everybody has been talking about green and low carbon. Yet there’s no actual material product that’s available in the market.

People can talk about green, but in reality, the actual implementation has not caught up to the consciousness of the consumers, or what you expect for developed nations. We are trying to bridge that gap.

 

But a lot of us are dutifully putting things in recycling bins. What is missing?

For example, today, you recycle PET bottles or—anything. But do you see any recycled product that you are currently wearing or touching? I’ll bet you there’s none right now. The table, or the chair you’re sitting on, all that is virgin material.

 

What kinds of challenges do you encounter in working with these waste streams and imagining new uses for them?

People. It’s very clear. It has nothing to do with the actual technology.

We take very valuable material—very valuable, space-age material, and we throw it away after one-time use. Plastic actually lasts so long, and we are doing this. This is complete nonsense. The funny thing is, people don’t complain about wood and glass. Glass has one of the biggest carbon footprints of any production process. I can’t really say which one is better. If we can use glass properly, use plastic properly, it shouldn’t be an environmental damage to us. But the problem is the way we use them.

It’s also a system problem. You have to convince so many different incumbents who are actually producing these materials to stop doing what they’re doing. That hurts the bottom line of every single industry, and that’s why we are constantly kicking someone’s shins. For example, in the recycling industry we have to deal with gangsters, actually, all the time. So, I’ve had people pull a gun on me, I’ve gotten extorted, I’ve gotten kidnapped. This is a serious story, but it’s all true.

 

You’ve had a gun pulled on you?

Yeah. There are a lot of crazy people in this industry. When we decided to do this, we weren’t even considering [those factors]; we were so young and stupid. We tickled the wrong nerves, basically. There’s a system for virgin material manufacturing that’s already in place, with its own core values. That’s why sustainability is so hard. … Because in a way, you’re disrupting someone’s livelihood.

 

I never realized that sustainability and recycling were so filled with intrigue and corruption.

I didn’t know that 15 years ago. Half of the stories I’ve never told my parents. As we gain more credibility, and we have very interesting [partners] that come to us directly, working with us to develop new systems together, it gets easier. You prove that this system works and people benefit on all fronts. In the beginning, it was very rough.

 

What gives you the tenacity to keep going?

I think our generation is blessed with many choices, but that’s also a curse. For me, there’s no choice. For our environmental future there is no choice either. [My friends] are constantly doing something else, something else, something else. It looks interesting on one front, but it’s actually quite sad because after you’ve generated so much effort, you move on to the next thing. For us, it’s live or die.

We are not funded. We don’t have any backup in terms of money. So the fact that you have no choice, no back door that you can fall back to, that gives us strength, because we have to move forward.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


2016 Emerging Explorers

Meet This Year's Emerging Explorers

Meet This Year's Emerging Explorers  

Get to know this year’s class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers, a unique group from around the world and across a wide range of disciplines.

Learn more

Stay Connected

Continue your exploration by following us on Facebook and Twitter. #LetsExplore

Get Involved

Get updates about all of the things you can participate in during Explorers Week, and learn more about what’s happening at the National Geographic Society.