PODCAST: The international student turned ‘garbage entrepreneur’ in Australia

coffee cups

The average Australian drinks about three cups of coffee a week. Despite many “environmentally friendly” options, most disposable coffee cups still have a plastic lid, along with a plastic layer within the cup. These cups require a special process to decompose that involves 120 days in continuous 60-degree heat – throwing these cups into a landfill does not automatically break them down.

When Flavia Guardia realised how much waste that generated, she set out to find ways to turn disposable coffee cups into something compostable. Now, she’s an entrepreneur, working to make recycled disposable coffee cups into a new home for growing flowers, veggies and herbs – making rubbish disappear in a real environmental, responsible and eco-friendly way. With her help, coffee cups are recreated as germination cubes, eco-pot starter kits and punnets to grow flowers, veggies and herbs.

Today on International Zero Waste Day, our episode of Extra Credit features Guardia’s journey as she transitioned from a fashion degree into creating her own sustainable, zero-waste startup, Eco Enviro Concepts

Listen below, and wherever you get your podcasts:

The transcript below has been lightly edited for grammar, spelling and clarity.

Lee Lian: Hi everyone. Welcome to another episode of Extra Credit, a podcast by Study International, where we talk about the perks and privileges of living and learning in another country. I’m Lee Lian, your host for today. 

It’s March 30, the International Day of Zero Waste. Every year, this is when everyone, from politicians to students, is called on to take some time and raise awareness about zero-waste initiatives and how they can contribute to a more sustainable future.

Because let’s face it, waste is a big problem everywhere. Whether you’re in Melbourne or Mumbai, we’re not using and disposing of our products and materials in a way that won’t pollute our cities or add to overflowing landfills. More than 800,000 tonnes of waste is estimated to be generated in the city of Melbourne each year. In Mumbai, that figure goes up to 2.5 million tonnes. 

These are unsustainable figures. To beat waste pollution, prevention, reduction, reuse, repurposing, and recycling are critical.

Our guest today, an international student, knows a thing or two about taking small but important steps to minimise our planet’s waste. Flavia Guardia is a former international student from Argentina who founded a start-up that converts disposable coffee cups into seed germination pods. Her startup motto is: “We make rubbish disappear.”

Hi Flavia. Thanks for joining our podcast today.

Flavia: Hello! How are you?

Lee Lian: I’m good! I’m excited about this conversation for three reasons – I’m an ex-international student myself. Like you, I love coffee, and I’m passionate about keeping our planet healthy. And well, there’s another reason I would say – I’m always out for a story about international students trying to do more for their community and the world. And your story, Flavia, begins in Argentina, where you were originally from before moving to Australia. What sparked you to move from Argentina to Australia? 

Flavia: Well, I’ve lived in Buenos Aires for my whole life, and I studied fashion design. I really wanted to continue my studies, but I was also really looking for some adventure – something life-changing. 

I started studying English in Argentina because of international trade – especially for doing trade with other countries like China. English is the language that people use to communicate across cultures. But the English I was learning in Argentina wasn’t enough to advance in my career, so I came to Melbourne in November 2016 when I was 36 years old as an international student.

My agent, Pablo from Experience Australia, explained to me how studying and working in Australia was a good option for me to grow. So, in the beginning, I was looking for a postgraduate degree in fashion in Melbourne – Melbourne was the only city offering it – so I came here. Being fluent in English has always been something I wanted to be, and it’s also super necessary for my career because all the software is in English. I studied other languages when I was young, but English was impossible for me, and I’m still working on it every day with my teacher Peter. 

Lee Lian: Now, apart from moving country, you also shifted careers. You graduated with a degree in fashion from the University of Buenos Aires and are now what you describe on LinkedIn as a “garbage entrepreneur.” What made you decide to join the circular economy?

Flavia: Well, my passion is in product. Fashion design was a good way for me to develop my skills in that area. I worked for a long time in fashion design with different suppliers.

But one thing that really stood out to me about fashion was that it’s so unsustainable, and working in fashion didn’t make me happy anymore. The industry is so bad for the environment, and it really needs to change. So I went back to my passion for product development, but I wanted it to have a positive impact. 

I wanted to develop a product that didn’t leave any waste, so working with paper was a really good way to start. My fashion degree definitely helped me because it has made me more creative in the way I can use materials. I’ve used materials for a lot of different industries, but paper is just like fabric – a lot of people think of paper in the same way.

Lee Lian: Fascinating. So your startup is called Eco Enviro Concepts, and what it does is turn coffee cups into seed germination pods. How did you get that idea?

Flavia: Often, many disposable cups end up in the recycling bin, but they can’t be recycled, so you have to put them in a normal bin. They have a plastic liner that can be tricky to separate from the paper. So there has to be an environmentally friendly way to use this material. 

So basically, I collect cups from collection stations and separate the paper and plastic. I then use the plastic to make a new collection station, and I use the paper to make seed germination pods. We turn it into a product that helps create new life by growing plants from seeds using recycled paper from cups because the paper in these cups is different from normal paper. It’s an expensive paper, and has quality cellulose that is perfect for roots of plants and the germination process. It also helps keep the humidity, and is compostable. 

Lee Lian: I see! So if I were to buy one of the pots, all I have to do is buy it and plant it into a pot – is that how it works?

Flavia: Yes. In the beginning, you need to start the process of germination, so you need to put in a little bit of water and leave it indoors. I always recommend having these near a sunny place at home when the germination starts. Then you can put it into the ground – this is when the paper disappears. 

Lee Lian: Oh, I see! I’ve tried to plant a couple of things in my life, but it’s never worked out. Do you think I’ll be successful with yours?

Flavia: Of course! If you have it in the kitchen, you can see it every day – it only needs a little bit of water. It’s like a little baby – it’ll start growing, and then it’ll be ready to be out. 

Lee Lian: Maybe you can describe for our listeners what this product actually looks like. Does it come in a box? Are there instruction manuals? What kind of seeds are there, what they will grow into, and how long it will take to grow? Something like that. 

Flavia: Yes, it comes in different shapes. I have normal pots, and then for kids, different shapes are the best, such as dinosaurs. I sold a lot of these dinosaurs to kids, and we teach them how – put it in a little plate next to the window with just a little bit of water every day, and it’ll be ready to be planted in the ground or into another pot. We have all kinds of seeds – flowers, veggies, herbs, I even tried to use native flowers from the area around here. And grass too.

Lee Lian: That’s so cool! Are you a one-person show doing this? Do you have workers with you or a factory that turns these coffee cups into pods?

Flavia: Well, I started in the city by myself. When I moved I met my partner here, and we started together. We also work a lot with the community to collect these cups. I work with so many different groups, like community gardens, businesses that are very interesting, and so on. Some people even wrote to me to ask for my address, and they would send me their cups.

Lee Lian: How many cups do you turn into pods, in like a month? 

Flavia: Ah, we really work with seasons, like summer. So, let’s say we process about five thousand coffee cups, make it into a big production, then start to sell in farmers’ markers or I do wholesales. It’s a crazy amount of coffee cups.

Lee Lian: Um, did you say five thousand coffee cups?

Flavia: Yeah! I think people just don’t think when they just buy coffee and they throw it into the bin – they never think where it goes after that.

Lee Lian: I guess that’s how we end up with thousands of coffee cups. But it’s good that you’re doing something great with it! 

So, Flavia, you were an international student in Australia, right? Where did you study?

Flavia: I studied in a language school in the city, then went to RMIT for digital marketing. I think the most useful thing that digital marketing taught me was about how brand image leads to sales – it taught me how to manage content and how to design it to capture attention. People are guided to the landing page, where they can make contact with the business. It also gave me good ideas on how to reach a wider audience – I’m in contact with some festivals and universities, and they need my product as a gift. 

Lee Lian: It sounds like, as a startup founder, you need to have all sorts of skills. You need to know about product design; you need to know how to create a website and how to write content. I guess that was what your digital marketing certificate and your fashion degree previously for Argentina helped with. Do you feel like, as a startup founder, you have to wear many hats still?

Flavia: Yes, of course, definitely. Entrepreneurs need to start and use so many hats. We always need to try to look at what is happening in the industry and what is happening with new tools. Rubbish for example – there are so many apps with activities. You can track your rubbish, find and match with someone that has a bin, you can see if someone is collecting it. It’s part of everyday technology.

Lee Lian: Would you say that even though your certificate was titled digital marketing and your degree was titled fashion, it also gave you different skills that were more indirect, but it definitely helped you out in your current role in Eco Enviro Concepts?

Flavia: Yes, and also finance – you need to have a little background in finance, and you need to read about lawyers. All the contracts when you start in the business these days are on another level, and you need to be able to protect your content. You need to learn how to negotiate everything.

Fashion gave me the power to be able to negotiate things in production lines, and think about the best way to avoid expensive things. Then digital marketing gave me new tools to engage with new customers.

Lee Lian: If you think back to 18-year-old Flavia, do you think that she would know she would become a startup founder doing a sustainable waste management business?

Flavia: No – I’d never imagine that we’d be working with rubbish, when we came from fashion. I’ve been doing shoes, doing lingerie, even dresses for kids – I also had the opportunity to do AFL (Australian Football League) stuff for Australia when I arrived here. I didn’t know the sport, but I was doing some graphic design for them. 

Lee Lian: Yeah, I love how you took a fashion degree, and you took a digital marketing certificate, and you combined them to do something meaningful. I really like that idea.

Flavia: Yeah, it is. The main point is to be able to work in all these areas – that’s what marketing is always about. To be able to sell something new to the people so they can consume, it really made me think about “Is there any supplier that can offer me material to make a product that doesn’t have a bad impact on the environment?”

One time I remember working for a company that made wetsuits – the people love it, but the impact is very bad. So I think it was then when this idea started growing, but I never imagined that we’d end up doing something with coffee cups.

Lee Lian: Do you think being in  Australia makes it conducive for you to run a sustainable waste management business? Do you think you could do the same back in Argentina?

Flavia: So, Argentina has a very important story about the crisis we had when people started recycling. The first mistake was that they did not separate paper from cardboard, from aluminium – all this material was in the street. It was valuable – it started to come in the price of American dollars. We were at fault. 

So, some people started communities where they collected this rubbish, separated it, and sold it. This was a competitive thing; they also worked with other houses to put away rubbish, and we didn’t have assistance like we do here when you separate rubbish into different bins. We used to put them all together. So they separated them for these people in the street, and they would sell the material to be able to eat. This was something very important. In my mind, I remember these times. So I think that’s maybe why I can see money in rubbish.

Lee Lian: Running a business is never easy. What challenges have you faced in running a zero-waste sustainable business, and how have you overcome them?

Flavia: Plastic – you’ll be surprised, you can’t do anything with plastic, especially the lids of coffee cups. The liners of coffee cups are hard to work with too.

Plastic can only become more plastic, so you have to use special equipment that is expensive to operate. Melting the plastic can also cause a lot of problems, so you have to be careful with it. For example, an area I really wanted to get into was distributing collection stations created from the plastic of coffee ups, but there is so much plastic, and I can only make a limited number of collection stations. Thankfully, most coffee shops are moving forward with paper coffee cup lids – it’s a change that will take some time, but it will really help the environment.

Lee Lian: Yeah, I’m guessing we also have another challenge, which is about single-use plastics, right? They are recyclable plastic and single-use plastic, and even if you are in the circular economy business, there is just no sustainable way for us to continue using both of these infinitely. 

Flavia: Single-use plastic is a huge problem. I told you before how plastic is always just plastic, and you can recycle it a couple of times – but even after melting it down, in the end, it will come back to rubbish. 

I’m thinking one step ahead of the circular economy, as how I always say; we like to make rubbish disappear.

Lee Lian: Yeah. Do you think Australian universities do enough to educate their students about the use, reuse, recycling and reduction of plastic?

Flavia: They’re doing a lot for education! From my business, I’ve found that kids and grandparents are the best – they really are concerned about the environment. The middle…. can be difficult to manage. But I think it’s all about education now, but also if they dare not change regulations – like if they stop suppliers that bring in these materials – we’ll always have the same problems. I always explain to coffee shops that coffee cups aren’t recyclable – there are new liners and new plastic, all of that is just greenwashing. 

Lee Lian: I see. Do you think, Flavia, if you had not been an international student, you would still be able to do all these things today? Raising awareness in cafes, turning coffee cups into a germination pod – do you think being an international student has helped you become the entrepreneur you are today?

Flavia: Yes, definitely! My international friends are the best things that language school has given me. Many of us have become entrepreneurs in different fields, so you know, work is multicultural, and it gives you access to different communities. They are the first to support you in the business. 

As an international student, you can see opportunities at every step because of our countries’ backgrounds and special situations. You can engage with people by talking about your background and sharing different points of view and ideas, which can become an excellent opportunity for business.

Lee Lian: I totally like that you combine every experience back in Argentina with your current situation. Who knows, in the future, you’ll bring back all you’ve learned in Australia back to Argentina – is that something in the pipeline for you?

Flavia: Oh yes, I tried to contact people there who worked in recycling, but we didn’t have coffee cups. For us, you need to sit down and drink a coffee, and have a chat with a friend. We don’t have this culture of having a coffee and running away – our background is very European. 

Lee Lian: Maybe it’ll take an entrepreneur from Australia to go back there and start another movement!

Flavia: Yeah, that will be nice!

Lee Lian: Speaking about that, what are your future plans for Eco Enviro Concepts? Are there any upcoming innovations or projects that your startup is working on now?

Flavia: This is such a great question. I don’t think recycling coffee cups is the only thing Australia needs. There are so many other areas that need to have sustainable solutions, and there is so much more work to do. My main focus at the moment has been community education, and I’m working closely with the community on recycling methods. I’m also working on a solution at the moment that looks at recycling food waste better. 

The current council here advised for people to freeze their food before putting it in the bin to stop the bad smell in summer, which isn’t great. I don’t like band-aid solutions. I like to have something more permanent in mind. 

For me, absolutely, I’m doing things, but I can’t say much yet, because it’s still being developed. But here are two things happening, and it’s very exciting. It has something to do with fire, and keeps the house warm and smelling wonderful. Sorry, I can’t say much more. It’s a work in progress, but I’d love to have a chat when it’s up and running!

Lee Lian: I love how there are so many future plans for your startup, and they’re all going to be so helpful for the environment. But you’re just one person – I wish more international students would go down the same route. 

Do you have any advice for other international students who are planning to study in Australia and plan to to join the sustainable business scene like you did? What would that advice be?

Flavia: Well, yes, definitely. My first piece of advice is to look for a mentor. They are the best to guide you in explaining how the industry works and what things you must improve, but you need to find one at a much higher level. When you are growing, you’re supposed to be changing mentors. 

For sustainability, you need to seek out events that focus on sustainability. In the beginning, I engaged with Waste Expo Australia in Melbourne. You should also read and learn about what is happening with waste management. I focused on the strategy plans of different councils in the city and rubbish areas to see if my business had a future and to understand the different target markets here. 

The result of these things is that you can find who the leaders and influencers in the industry are. Working in those groups can really inspire you to be innovative, even if it’s on a small scale.

Lee Lian: Thank you so much. That’s great advice, and thank you so much for sharing your story. I wish you only the best and I will be following your story closely.

Flavia: Thank you, thank you so much.

Lee Lian: For those who would like to know more about Flavia and her startup, you can visit ecoenviroconcepts.com. If you like more inspiring stories about international students making a difference like Flavia is doing, head to www.studyinternational.com. That’s it for Extra Credit – I’m Lee Lian, wishing all our listeners a happy International Day of Zero Waste. Thanks, Flavia, that was a great one!