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The content on the screens on EvoBins from EvoEco are customized by location to instruct people how to dispose of their trash. (EvoEco Photo)

If you’ve dined in an enviro-minded city, you’ve undoubtedly stood before a row of trash and recycle cans, befuddled about whether your coffee cup should be composted or if the lid is recyclable. Deducing the appropriate fate of forks and straws can feel like trying to comprehend dark matter.

EvoEco, a Seattle-based startup with roots at the University of Washington, wants to demystify disposal through digital, interactive waste bins.

“We’re trying to pioneer a space,” said William Zhou, the 22-year-old CEO and founder of EvoEco. We’re trying to use “technology software to create a positive change in human behavior.”

The company has created EvoBins, which have screens above a set of three waste receptacles that can be programmed to display images of exactly which items should be trashed, recycled or composted. They also have scales inside the bins and can display the weight of what’s being tossed each time a users drops in an item. EvoBins can educate consumers and provide data for the business owner or property manager to track waste disposal.

William Zhou, CEO and founder of EvoEco.

Keeping waste properly sorted can have significant financial impacts. Cities with legislation related to recycling and composting can require sites to hit targets for diverting trash from landfills and provide penalties or incentives to encourage compliance. Sloppy recycling habits — mixing up nonrecyclable and recyclable materials and recycling dirty items — has led China to ban the import of some U.S. recycling waste.

Thirteen people work full- and part-time for EvoEco, which launched in 2015. The idea began as a design project at the UW, and their lead designer is a professor of design at the university. The employees skew younger, with an average age of 28.

The startup is working with a real estate investment company in San Francisco to deploy its EvoBins at 10 locations by the end of January. Zhou said they’re partnering with a Seattle retail chain to start a pilot project, but would not name specific customers at this time. Two sets of three bins cost $20,000.

“We are finding that with its unique, interactive digital screen, the EvoBins engage people in a way that causes them to stop, consider and sort items correctly,” said Nicole Dubee, property manager for Columbia Property Trust at 221 Main Street in San Francisco, in a prepared statement. “Increasing our diversion rates should enable us to not only make up the cost of the bins in less than three months, but also realize as much as a 40 percent savings year-over-year on our waste bill.”

The EvoEco team is also developing technology that will use cameras in the bins and image recognition software to identify an item being held by a customer, and then instructing the person where to put their trash.

“We’re wrapping up our initial launches,” Zhou said, “and getting ready for serious growth.”

We caught up with Zhou for our Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

 

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We build smart waste bins for commercial spaces that direct consumers where to toss their trash. Ever get confused as to where to throw away your garbage? Our bin technology platform will tell you where to put it.”

Inspiration hit us when: “It’s funny actually. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone stare at one of those confusing paper signs taped above a trash can and still toss their trash in the wrong bin. We all run into the same problem several times a day — where do I throw this out? Compost? Recycling? Landfill? Now scale that by 300 million people and believe it or not, the U.S. alone generates more than 1 billion pounds of waste a day.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We bootstrapped to revenue with local, national, and global brands. Now that we’re wrapping up our proof-of-concept deployments and understand our product market fit, we’re raising our seed round to scale and grow.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Passion. Passion for what we’re making, what we’re changing, and who we’re working with. For us, passion is the difference between failing and succeeding. It’s the difference between an all-hands-on-deck 90-hour week, and showing up unprepared to serve your customers.”

Zhou talks trash at the University of Washington. (EvoEco Photo)

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “We’ve cultivated a wonderful and organic community of individuals who believe and support our vision and what we do. I can’t express how thankful I am to the numerous advisors, mentors, industry professionals and fellow entrepreneurs who have selflessly given so much of their energy to help EvoEco mature.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “I wish we had raised money at an earlier stage. It’s possible we would be further along than where we are right now and perhaps avoided some of the incredibly challenging situations that could have been solved faster by having stronger finances.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “It’s a tight race between Bezos and Zuckerberg, but I think I’ll have to give it to the Zuck. His company is in the business of controlling the way people think — our preferences, allegiances, tastes, exposures, etc. He’s got a ruthless track record and on a quest for world domination — and I don’t think he has even peaked. Let’s not forget about Priscilla either, she’s a serious heavy hitter herself!”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “We go climbing or out drinking like other companies, but I think the most powerful team-building activity is when we all build together, regardless of success or failure. Quite a few of us are at different stages of life, but I like to think that everyone in the company genuinely enjoys working with each other. I know I’m pleasantly surprised everyday.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Whether it’s a potential employee, an investor or an industry partner, integrity is paramount. I find that working and serving those who have integrity is that much more enjoyable. It tends to lend itself to a whole host of other positive character traits like accountability, honesty, empathy and ethics.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Your mindset is your most malleable, unique and powerful asset. Learn to listen not just hear and learn to give with no expectations.”

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