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Inaugural Houston challenge names winning team with plastics solution

University of Houston students Sarah Grace Kimberly and Emma Nicholas won UH Energy Transition Institute's inaugural Circular Plastics Challenge. Photo via

Dozens of Houston college students tackled circular economy challenges, and two came out on top by winning the top award.

University of Houston’s Energy Transition Institute hosted a challenge for students to address the issue of plastic waste and create a real-world circular economy, as over 60 students participated in the inaugural Circular Plastics Challenge.

Six finalist teams presented their solutions at the 2023 Energy Night hosted by the UH Energy Coalition with final pitches ranging from transportation emissions, renewable packaging and sustainable material, drones to limit excess packaging, and more topics aimed to reduce use.

Sarah Grace Kimberly and Emma Nicholas were the challenge winners. The team proposed using a liquid-based membrane filter inserted into household drains to combat microplastics found in common personal care products, such as makeup and hygiene items. The membrane’s function would act as a magnet, which would attract and capture microplastics from wastewater in showers and sinks. Both juniors from the C.T. Bauer College of Business also won the viewer’s choice award from their peers.

“We wanted to provide a simple solution to a growing problem,” Kimberly says in a news release. “Before we did this project, we didn’t know that microplastics existed, let alone in our makeup. I didn’t know I was basically putting plastic on my face every single day and washing it off into our drains. Because it’s an unseen problem, it’s hard to address.”

UH’s ETI is an academic research institute that focuses on advancing environmentally responsible energy efforts.

“If you look at the wide variety of proposals and approaches, you can see the complexity of the problem and all the different things that society must consider to find solutions,” ETI Founding Executive Director Joe Powell says in the release. “I think circularity in plastics and chemicals is as difficult to address as the net-zero issue within the energy sector, if not more. We have a unique opportunity here to tackle both, and it’s really great to see our students thinking ahead.

Other finalists included Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship seniors Nicolas Einarsson, Bennett Mainini, Arianna Chavarria, and Fernanda Ruelas, who secured second place with their renewable packaging company presentation titled “ShipSafe.”

Reverse Logistics — with team members Hasti Seraji, Farzane Ezzati, and Haowei Yang — earned third place for their consumer-driven reverse logistics approach to recycling packaging.

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A View From HETI

Houston could have ranked higher on a global report of top cities in the world if it had a bit more business diversification. Photo via Getty Images

A new analysis positions the Energy Capital of the World as an economic dynamo, albeit a flawed one.

The recently released Oxford Economics Global Cities Index, which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s 1,000 largest cities, puts Houston at No. 25.

Houston ranks well for economics (No. 15) and human capital (No. 18), but ranks poorly for governance (No. 184), environment (No. 271), and quality of life (No. 298).

New York City appears at No. 1 on the index, followed by London; San Jose, California; Tokyo; and Paris. Dallas lands at No. 18 and Austin at No. 39.

In its Global Cities Index report, Oxford Economics says Houston’s status as “an international and vertically integrated hub for the oil and gas sector makes it an economic powerhouse. Most aspects of the industry — downstream, midstream, and upstream — are managed from here, including the major fuel refining and petrochemicals sectors.”

“And although the city has notable aerospace and logistics sectors and has diversified into other areas such as biomedical research and tech, its fortunes remain very much tied to oil and gas,” the report adds. “As such, its economic stability and growth lag other leading cities in the index.”

The report points out that Houston ranks highly in the human capital category thanks to the large number of corporate headquarters in the region. The Houston area is home to the headquarters of 26 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sysco.

Another contributor to Houston’s human capital ranking, the report says, is the presence of Rice University, the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“Despite this,” says the report, “it lacks the number of world-leading universities that other cities have, and only performs moderately in terms of the educational attainment of its residents.”

Slower-than-expected population growth and an aging population weaken Houston’s human capital score, the report says.

Meanwhile, Houston’s score for quality is life is hurt by a high level of income inequality, along with a low life expectancy compared with nearly half the 1,000 cities on the list, says the report.

Also in the quality-of-life bucket, the report underscores the region’s variety of arts, cultural, and recreational activities. But that’s offset by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, an underdeveloped public transportation system, decreased air quality, and high carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the report downgrades Houston’s environmental stature due to the risks of hurricanes and flooding.

“Undoubtedly, Houston is a leading business [center] that plays a key role in supporting the U.S. economy,” says the report, “but given its shortcomings in other categories, it will need to follow the path of some of its more well-rounded peers in order to move up in the rankings.”


This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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