Azmain Amin '17
If you go to college 8,000 miles from home, you're bound to notice some differences.
When Md Azmain Amin '17, arrived in Lexington, Virginia, from Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the first things he noticed was the plastic bags.
"Back home, we use a lot of plastic bags. We use them all the time--for groceries, dresses, everything. You see them lying on the ground everywhere. They're up in the trees and on the streets. It's a real mess," said Amin.
In the United States, and particularly in scenic Lexington, Amin noticed that the ground wasn't littered with plastic bags. But he was surprised to see that the town's grocery markets and shops were still using them.
"It's understandable that they use them in my country--a developing country that doesn't have as many resources," said Amin. "But I wondered why they use them here."
Amin, who is majoring in biology and computer science, knew how bad the bags were for the environment. But when he began investigating the costs and benefits or manufacturing paper bags, it wasn't immediately clear to him that plastic bags were worse. While trees are a renewable energy source and paper bags are recyclable, Amin learned that manufacturing paper bags creates 50 times more pollution than manufacturing plastic bags.
Many Americans think the answer is to use reusable bags, but Amin argues that reusable bags come with their own problems. Amin's research turned up a startling fact--97 percent of shoppers never wash their reusable bags, so the bacteria count in the bags can be extremely high.
Amin felt sure there had to be a one-use-only alternative to plastic and paper shopping bags. Immediately, he thought of jute. Jute is a strong, natural fiber that grows extremely well in Southeast Asia due to heavy rainfall. Bangladesh has the biggest jute industry in the world but a lack of worldwide demand for jute has forced jute mills to close and jute farmers into poverty.
He started to read more about jute and its many attributes. A professor in India had recently published a paper in which he explained how he had successfully combined tree pulp and jute to create a stronger-than-normal paper product. Reading about the results gave Amin an idea.
At the Social Entrepreneurship Summit, which was held for the first time last May, Amin made a pitch for manufacturing a disposable jute grocery bag in Bangladesh and selling it in the United States. He called his company PolyGreen Bags.
"Amin is a true social entrepreneur, said Drew Hess, associate professor of business administration and the organizer of the Social Entrepreneurship Summit. "By using market-based solutions to meet social needs, Amin's ideas represent the future of sustainable philanthropy."
Amin won first place in the summit's pitch competition, and the award came with a cash prize of $500.
"Winning the competition validated my idea and gave me the confidence and encouragement to go home for the summer and continue to work on the project," said Amin.
At home in Bangladesh, Amin teamed up with a friend of his, Abu Yousuf md Abdullah, who was studying environmental science at the University of Dhaka. The two used a portion of Amin's winnings to design and manufacture a prototype of the bag, and Amin's mother, Shahin Akhtar, helped the friends connect with jute farmers. Then Amin and Abdullah began visiting jute mills to see what it would cost to produce the bag on a large scale.
Their first prototype was made with a combination of jute and newsprint and required handstitching, which wasn't a practical production method. Their second prototype, which can be manufactured by machine, was made using only jute fiber. Amin used the rest of his cash prize to manufacture 6,000 bags, which he gave away to local Bangladeshi businesses so he could test their strength and durability.
At Washington and Lee's Entrepreneurship Summit in September, Amin once again took to the stage to pitch his business idea, but this time he had his prototype in hand. The alumni judges were impressed with Amin's presentation, but also with his vision. Manufacturing jute bags in Bangladesh would be a boom for the country's jute industry and offer American retailers an affordable, biodegradable, disposable shopping bag that had less negative impact on the environment than a traditional paper bag.
Amin won the second pitch competition as well and, once again, put his winnings right back into his budding business. If he and Abdullah want their venture to be successful long term, they know they'll need to reduce manufacturing costs by investing in machinery as well as materials. They hope to secure a contract with a Bangladeshi jute mill in the coming months. Back in the U.S., Amin is hard at work, taking his prototype to retailers. He hopes they will be impressed enough with the concept to place orders for PolyGreen bags.
"I look at this as killing two birds with one stone--I can save the environment and buy jute from farmers who are in the poorest spectrum of society," said Amin.
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Washington and Lee occupies a special position among its peer institutions, offering not just an exceptional liberal arts education but also one especially appropriate for this day and age. Strong international and interdisciplinary programs address some of our most challenging contemporary questions, while our professional programs in law, business, journalism and entrepreneurship shape campus conversations in ways that do not occur in other liberal arts colleges. These professional programs benefit because they exist in a liberal arts setting, and our liberal arts programs benefit because they exist alongside areas of inquiry attuned to the problems facing our society.
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