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Tuesday January 31st

These UNC students found a zero-waste way to reuse old billboards

<p>Team members Julia Thompson and Abbey Cmiel sewing bags for Phoenyx, a student-created company that uses recycled billboards and vinyl material to create accessories like wallets, purses and backpacks.</p>
<p>Courtesy of Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt.</p>
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Team members Julia Thompson and Abbey Cmiel sewing bags for Phoenyx, a student-created company that uses recycled billboards and vinyl material to create accessories like wallets, purses and backpacks.

Courtesy of Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt.

Senior Anastasia Soule combined her passions for sustainability and fashion to create her own company, Phoenyx. 

The new brand recycles old billboards and uses vinyl material to create accessories like wallets, purses and backpacks. The result is a trendy and zero-waste bag.   

“It’s just fun, hip, urban, outerwear that people can use and also know that they’re supporting sustainable initiatives both in an environmental and economic sense,” Soule said. 

The company’s mission is that products and people deserve second chances, Soule said. 

“Each year, there are over 30 million (billboards) being disposed, so we’re trying to divert that from ending up in the landfill, while using the trash as an economic entrance to hopefully offer stable and secure employment to people who don’t have access to jobs,” Soule said. 

The company plans for homeless and struggling people in the area to have an active role in making the bags, whether it be cutting, sewing or delivery.

“It’s thinking of entrepreneurship as a way to create jobs for the community," Soule said. "All you need is a sewing machine."

While helping locals find employment, the company is addressing a need for sustainable fashion.

“The fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry, second to fossil fuels. I think it’s a pretty powerful statement to be able to say that we’re taking trash and making it high fashion,” said Phoenyx team member and designer Julia Thompson. 

One billboard can make approximately 200 bags, Soule said. She said their bags, all hand cut and filmed, have a specific look, with a black sleek finish used from the back of the billboard. 

Soule was inspired to create Phoenyx during a trip to Cape Town, South Africa.

“I was doing policy research, and there was an organization there that was taking the same material that we’re making our bags with, but they were making sleeping bags," Soule said. "I thought that was such a creative, innovative use of the materials for social impact."

Soule was especially interested in the company because her dad works in outdoor advertising with billboards. 

After speaking with him about what happens to the billboards after they are on the side of the road, Soule found that she was not satisfied with the answer. 

“There’s really no sustainable end of life solution, so I applied to the CUBE Fellowship with UNC knowing that there’s this organization that takes this material and turns it into something good, and I have access to this material and I am committed to helping the same population, just here in North Carolina as a (Community Empowerment Fund) advocate,” Soule said. 

CEF is an organization in Chapel Hill that meets with people at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness and helps them secure long-term housing or employment. Through her experience with CEF, Soule knew that sleeping bags were serving to alleviate some of the pain points of homelessness without preventing it or helping in the long term, she said. 

“The employment piece is a little more impactful. We are trying to test and build a model where we can use this trash to offer a fair wage," Soule said. "In Chapel Hill you have to literally work 80 hours a week on minimum wage to be able to afford rent. It’s alarming."

There is a bright future ahead for the company, Thompson said. 

Phoenyx participated in the Carolina Challenge Makeathon, a competition of almost 40 teams of UNC students, and won an award for most progress on a physical prototype. They were able to make more bags and presented them at the Smithsonian Museum. 

On Thursday, the company will be at the Innovation Showcase, where they will be sharing their work with over 400 people in the Chapel Hill area's entrepreneurial community. 

The company recently received a grant and fellowship from Launch Chapel Hill and is hoping to release its first products in May, said team member Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt. Phoenyx also plans to have its first community hire this summer.

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