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Startup Spotlight: ZeroCycle’s Hunter Hayes Helps Cities Pay Less with Every Pound of Recycling

ZeroCycle helps cities reduce their solid waste spend. Whether it’s a single pound or a full ton of garbage, the company stands for municipalities to improve the quality of recycling streams and create community awareness around waste.

We caught up with Hunter Hayes, CEO of ZeroCycle, to talk about his zero-waste vision and how he stepped into the startup world after working in real estate for several years.

What is ZeroCycle?

We are a software service for municipalities that turns garbage into recycling through behavioral science. Cities want that because they pay less for recycling than for garbage. With our service, you save more money by recycling more. We help cities with their sustainability goals and help them build a better environment overall.

What personal experiences led you to start ZeroCycle?

I’ve always been interested in sustainability companies. When I first got out of college, I wanted to build wind farms. I love how it doesn’t always have to be mutually exclusive between profitability and sustainability.

I actually ended up going into real estate and did some real-estate development, then worked for two real-estate startups. I was the first employee at one and the second employee at the other—yes, I caught a startup bug. Then I thought, “I’ve already been an early employee twice … I’m going to start my own!”

Who are your target customers?

Municipalities that have recycling already set up—the reason why that is the key is because if cities are already running the truck, it means that they are already driving by your house to pick up your recycling, whether … you put it out or not. If we get people to recycle more, cities will save more money.

What successes have ZeroCycle had so far?

Bringing on a behavioral scientist on our team was a big success. He has been involved with several startups doing behavioral-science applications, in particular in water and energy. However, recycling was his primary interest—therefore, his addition was a great fit and a boost for our company.

Getting the city of Austin in Texas to try us out was another huge success. Historically, there hasn’t been an innovative change in the waste industry. We plan to measure the increase in recycling once we start running a pilot program. With our data and numbers, we will be reaching out to other cities and expand our service across the States.

What advantages does ZeroCycle have over competitors?

One of the biggest differences between our competitors and us is that we have a metering capability—we use data science to meter how much people recycle at a neighborhood level.

What piece of advice do you have for other startups in the beginning stage?

Talk to everyone you know—people you meet on the streets, your friends and family—and tell them what your idea is. People are going to tell you why they like it and why they don’t. Don’t take that as an ego check; instead, treat it as valuable feedback and incorporate those ideas into what you want to do with your platform. You could even modify your business model if you want to. Also understand that your timeline is going to be way longer than what you have expected. Lastly, do not underestimate the customer discovery phase!

What brought you to 1776 and what keeps you around?

Being in 1776 has helped us tremendously—we’ve accelerated so much from the conversations that I had with other people and the connections that I’ve made to find potential employees and customers. It is the office hours and networking events that really keep me around here.

We also participated in the Challenge Cup D.C. this year; although we didn’t win we got to the second round! The Challenge Cup was a great experience to practice pitching and just get in front of a crowd. We hope to join next year as well.

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Melissa Steffan

Melissa is the former assistant editor for 1776, where she worked on the media team to create compelling, idea-driven content and reporting. A Seattle native, she graduated from Seattle Pacific…