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UNC student finds new uses for old billboards

May 10, 2019

When University of North Carolina senior Ana Soule was on a trip to South Africa she noticed something. People were using tents and sleeping bags that appeared to be made of heavy-duty vinyl.

“I was like, ‘Wow -- that’s such an ingenious and innovative way to use this material,’” Soule said.

It turns out the material is what is used to make billboards. And because billboards change frequently, the vinyl left behind creates hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste each year.

“Most of the time it does end up in landfills,” Soule said.

She returned from South Africa with an idea. She wanted to find a way to use that material in Chapel Hill. She knew there really wasn’t a great need for sleeping bags so she decided to start making ... other bags.

“We are making purses, backpacks -- we’ve tried out a duffel bag,” she said.

The idea became a reality in an entrepreneurship class at UNC, where students were challenged to make a product.

“I hadn’t really thought before of what happens to billboard material when it comes down and really understood the volume of material we are talking about,” said Dr. Richard Goldberg, who teaches the class.

Soule recruited two of her classmates to join, what she hopes, can become a self-sustaining business. Advertising companies are happy to provide her with used billboards for free as long as she picks them up.

“They say, ‘Hey, come take them,’ and right now we’ve been picking them up one billboard at a time,” Soule said.

“I didn’t know how amazing and textured and just how like flexible and strong it was,” said Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt who is an anthropology major and part of Soule’s team.

The company, which is now called “Phoenyx,” is in the process of designing products they plan to begin selling later this summer. Soule hopes to be able to cut down on waste and eventually hire others to help.

“We don’t want to be known as billboard bags -- we just want to be streetwear, recycled material,” Soule said. “It doesn’t matter what the trash was, it now has a new use.”