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It has been roughly two years since China notified the World Trade Organization that it would impose a ban on imports of 24 varieties of solid waste, including some types of plastic and more than a dozen other types of recyclable materials.

China has been expanding the list of banned items, while the US is still grappling with the move. The New York Times recently reported that a few recycling companies have started charging cities up to four times more to accept recyclable goods. Malaysia, which had been one of the main dumping grounds for America's recyclable waste after China's import ban, announced last week that it will send as much as 3,000 tons of plastic waste back to the countries it came from.

In the aftermath of the ban, VCs have been quick to funnel millions of dollars into cleantech businesses in the US, as capital investment in 2018 crossed the $4 billion mark for the first time in six years, per the PitchBook Platform. Some of the biggest cleantech deals in the past year have involved businesses that are developing technology for electric vehicles, such as Zoox and ChargePoint. But there is also a new crop of eco-friendly startups in the US that are either finding ways to prevent plastic waste or creating more efficient ways to recycle.

As China hosts World Environment Day celebrations Wednesday, here are five VC-backed startups in the US that are endeavoring to tackle environmental challenges in their home country.


Because recycling rules vary by location, people can be confused about which bins to use. CleanRobotics offers "smart" trash cans, which use robotics and AI to help facilities such as airports, convention centers and waste management sites sort recyclables from landfill waste. The technology uses cameras and sensors to scan items and automate the separation process. The Pittsburgh-based company is preparing for a mass market release and installed its flagship product in small batches in cities including San Francisco and Seattle. Founded in 2015, CleanRobotics has reportedly raised funding from backers including GAN Ventures, SOS Ventures and Innovation Works.  

AMP Robotics

AMP Robotics has developed robots that can pick recyclable materials off a conveyor belt and toss them into a collection bin. The Colorado-based business has also launched an AI-enabled robot system that can remove recyclables from municipal and electronic waste. AMP robotics, founded in 2015, has reportedly raised VC funding from investors including Baidu Ventures, Closed Loop Partners and Congruent Ventures


Rubicon has created a cloud-based platform intended to track waste and improve the operations of haulers, businesses and city governments through data analytics. The Atlanta-based company recently launched a product designed for waste management teams to track different types of recyclables by clicking a photo of the recycling bin. Founded in 2008, Rubicon raised around $74 million at an estimated valuation of $824 million in 2017, backed by investors including Jaws Ventures, Valor Capital Group and Leonardo DiCaprio.


Thread shouldn't be confused with another VC-backed business, ThredUp, which is also doing its bit for the environment by promoting the use of secondhand clothes and accessories. Pittsburgh-based Thread has developed a fabric made from plastic waste whose social and environmental impact can be traced by customers–such as plastic bottles recycled by entrepreneurs in Haiti and Honduras. The business has teamed with global brands including Reebok and Timberland to develop a collection made from recyclable materials. Founded in 2011, the business reportedly raised $22 million from investors including Balderton Capital, Beringea and Forward Partners in 2018. 


Femtech startup Lia has created a biodegradable and flushable pregnancy kit made without plastic. The Pennsylvania-based business, valued at $28.1 million in November, has backers that include Robin Hood Ventures, Microsoft and DreamIt Ventures. The company was co-founded by CEO Bethany Edwards; its product was named one of the top 50 inventions by Time magazine in 2018.

Featured image via CarryOnDroning/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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