The New Norm transforms party cups and ocean plastics into fashion. Items are 3D knit as one entire piece. The project began when founder Lauren Choi was studying Materials Engineering at Johns Hopkins and spent a summer building an extruder machine in her garage that turned plastic into yarn.

Photos courtesy of The New Norm.

Like a modern-day Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold, Lauren Choi, founder of The New Norm, takes something mundane and gives it greater value.

After reading a Los Angeles Times article her mom sent her about China banning imported U.S. recyclable plastics and seeing the plastic party cups that piled up on her college campus every weekend, Choi had a lightbulb moment. Maybe she could use her materials engineering studies at Johns Hopkins University to spin plastics into a second life as wearables.

She set to work in the summer of 2019 building an extruder machine in her garage that could melt plastic into filament fiber.

“It started as a passion project,” she says.

For guidance, she read textbooks and research papers and watched a lot of YouTube videos. Along the way, she taught herself to do wiring and learned to 3D print certain parts. “I was just completely making it up as I went along.

“Once I took the machine back to school, it became my senior design project,” Choi explains. “I put together a multidisciplinary research team around it and that’s when it really started to get going.”

Now Choi’s brainchild has evolved into a full-fledged business, a sold-out line of sweaters and beanie hats, and thousands of yards of filament fiber, but the road to this point has had a few curves.

Finding Treasure in Trash

With the ability to create the filament, Choi and her team earned a spot in the university’s Fuel Accelerator program that helps innovative student-led startups grow and scale their ventures. They started collecting used cups on campus by giving fraternities big red trash cans that looked like giant party cups.

“We had a wagon and would come around on Mondays, after the weekends, and get all of the cups,” she says. It would take just two weeks to collect 1,000 cups.

“Then we had set up this decontamination station in a friend’s basement.” Washing cups by hand quickly became an overwhelming task. “I could see how difficult waste collection can be at scale.”

Choi and her team realized they needed to buy salvaged plastics that were already sorted and shredded. With the raw materials sorted by color, they discovered the cups’ coloration created several soft shades of pink, blue, and green without any need to add additional dyes.

A Hefty Hand Up

Choi’s vision was to keep the entire manufacturing operation within the U.S. Her team worked with textile and polymer labs that in turn connected them to manufacturers in North Carolina and Virginia that were already recycling plastics or manufacturing yarns using industrial-grade equipment. Grants and funding from Halcyon Accelerators and Tiger Global Impact Ventures helped The New Norm meet key milestones. “Without them, there is no way we could run this important research and develop trials,” Choi says.

Then, in 2023, the team heard they had been awarded a research and development grant from Reynolds Consumer Plastics, a leader in manufacturing plastic party cups. “They had seen our samples at a conference and reached out. They were interested in seeing what this sustainability initiative could look like,” she says.

The grant has allowed The New Norm to move forward, proving their application with a new material waste stream could scale at every step from manufacturing yarn, knitting fabric and creating 3D knitted garments. “We launched a capsule collection of 3D knit sweaters and beanies to showcase the yarns and fabrics we were able to create as a result of this collaboration.”

Choi says the grant from Hefty is transformative. “It has put us on the path toward getting into production.” The capsule collection, knitted by Tailored Industry in Brooklyn, NY, sold out quickly.    

The sweaters and beanies The New Norm creates are not dyed. The color comes from the color of the cups they’re made from.

Photos courtesy of The New Norm.

Earth-Friendly Fashion

The New Norm ticks many boxes in terms of environmental friendliness:

  • No water is used in the manufacturing process because there’s no need for dyeing or adding any chemicals.
  • Using party cups pulls plastic that typically is not recycled out of the waste stream.
  • Keeping all the manufacturing and assembly in the U.S. means no fuel is used for overseas shipping.
  • Unlike other plastics, The New Norm’s filament fiber does not shed microfibers like spun yarns.
  • High-tech 3D knitting means there’s no waste materials left over from garment creation.
  • The knitting process occurs on demand when an item is ordered, so there’s no need to tie up resources in keeping extra stock on hand.

The company has set big goals for the future. Once production is fully to scale, the team hopes to start working with larger brands. They’re looking into creating filaments with various deniers. Currently, they are able to add texture to the fiber, which Choi says has a soft, silky feel. While the company doesn’t offer yarn for knitters and crocheters, Choi and her team are looking to collaborate with designers.

She’s recently been selected as a 2024 fellow with the Tory Burch Foundation, which empowers women entrepreneurs by providing them access to capital, education and networking opportunities.

Ripple Effects

Five years into this journey, Choi says she sees fashion and the marketplace with new eyes. “I’ve become so hyper-aware of fast fashion; how social media is constantly making us want to purchase things, like the trending make-up products or skincare products.” With that awareness, she limits her purchasing. Composting food waste, driving an electric car, and being meticulous about recycling are all part of her lifestyle.

Of course, she’d like to spread the sustainability gospel to other manufacturers. For leaders in all kinds of businesses who are thinking about making their organizations more eco-friendly, Choi recommends taking a deep dive into every step of the supply chain.

“With apparel and textiles, there seems to be an education and awareness gap,” she says. Unfortunately, that can allow for “greenwashing” that isn’t really beneficial to the environment.

“Understanding the process and the supply chain, how it’s made and what goes into it” is critical she says. “The fashion industry is not sustainable. Plastics are not really being recycled. There’s a huge waste issue, it’s either being sent to a landfill, incinerated, or shipped overseas to be sent to a landfill or incinerated.”

The New Norm believes that with the right messaging, Gen Z will mobilize to help solve these problems, one party cup and one sweater at a time.

Janice Brewster Weiser

Janice Brewster Weiser


Janice Brewster Weiser is a writer, editor, book shepherd and serial crafter who publishes the newsletter Slow Stitching Circle on Substack. Connect with Janice on LinkedIn.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This