Got old sneakers and wine corks to recycle? This USC grad student has an app for that

TaBee, a ride-hailing app that boosts sustainability, comes from a petroleum engineer with the environment on his mind.

May 13, 2021 Gustavo Solis

When Akhtan Tumyshev moved his family to Los Angeles in 2018, two things about the city caught his attention: its urban oil wells and litter in the streets.

He had spent 14 years working in the oil industry in his native Kazakhstan before he received the prestigious Bolashak Scholarship, which allowed him to pursue a master’s degree in petroleum engineering from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. So it makes sense that L.A.’s oil wells in plain sight within residential communities stood out. But the odd array of couches and old refrigerators on the city’s sidewalks also surprised the 39-year-old — and inspired an unexpected passion.

“To see appliances and furniture on the street; for me, it was ugly,” the graduate student said. “I tried to understand what happened here, what is going on. At the time, I didn’t know anything about curbside pickup or recycling programs.”

His observations sparked an idea for an app that residents could use to dispose of items in an environmentally friendly way — something he likes to call “Uber for recycling.”

The app, TaBee, would make it convenient to recycle by connecting users with pickup recycling services. These are businesses that pick up people’s trash and sell it to recycling companies or upcycling businesses that turn recyclables into new goods. TaBee could help people get rid of old clothes, furniture, appliances and other recyclables while providing businesses in the recycling industry with a steady stream of customers.

How a petroleum engineer builds a recycling app

Friends and classmates were initially confused about why someone with more than a decade of experience in the oil industry would want to make a recycling app.

Tumyshev gives the credit to his mother, who headed the environmental department of an oil company in Kazakhstan. She traveled the country to visit different oil fields and take soil, air and water samples to monitor pollution levels.

Young Akhtan would tag along on some of those trips. The experiences instilled him with a sense of environmental responsibility, he said.

My main goal is to spread awareness about recycling and environmental issues.

Akhtan Tumyshev

When it came time to build his recycling app, however, Tumyshev needed help. He had a basic understanding of coding but had never built a software program. So, he enlisted a friend from back home with more programming experience and hired a couple of engineers.

His sister, Makpal Tumyshev, helped with marketing and branding. She also came up with the app’s name. TaBee comes from tabigat, the Kazakh word for nature.

The app picked up steam in 2019 when Tumyshev earned a spot in the CleanTech Open West business acceleration program. Then, in 2020, TaBee received California Green Business Network certification, which means that the business exceeds all environmental regulations and follows specific practices that reduce pollution, conserve energy and water, and protect human health.

Akhtan Tumyshev has his eye on upcycling

TaBee can be downloaded on Google Play for Android and the App Store for Mac iOS. For now, its service is limited to picking up small used items like sneakers, wine corks and tennis balls.

Tumyshev is trying to build a small network of pickup companies and local, self-employed handymen who can use the app to connect with people looking to recycle more things. He is also building relationships with companies that specialize in upcycling, which gives new life to recycled materials — like making a backpack out of recycled denim.

“I see huge potential for my app,” he said. “My main goal is not to pick up all of that trash — that is impossible. My main goal is to spread awareness about recycling and environmental issues.”