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Altoids tin inspires student ‘upcycler’

Tuesday, October 25, 2011
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Union College electrical engineering student Nick Brenn, left, talks about "upcycling" during his appearance on Anderson Cooper's new daytime show shown locally on WNYT. The show aired Monday.
Union College electrical engineering student Nick Brenn, left, talks about "upcycling" during his appearance on Anderson Cooper's new daytime show shown locally on WNYT. The show aired Monday.

— When Nick Brenn sees an Altoids mint tin, he doesn’t just see a receptacle for breath fresheners. He sees possibilities.

Instead of simply recycling the tins once the mints are gone, the 18-year-old Union College sophomore “upcycles” them.

“Upcycling is taking items that are normally thrown out or recycled and making them into something useful,” Brenn explained. Inspired by a high school introduction to electronics course, Brenn combined an Altoids tin, an LED light, a switch, a battery and a resistor to make a pocket-sized flashlight that’s as cool as any peppermint.

“People are not used to seeing electronic components inside an Altoids tin. The appeal of having something that’s different from what it’s normally used for was sort of appealing to me,” he said.

Brenn submitted step-by-step flashlight-building instructions to do-it-yourself websites, and his idea was spotted online by Edmund Scientifics, a company that sells brainy toys, gifts, equipment and gadgets. They tracked him down. “The company found my project and said, ‘Hey, do you sell kits?’ ” Brenn recalled. “I was like, ‘No, I don’t, but I can.’ ”

Since he was just 15, and too young to get his own federal tax identification number, Brenn established a DBA under a business his mother ran, and NGB Enterprises went live. Edmund Scientifics ordered 100 mint tin flashlight kits from Brenn’s fledgling company and sold them on its website for $20 each. The kits sold out in a year, and Edmund Scientifics ordered 180 more. “They’re still being sold on the website,” Brenn said.

Now 18, Brenn not only has his own business, but a fancy title to go along with it — “Tinnovator” — one who makes cool stuff out of Altoids tins. He’s not the only one out there. A quick look at TLC’s website revealed Brenn’s Altoid tin flashlight as well as Altoids tins reincarnated as picture frames, shadow boxes, key hooks, even Zen gardens.

Brenn’s upcycling innovation recently caught the interest of daytime talk show host Anderson Cooper. He was featured on an episode that aired Monday. “They were

doing a segment on frugality, how to save money, and one of the segments was on upcycling,” Brenn recounted.

In late September, he traveled to New York City for the taping of the Anderson show.

“I was a featured audience member, so I basically had like a front-row seat, and towards the end of the show, Anderson came up and asked me a couple of questions,” Brenn said. “It was only a 30-, 35-second piece, but it was an amazing experience to see just the behind-the-scenes of the show.”

Brenn is still intrigued with the possibilities an empty Altoids tin offers. His latest mint tin masterpiece is a headphone amplifier — a miniature amplifier designed to drive the speakers inside of headphones and provide higher volume levels and improved clarity. “It kind of looks like a bomb device,” Brenn admitted, opening the top of the tin to reveal batteries and a bunch of wires. “I’m not going to carry this on a plane,” he said with a laugh.

 
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