Embarking on the path to sustainability

Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University alumnus Nelson Harper is passionate about minimising waste and has been searching for technical solutions to add value to fibre or construction waste generally considered impossible to recycle. A venture in 2021 implemented his bright ideas into a business called Precycle which won the supreme award of Innovate Manawatū 2022, a programme formed to create an entrepreneurial highway in the region and spark the local economy by growing young companies. 

“If you have an idea, just go for it, say yes to an opportunity, and work it out as you go,” he says.  

Exploring possibilities

Inspired by his father, Nelson realised that big ideas could be achieved through hard work, persistence, and dedication. “As a teenager, I knew one thing was important to me – being independent and pursuing my interests. So I was always looking for work and trying to start little projects to take financial responsibility to do what I wanted.”

Having worked on several internships and construction jobs, Nelson was intrigued by Massey’s chemical and bioprocess engineering courses, so he applied for the Bachelor of Engineering programme and started his study journey in 2018.

“Massey gave me opportunities to get hands-on with real-world projects for industry and communities. I’ve learned a lot from not just the classroom but also through projects, extracurricular activities, internships, and study trips, through which I was placed in businesses that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to.” 


While studying at Massey, Nelson proactively sought opportunities to bring his ideas to fruition. He has actively participated in ecentre Massey programmes, first winning a top place in the ecentre Grand Ideas 2020 competition, continuing to be a winner in Pitch.ME 2021 and 2022 and finally gaining second place in the Grand Ideas competition for semester one, 2022. Nelson was also a member of the Exponential-90 coaching programme led by seasoned entrepreneur Daniel Batten and offered by ecentre Massey to a select group of students and staff in 2021.

“Massey’s ecentre has been a massive source of support and encouragement in my entrepreneurial experiments while studying and even after. From being a student with a few ideas and interest in running a business, I have had the opportunities to pitch ideas, then use funding and prize money to try, fail, and learn from the start-up process – which would have otherwise been impossible on a student budget. This is something you can’t learn from a book but have to go through the experience and through working with other entrepreneurs.” 

Turning ideas into reality

Being involved in various environmentally focused projects during his internships, Nelson realised that while there is an ongoing focus on recycling in people’s homes, domestic waste comprised only 15 per cent of what went to landfills.

“Construction waste is a massive contributor to what goes to landfill, full of horrible chemicals, so I started looking for ways to turn waste into value.” Nelson had been looking at creating sustainable construction materials from high-fibre waste, and that’s how Precycle was founded. It develops new recycling technologies to transform non-recyclable materials into new construction materials that all consider end-of-life disposal to ensure they won’t be landfilled.

Last year was a fruitful year for Nelson. He graduated as a Massey scholar with first-class honours in Chemical Engineering, he received $30,000 from the Earle Creativity and Development Trust for resource recovery exploration, along with funding through Callaghan Innovation and Manawatu District Council, and he won the Innovate 2022 competition with Precycle.

Nelson Harper

“I felt privileged to be able to win Innovate. Thanks to Massey, by the time I left university, I was confident to go and talk to different businesses. I can try different ideas and know it might work out,” Nelson says.

In addition to his pioneering work with Precycle, he has devoted his time to fighting plastic pollution as Source to Sea coordinator at Environmental Network Manawatū. In this role, Nelson has seen several tonnes of litter removed from local waterways and has inspired the next generation of environmentalists with his work in local primary schools as part of Children’s University Massey – Wānanga Nohinohi Te Kunenga programme.

From a university student to a start-up founder, Nelson puts his success down to networking and mentoring opportunities. He believes the power of communities is strong, and people and relationships helped take him further.  

“People may have incredible ideas, massive vision, and passion, but nobody will be interested if they can’t communicate. They may not necessarily have a lot of money behind them; still, they can make a massive impact in their community by following their passion and getting people involved. 

“Networking is critical because so much of my work is about connecting people with the right people or organisation. Massey gave me the support and opened the door to opportunities, so I got to know other entrepreneurs, learn from them, and share my ideas with them.” 

Looking into the future 

Precycle has successfully diverted massive amounts of waste from landfills at several public events alongside Palmerston North City Council. Nelson has a team of recycling champions ensuring rubbish is recycled properly, organic waste is composted, and reducing waste to landfill. His team also conducts commercial waste audits and is starting to help businesses understand and reduce their environmental impacts. 

“I want to keep expanding, working with as many businesses and councils as possible, and creating new technologies and products. I want to keep going further and further on my sustainability journey.”