Miranda WangRecycling unrecyclable plastic waste
Every year the world churns out 340 million tonnes of plastic, much of which ends up choking landfills, rivers and oceans and polluting the atmosphere, soil and water. Chinese-Canadian tech entrepreneur Miranda Wang has come up with a better idea for what to do with the world’s largest waste headache – turn it into wealth using unique chemical recycling technology developed by her company BioCellection.
locationCalifornia, United States
“We’re taking plastics that are not recyclable today,” she says. “That means there are currently no economical technologies to turn these plastics into a valuable product. So we take waste like dirty plastic bags, single-use packaging materials, and we transform them into valuable performance materials made with recycled content that have the same properties as virgin materials.”
The problem of plastic waste grows hourly more urgent – and costly for each passing day. In the United States, it is piling up in waste management facilities and landfills at a rate of 30,000 tonnes every month since China, which for the past 30 years has imported half the world’s public waste, banned imports of plastic in 2018. Currently, less than a tenth of the world’s used plastic is recycled.
Wang’s mission to solve one of the world’s greatest pollution problems began as a teenager, when she and her best friend – now co-founder – Jeanny Yao visited a waste processing plant on a school excursion. That sparked their enthusiasm and, after seven years of testing one approach after another, they have made an exciting breakthrough.
While still students, Wang and Yao persuaded researchers at the University of British Columbia to conduct research in a lab. Working with more senior researchers, they discovered two plastic-eating bacteria in the nearby Fraser River. But this wasn’t the best solution to scale up. These early adventures led Wang to raise US$5 million in capital between 2015–2019 and establish BioCellection in Silicon Valley to pioneer fresh answers to the emerging global plastics crisis. Since then, her company has developed recycling technologies that transform soiled, contaminated and unrecyclable plastics into quality materials for 3D printing and consumer products.
Among its achievements is a process to break down polyethylene (PE) plastic into precursor chemicals, used as building blocks for materials with potential market value of billions of dollars (PE represents one third of all plastic produced.) Wang’s process is much cheaper than extracting the same from fossil fuel resources and results in a hundredfold increase in the value of plastic waste when upcycled into finished materials – providing a real incentive to save plastics, not dump or burn them.
“Currently there are almost no technologies that work on the really dirty plastics,” Wang explains. “These plastics are so low grade that it doesn’t make sense for people to clean them and make a new product out of them. We specifically focus on these problem plastics that nobody else wants to touch.
“We’ve invented a new process that’s sustainable and economical for making high value industrial chemicals from these plastics. We’ve been able to use these chemicals to synthesize materials that are now close to matching the performance of virgin grade photopolymers and thermoplastic polyurethanes. Right now the direct application for these materials is in 3D printing and footwear.”
An important spin-off is that her process cuts the amount of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted if the plastic were burned or dumped, and the chemicals were made from virgin oil, thereby reducing the waste and chemical industries’ climate footprint. It is another step towards building a sustainable “circular economy”, where nothing is wasted or causes pollution.
Wang’s next step is to develop a fully commercial processing plant. By 2023, she and her team expect to recycle hundreds of tonnes of plastic waste per year – eliminating up to 4,600 tonnes of CO2 emissions – by producing high value materials from plastic waste that society would otherwise throw away.
“This is just the start of our multi-decade strategy to scale up and diversify into a portfolio of high performance recycled products,” Wang says.
340 millions tons
of plastic is produced globally every year
of new plastic is being recycled