7 Startups Recycling Plastic with New Technology
Unless you’re living with a lost tribe in the Amazon (how are you even reading this?), chances are you’re consuming stuff everyday that’s wrapped in plastic or made out of plastic or contains some amount of plastic. Why is that a problem? Well, unless you’re living under a rock with a lost tribe in the Amazon, you’ll know that plastics are literally clogging our oceans and landfills. Last year, scientists took a crack at calculating the total amount of plastics produced since about 1950. They came up with 8.3 billion metric tons (or more than 9 billion good-old American tons), about three-quarters of which has become waste. The University of Georgia put together this nifty graphic to help you visualize the size of this elephant in the room:
Another thing to note from this infographic: Despite our best efforts to recycle plastic, less than 10 percent is saved from incineration or landfills. We talked about the challenges of recycling non-recyclable thermoset plastics last year. These hardier plastics are used in everything from aircraft to medical equipment, but their durability makes it difficult if not impossible to recycle. On the other hand, thermoplastics, which include things like PET bottles, plastic wrap and Styrofoam can be recycled. But we suck even when dealing with the recyclable plastics.
A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation a couple of years ago found that 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material alone, worth $80 to $120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. In other words, there’s money to be made for companies that can figure out better, more economical ways to recycle plastic or create it from renewable sources. (Remember those AI-Powered Waste Sorting Robots from Sadako?) Below we highlight 7 startups employing all sorts of innovative technologies to reinvent the thermoplastics economy.
A Bottle Shop
Founded in 2008, Origin Materials has racked up $80 million in venture capital funds to build a better plastic bottle, with $40 million coming in March 2017 from investors like Nestlé and Danone, which are also strategic partners for obvious reasons. Bottles from PET, polyethylene terephthalate, are recyclable but like other plastics come from nonrenewable, petroleum-based sources. Origin Materials believes it can manufacture plastic bottles from renewable materials like sawdust, cardboard and angel’s tears. The Sacramento Bee reported that the West Sacramento startup has a pilot plant where it produces bio-based bottles with 80 percent renewable materials. Some PET bottles may contain up to 30 percent renewable, organic materials, according to the article.
Initially, the company plans to manufacture PET bottles with about twice that amount—60 percent—of organic material due to limited commercial resources for some of the biomaterials it needs for higher organic content. Production is expected to roll by the end of this year.
Back to the Beginning
Founded in 2006, Agilyx out of the progressive state of Oregon has raised $61.3 million to develop technology to fully recycle polystyrene. What’s that? Think Styrofoam ramen bowls and those red, hard plastic cups that you pour your booze into at the park for picnics to hide it from the rangers. While recyclable, polystyrene can only be repurposed into lower quality plastics, Agilyx’s Polystyrene-to-Styrene Monomer (PSM) Technology turns waste polystyrene into a liquid product that it then sells to manufacturing facilities. Presto-chango, that Styrofoam ramen bowl is now a kid’s bicycle helmet.
Since polystyrene requires virgin material (i.e., oil) to manufacture, the ability to recycle it into other polystyrene products is significant. Agilyx has also commercialized a technology that converts mixed plastics to high-quality crude oil, as in black gold. However, as an article in The Guardian pointed out, low oil prices have made that technology financially infeasible for now. In addition, polystyrene is one of those plastics that we’re trying to phase out, possibly robbing Agilyx of feedstock in the long term.
Founded in 2009, Dublin-based Bioplastech recruits bacteria to convert plastic into a more eco-friendly form. Spun off from University College Dublin, the company’s professorial co-founder has reportedly secured more than €16 million (about $20 million) in research funding. Bioplastech employs several different bacterial species, screened from more than 400 microorganisms, to turn non-degradable plastic into a polyester called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) that is biodegradable. One of the bugs was discovered in the contaminated soil of a traditional plastics processing plant, happily secreting PHA. The company is now working on developing a biodegradable adhesive from natural materials.
Founded in 2010, Germany’s Saperatec has raised about €4.3 million (about $5.3 million) to tackle one of the toughest problems of plastic recycling—mixed materials. These are the sorts of products that you end up tossing into the trash because it’s not quite just plastic, usually consisting of other layers such as cardboard and aluminum foil to help preserve foods, such as soups in cartons. Separatec has developed highly specialized micro-emulsions based on surfactants, which are known for reducing surface tension. The micro-emulsion channels its way between the tightly laminated layers of the composite material, separating the individual materials for recycling.
Pumping Oil Out of Plastic
Founded in 2011, Recycling Technologies, based out of a town in southwest England, has raised £2.1 million (about $3 million), not including a reported £2.6 million pounds ($3.6 million) in government grants. The recycling startup has built a machine that vaporizes all types of plastics and petroleum-based products like carpeting through thermal cracking into a product it calls Plaxx. Plaxx is actually a catch-all name for a number of different products, ranging from Plaxx-8, a feedstock for producing new plastics, to Plaxx-30, for heavy fuel oil. Recycling Technologies’ miracle machine is called the RT700:
The RT700 is built to be mobile and could be installed on sites with limited infrastructure for recycling contaminated sites. The machine is capable of processing 7,000 tons of plastics per year. Bloomberg reports Recycling Technologies hopes to have 100 machines in operation by 2025.
A Smart Solution
Founded in 2009, Ioniqa Technologies in the Netherlands has raised €2.5 million (about $3 million) for its Magnetic Smart Materials technology. Smart materials change their properties when a magnetic field is applied. In the case of plastics, particularly PET bottles, the smart liquid removes colorants and contaminants, leaving behind a usable raw material than can be recycled back into more plastic Coca Cola bottles. Ioniqa’s process produces just 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that would result from manufacturing one kilogram of PET from petrochemical sources, according to Chemistry World, which also reports that the company is working to build a 10,000-ton production facility by the end of the year.
In the bag
Founded in 2015, Biocellection is a young biotechnology startup out of San Jose, California, that has raised less than $1 million in disclosed funding but comes out of the prestigious IndieBio Accelerator program, among others. The company’s bag? Converting plastic bags into useful products such as synthetic ski jackets that Patagonia can charge you a small fortune for and more eco-friendly solvents, both of which often come from unsustainable sources like petrochemicals and palm oil. The process involves some pretty intense organic chemistry, with a catalyst that breaks open a polymer chain to trigger a chain reaction. You can follow the process below:
The bottom line is that the system can convert up to 70 percent of the waste to a powder product within three hours. Genetically engineered bacteria then go to work, eating the yummy powder and secreting a substance that manufacturers can use for new products, like a car made out of more than 33,000 plastic bags.
Here’s another fun fact from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to close this article: By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish. Earth Day is nice and all, but cleaning up the plastic mess in our oceans (not to mention our oyster Rockefeller), won’t happen by sporting a bumper sticker. As Adrian Griffiths, CEO of Recycling Technologies, put it to Bloomberg: “I’m not a tree hugger. I don’t think that you can change environmental things without it actually making money.” Amen.
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