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The perils of plastic

Menlo Park's BioCellection is doing something about the serious environmental threat of plastic pollution

BioCellection co-founder Jeanny Yao monitors the plastic conversion process in the firm's Menlo Park lab. Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.

By Maggie Mah

Special to The Almanac

Plastics: It's hard to imagine modern life without them. "Plastics" was the prophetic one-word piece of advice given to Dustin Hoffman's character in the iconic 1960s movie, "The Graduate," as guidance to what he should focus on after his college days -- a sure bet for success in the modern world's future. But the word describes a modern development that has become both a blessing and a curse.

Since the introduction of plastics in the 1950s, roughly 8.3 billion tons of it have been produced. And since it was designed to be tough and durable, most of the plastic that's ever been made is still with us -- even a common plastic bag is estimated to take roughly 500 to 1,000 years to break apart.

Worse yet, 92 percent of all the plastic waste worldwide is either discarded or doesn't get recycled because it is too dirty, too difficult or too expensive to reuse. It ends up floating in the oceans, clogging landfills, and generally wreaking ecological havoc.

Tiny pieces of plastic are also finding their way into the human food supply. According to National Geographic and others, it's probably in the salt you use to season your food. Scientists predict that if something isn't done to address the problem, by 2050 there will be more pieces of plastic than fish in the ocean.

Hopeful news

Now for the good news: Two brilliant young female entrepreneurs are well on their way to doing something about the global crisis created by our reliance on plastic. Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, both 24, have developed a method of treating plastic waste that is truly a game-changer. With the goal of creating what Wang and Yao call "a circular plastic global economy," they have developed a revolutionary process that not only breaks down plastic, but actually turns it back into reusable components.

Their company, BioCellection, is headquartered in Menlo Park, where development of a pilot program is underway in partnership with the waste management company GreenWaste and the city of San Jose.

The company, launched in 2015 when the two founders were still in college, has received support from One World, founded by Scott Saslow of Palo Alto to help other companies develop and increase their positive social impact.

Wang and Yao are Chinese Canadians who were raised in Vancouver, British Colombia. They were simultaneously introduced to each other and to the problems of plastic on an eleventh-grade field trip to their local waste transfer station.

The experience of seeing huge stockpiles of bundled plastic waste waiting to be shipped across the Pacific and yet more mountains of unrecyclable plastic being dumped into the landfill prompted an idea for a high school science project. It was the start of their quest to find solutions to this massive problem.

Research continued while both were at college -- Wang at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Yao at the University of Toronto. In 2013, the two presented their findings on plastics degradation and "upcycling" at a TED conference. A video of their presentation can be viewed on BioCellection's website: biocellection.com.

The BioCellection startup was initially based on a process that used naturally occurring bacteria to break down plastic. The founders determined early on, however, that it wasn't going to work under "real world" conditions. Given the objective, it was also inefficient.

"It was too slow and difficult to scale," Wang explained. "The bacteria liked to eat garbage more than plastic."

Switching gears, the two women abandoned the organisms in favor of finding a chemical solution, which led them to the breakthrough technology described by Wang as "recycling on a molecular level."

How it works

The basic process starts with plastic waste from the GreenWaste facility in San Jose. The material is shredded and placed in an enclosed vessel to which a chemical catalyst is added. The mixture is heated to 248 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the material to react and change its chemical structure from one long chain into multiple components. The catalyst itself is recaptured and reused continuously during the process, maximizing contact with the plastic material and thoroughly breaking it down into what BioCellection describes as "virgin quality" biodegradable chemicals.

A second chemical process transforms the final stage liquid into a granular white powder that can be used to create a wide range of everyday products like nylon fabrics, solvents, paints, car parts and even perfume.

"Currently, there are only two ways to obtain the chemicals used to manufacture plastics. They are either synthesized from virgin petroleum or manufactured from a "bio" source like corn," Wang explained. About 8 percent of the world's oil production is used to make plastic, and although the "bio" alternative might seem like a more eco-friendly solution, "it is still resource-intense," she said. "Since our process uses plastic waste instead of oil, it is far more sustainable. Ultimately our process could change the chemical industry."

Recognition and awards from some of the world's most prestigious institutions began coming in almost from the start. Yao was named one of 2013's "Ones to Watch" by MacLean's (Canada's national current affairs magazine); was chosen by Plan Canada (part of Plan International, a global organization dedicated to children's rights and equality for girls) as one of the "Top 20 Under 20" in 2014; and was the co-recipient of the Penn-Columbia Social Impact Fellowship in 2016.

This year, Miranda Wang was named the United Nations' Young Champion of the Earth for North America; a "Tomorrow's Hero" by CNN; and one of the New York Times' 30 Visionaries with the Courage to Change the World. She has also won the Westly Prize and the CITEO Circular Challenge International Grand Prize, and is a finalist in the Pritzker Environmental Genius Award, the winner of which will be announced on Nov. 14.

The BioCellection team has successfully completed "proof of concept" testing on different types of rigid and foam plastic, and the team is working on ways to extend the company's technology to more complex materials, including the printed multi-layered film used to package a wide range of products like chewing gum and snack bars. It is also planning to work with compost-treated plastics and what are called "small format plastic residuals," the tiny pieces of plastic that might be lurking in your salt.

Challenges

For the pilot and scale-up programs currently underway, Yao and Wang have decided to focus on the most difficult part of the problem first: plastic films. Thin, flexible films make up the largest quantity of plastic produced in the U.S. More films are being used for packaging materials such as bubble wrap, air pillows and padded envelopes.

"Amazon could make a huge change overnight by not using (padded) envelopes," Wang stated. Most plastic film, however, is used for plastic bags and food packaging, less than 3 percent of which gets recycled. "Film is the worst because it gets dirty so easily. Our chemical process doesn't require plastic to be clean," Wang said.

Cleanliness, it turns out, is no small matter. While bacteria might like food residue (or what the industry calls "contamination") recyclers don't. "The primary issue with recyclables at this point in time is contamination," GreenWaste spokesperson Emily Hansen said.

Prior to 2017, large quantities of plastic waste were bundled up and shipped overseas, most of it to China. However, China tightened restrictions on the amount of acceptable residue to 0.5 percent, a level Hansen described as "nearly unattainable."

GreenWaste, a provider to Bay Area communities including Woodside and Portola Valley, has invested in new equipment, added more employees and made changes to its facilities in order to clean and recycle as much plastic as possible. But not all waste management companies are equal, and in general, only two kinds of plastic are recycled on a meaningful scale: PET, the material used to make water bottles; and HDPE, which is used to make milk jugs.

If that's usually the case, what do the "chasing arrow" symbols really mean? It turns out that despite the plastics industry's best efforts to have us believe otherwise, the symbols indicate only that the materials can be recycled if certain conditions exist where the item ends up being processed. Essentially, any given facility needs to have the capability to handle it and, Wang said, "every different color or variation in material adds a level of complexity that usually can't be dealt with."

Yet another issue lies at the other end of the post consumer waste stream with material that actually does get recycled: "It requires a market," Wang noted. With petroleum prices relatively low, the cost of remanufacturing makes "second generation" plastic items, which can be inferior in quality, more expensive than new.

What about "compostable" bags and other alternatives? According to Wang, they make up a small percentage of the total amount of post-consumer waste. "And they are not compostable enough," Wang said. "It's weaker plastic so unless they actually go through an industrial composter, the plastic film breaks up into smaller pieces but doesn't actually degrade."

Regarding "compostable" forks and knives made from starches and other materials? "Unfortunately, they end up in the landfill," Wang explained. "(That's) because they are missed by the equipment used to extract noncompostable materials."

Plastics in all their complexity pose problems that previous generations have never had to reckon with. "There have been decades of packaging innovation and no recycling innovation," said Wang.

Given the opportunity, what would Miranda Wang do about improving the situation from a packaging perspective? "Packaging designers would use standardized packaging. I would give them a toolbox with specific things in it," she said.

Asked about the challenges they face, Wang said she believes that there's a lack of understanding about the situation. "No one wants to pay more for recycling and no one knows the extent of the problem. There's a huge disparity," she explained.

For the future, Wang said that her ultimate goal is to prove the effectiveness of BioCellection's technology in solving the plastics dilemma facing the planet. "I want to open up land fills and use our process to turn all that waste into usable chemicals," she said.

Meanwhile, the BioCellection team is working to scale up the process in order to be ready for the next phase. "We expect to be able to process half-ton quantities by April 2019," said Wang. Farther out, the team plans to be functioning on a commercial scale by 2020, processing 5 tons of plastic per day on site at Greenwaste's facility in San Jose.

What can you do?

For the present here are a few tips from GreenWaste's Emily Hanson on what you can do now:

• Follow the waste hierarchy: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

• Avoid purchasing and using film plastics and plastics that are smaller than your palm.

• Say "no thank you" to plastic straws and plastic utensils.

• Don't "wish-cycle" -- tossing something in the recycling when you are not sure it's recyclable because you want to give it a chance to be recycled. Check the recycling guide for your local jurisdiction to find out where it should go.

• Keep it clean: Remove any remaining food or liquid from containers before recycling.

• Keep collection bins closed to prevent lightweight plastics and other materials from floating out of them and into the waterways.

• Participate in clean-up events such as Coastal Clean Up Day to get a real understanding of plastic pollution in our waterways.

• Stop using plastic bags

• Related stories: One World: The new way of business.

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