A 24-year-old has invented a new way to break down plastic waste and prevent it from landing in the ocean

A 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate has invented a new way to break down plastic waste and help keep single-use packaging out of oceans. Miranda Wang is the cofounder and CEO of BioCellection, a company that focuses on recycling polyethylenes, the most common but least recyclable type of plastic. Most polyethylenes, like bubble wrap and plastic bags, end up in landfills. In early November, Wang’s company received a $100,000 prize for the invention from UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. The annual award, funded by the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, honors innovators under the age of 40. Each year, more than 220 million tons of plastic is produced around the world, according to Unesco, and BioCellection says more than 80% of that is not recycled. A significant amount – roughly 18 billion pounds – ends up in oceans. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted last year that plastic would outweigh fish in oceans by 2050. BioCellection takes polyethylenes and turns them into chemical building blocks for new products. The company converts plastic packaging into chemical precursors through a catalyst, which can function at a very low temperature, then purifies the building blocks. Wang emphasised that she and her cofounder, Jeanny Yao, were not trying to form a new market for recycled materials – she wants her invention to be a high-quality drop-in replacement for existing solutions. Manufacturers would not need to change their supply-chain processes to use BioCellection’s products instead of petrochemicals, Wang said. BioCellection says its process can convert about 99.5% of plastic packaging by weight, but the company is still developing its purification process. Wang’s team has surpassed 80% purity but needs to reach the 90% range for the solution to be commercial-grade, she said. Wang said she hoped the solution would be commercial-grade in the next six months, adding that the $100,000 prize would go toward developing the purification technology. Other recycling methods, Wang said, have high energy inputs because they operate in the range of 500 to 1,000 degrees Celsius. “These are notorious for being very capital-intensive because you just need to build a very sensitive machine to be able to handle those conditions,” Wang said. BioCellection’s process can operate at about 120 degrees Celsius. It is also narrower in focus than existing alternatives, which take in other types of plastics in addition to polyethylene. Wang said her company makes four products, ranging from $1,600 per metric ton to more than $12,000 per metric ton, and she expects to have a demonstration unit out by the middle of 2019. By then, Wang hopes to have a better idea of the costs involved, she said, adding that she would like to secure a commercial partnership by 2020. “This technology can become the pillar of what would enable people around the world to mine landfills for plastics as a new carbon source,” Wang said after receiving the Pritzker award. “We don’t have to drill for oil anymore to make the things around us.”

Business Insider Malaysia, 21 November 2018 ; http://www.businessinsider.my