It doesn’t take a garbage patch twice the size of Texas to make it clear that the world has a very big problem with plastic waste. Even where residential recycling programs exist, such systems are deeply flawed. In 2019, the City of Philadelphia, for instance, had to begin relegating half its recyclables to the incinerator when commodities prices dropped worldwide and China stopped purchasing U.S. recyclables.
Penn alumna Miranda Wang is working on a new commercial approach to the problem of plastics. On this episode of Mastering Innovation on SiriusXM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, she describes how she and her co-founder came up with the idea for BioCellection, a venture that uses an organic chemical process to break down plastics into building blocks for new materials. Wang discusses the non-linear path they took to arrive at this approach, as well as the challenges they face in developing a commmercially viable recycling process.
An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.
Miranda Wang: When we first started working on research in this area, we were students, and we were mainly looking at biotechnology approaches and using genetically engineered bacteria and cells to break down plastics. Out in nature, these plastics are non-biodegradable; if they’re left at a beach, for example, they’re not being biodegraded by nature, but they do break down very, very slowly, especially after UV hits the plastics and the structure starts changing. There are natural soil microbes that have evolved to be able to facilitate that process; it’s just very slow. Initially we were looking at using a genetic approach to see if there’s a way we could accelerate this process using biotechnology, but by doing some early experiments when I was at Penn, we quickly realized that facilitating a biochemical process is way too slow when you’re dealing with tons and tons of garbage.
It’s not just plastic: it’s got food waste, it’s got additives, it’s got dyes. There’s a very messy mixture at the end of that state of its use life. So we realized that we needed to use a more basic approach that’s going to be scalable, economical, and also efficient at breaking down this plastic, and it has to make actual products that have value on their own. You can’t destroy matter, right? You can’t just make plastics go away; you have to turn them into something. The question for a while for us was, what do we turn it into that would give it enough value for us to actually take this process, develop it, and scale it up? That was the early challenge when we founded this organization.
And then starting in 2017, at the beginning of the year, we invented a chemical process. We decided to basically scrap the biotech idea and instead focus completely on organic chemistry, taking an approach that can directly take these plastics that we get from the waste management plants, break them down, and then purify the chemicals. And now we’re taking these chemicals which serve as building blocks and we’re building up to new materials which can be used in all types of advanced manufacturing applications.
Harbir Singh: So, were there other scientists who had developed this organic chemical process which you applied here? I’m wondering whether this technology is new to the world, or is it an application [of an existing technology]? Of course many innovations are applications, you know, like computers, microcomputers. How did you navigate? This is very, very complex terrain with a lot out there.
“The question for us was, ‘What do we turn the plastic into that would give it enough value for us to actually take this process, develop it, and scale it up?'” — Miranda Wang
Wang: First of all, packaging plastics are really the heart of the problem. You have all of these types of packaging that are becoming pollution, but if you look more carefully, there are actually five major types of packaging plastics that are produced at large scale and are used and discarded every day. And if you look at these five types, most of the research is saturated in the space of PET plastic recycling. PET is the type of plastic that makes water bottles, for example. That type of plastic, a lot of people are recycling mechanically into polyester; they recycle it chemically into compounds and they build these up to PET again, so it’s circular. But they can achieve this because this polymer on its own can behave in that way. That’s because of how this chemical, this polymer, is built.
If you look at the other four types of packaging plastics that are used commonly, we don’t actually have good recycling for them. The technology used for that type of recycling, a lot of it doesn’t exist. The problem we’re focusing on is polyethylene plastic. It’s the plastic that is number one produced by volume around the world; it’s one-third of all the plastic, yet very few people actually look into recycling it or using chemical methods to change it. Our initial idea was, “Can we break down these polyethylenes into basic chemicals? Can we then use these basic chemicals for other kinds of development?” So that kind of narrowed our range.
When we looked at who was actually doing that, there were two labs in academia that were working on this research, but they were doing it 10 and 20 years ago, and then they stopped the research on this. The reason was that, at the time, they did not fully analyze the products that they had produced. You could tell from the literature that was written, people didn’t really delve into it. It was sort of a hobby project that these labs did.
Singh: So there were scientists, but they were not market-oriented in terms of, “Is there a demand for this particular version of this compound?” Is that what you’re saying?
Wang: Yeah. The world was not interested in, “Can we recycle plastics?”
Singh: So the incentive wasn’t there.
“We have the potential to use these building blocks and make all sorts of new materials that could be much more biodegradable.” — Miranda Wang
Wang: Exactly. When we came up with this, it was a perfect time in the world for us to look at this from a different angle and say, “Can we take what they did and do it more cheaply? Can we do it in a way that is better able to target this specific plastic and also produce the compounds that we actually want to make?” We had an advantage by approaching the problem at that time.
Singh: And so, how did you come up with a business model for this? Because there’s so much involved, you are a small team, and you’re working on the technology trying to see how to scale those chemicals. Then you have to think about market demand. The chances are that these chemicals will be bought by companies for other applications, so it’s more B2B, I assume. That’s a big task, and it’s amazing, so wonderful that you did that. But were there some bumps along the way or some challenges? What was the process?
Wang: It was definitely not a linear process. When we first started making these chemicals, up until the beginning of this year, the goal was to make these compounds, purify them, and sell them as an alternative to the current chemical building blocks that are widely used for all sorts of performance materials — so, sell them to companies like BASF, sell them to companies like Covestro, a lot of these German polymer specialty materials companies. But then we learned from doing all this research with them that they’re not really interested in changing out their supply. All of their processes are developed based on the supply they already use, which is made using virgin fossil fuel sources. Although a lot of people, especially people in the R&D departments, were very interested in using new materials, and we’ve even gotten offers for certain partnerships, it became really obvious to us that we have something bigger here in front of us than just selling these raw chemicals. Instead, we actually have the potential to use these building blocks and make all sorts of new materials that could be much more biodegradable.
About Our Guest
Miranda Wang is an entrepreneur, environmental advocate, and inventor. She is the Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of BioCellection Inc, an innovation company that turns unrecyclable plastic waste into valuable chemicals. With BioCellection, she brings together key stakeholders in the waste management and recycling space, jurisdictions, and corporations seeking improved sustainability to solve the plastic pollution crisis. She has raised over $3M in investments from funders such as The City of San Jose, GreenWaste Recovery, Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, Carl and Barbara Page, and Elemental Excelerator. She is a Forbes 30 Under 30, CNN “Tomorrow’s Hero,” one of New York Time’s 30 Visionaries with the Courage to Change the World, Echoing Green Climate Fellow, a United Nations Young Champion of the Earth, Pritzker Environmental “Genius” Prize Winner, and winner of the Wharton Business Plan Competition, the Westly Prize, and the CITEO Circular Challenge International grand prize (2018). Miranda was a TED 2013 and VERGE 2016 speaker. She received her Bachelor of Arts in biology, philosophy, and engineering entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania.