Bioplastics: Don’t let the label fool you
Doing your part as an eco-conscious consumer doesn’t end once you buy a bioplastic product
- 1626 words
- 7 minutes
Science & Tech
Environmental entrepreneur Miranda Wang turns to science to seek profitable solutions to the problem of what to do with our mountains of plastic waste
To call Miranda Wang an overachiever would be an understatement. At just 26, the Vancouver-born co-founder of BioCellection is making waves in the scientific community as an award-winning innovator and entrepreneur in the environmental sector. Her biotech start-up has already scored a long list of Silicon Valley investors eager to bet on Bio-Cellection’s technology to transform previously unrecyclable plastic waste into profit-making new materials. Can Wang’s quest to unite science, capitalism and environmentalism also save us from ourselves?
Canadian Geographic interviewed Wang in BioCellection’s lab in Menlo Park, California, where she and co-founder Jeanny Yao are working hard to scale up both their company and their technology.
“We’re considered an essential service,” says Wang, explaining why her lab has continued to operate throughout the pandemic. So essential, perhaps, that she’s onto something that could one day help shrink the planet’s enormous mountain of plastic pollution.
Jeanny and I met in Grade 8 in Vancouver and have been best buddies ever since. We have complementary personalities. I’m the chief executive officer. I take on the outward-facing activities, lead- ing our business development unit, investor relations and fundraising efforts. Jeanny is the chief operating officer. She runs the company, managing everything from hiring and HR to accounting and vendor and client relations. We are very specialized and work well together.
Jeanny and I have always been environmentalists. We met at a recycling club meeting where we handled the recycling of the school’s beverage containers. We thought recycling was a problem that adults had solved; we just needed to get people to do it. Then in Grade 10 we took a field trip to a waste transfer station, which is where garbage is compacted before being sent to landfill. It was shocking to see how much waste remained and how much of it was plastic. We realized how small of an impact we were actually making by getting our peers to recycle bottles and how much bigger this problem was. That field trip was a defining moment for us — it set off this entire motivation to do something.
After visiting the waste transfer station, Jeanny and I won a couple of awards for research projects on bacteria that could break down plastics using biochemistry. We kept studying this for a couple of years, and when our research became known, investors approached us. We ended up founding our company while we were in college. At the time, we didn’t know what technology we were talking about or how the company would commercialize it. It took us a couple of years, until 2017, to clearly explain what we were doing. It was around that time that we were able to achieve proof of concept for our technology.
Our process upcycles the plastic called polyethylene, which is a third of all the plastics produced globally — more than 100 million tonnes a year is produced. It’s mostly low-grade, single-use packaging — plastic bags, pallet wraps and grocery bags, which are not recyclable by current means. We separate these plastics into their compositional building blocks, which we modify so they can be used again to build up a more valuable material.
We went from proof of the technology in 2017 to a prototype on the chemical process in 2018. In 2019, we achieved an actual prototype on a material we made using the building blocks from the process. So, effectively, we’re a sustainable materials producer. We make products that contain recycled content, and we own a process to be able to do that. Now, we’re working on commercializing our first product: polyurethane elastomer. Things we use every day — your shoes and your jacket, the Spandex in your yoga pants, consumer electronics and cables — all of these are made from polyurethane.
Our chemical-process technology takes plastic waste and breaks it down into building blocks through a series of chemistry steps, which take place in reactors that look like glass containers. We take the low-grade and soiled polyethylene plastics and add them to a container along with an oxidant. The process is called accelerated thermal oxidative decomposition — which is exactly what it does. With the input of some heat at low temperatures and with our oxidant, the polyethylene oxidizes and breaks down.
When we first started, the container was the size of our pinky. We used just half a gram of plastic when we did our first reaction. Now, we are at one to two kilograms per day, and the reactor is my size, maybe a little taller. If you look at all the steps involved, that takes up half of a lab room in terms of the number of units and equipment. We’re currently designing for larger scale.
If you’ve ever seen a cement plant, you can picture how it has these large containers. Eventually, ours will be a facility that looks like that. It’s going to have what are called skids with different units of operation, be modularized and attached to a frame that’s three to four stories tall. The equipment is embedded and wired to flow from container to container. It’s going to be a stand-alone chemical unit.
We don’t sell the reactors or the equipment. We own and operate our own facilities, and we sell the products that are upcycled through our process. With the decomposition process, we create building blocks, but our process doesn’t end there. We’ve also come up with different ways to make materials from these building blocks, adding a step in our processing.
We’re a materials manufacturer. Polyurethane is our first product, but there are others in the pipeline. The companies interested in buying from us would be brands that make, for example, running shoes, outdoor apparel, cars or consumer electronics. They might say, “I want sustainable materials in my product, and I want these sustainable materials to have lower carbon emissions and save plastic from going to land-fill, and I want to do this by adopting new materials innovation.”
So, we’re establishing a supply chain that is circular. Household packaging waste comes to us and becomes our feedstock. A textile manufacturer or clothing brand currently orders its fabric from a mill that uses virgin plastics, pellets and resins produced by a petrochemical company. Our process means that textile manufacturers or clothing brands don’t need to buy virgin plastic anymore.
Our mission is to create a profitable and market-driven solution to plastic waste. We’ll scale up based on how much of our product people want. It only makes sense to recycle as much as people will actually use. This is basically how all sustainable recycling materials companies operate. We cannot scale our facilities based on how much plastic waste there is because, from our perspective, there are virtually unlimited amounts. Even if we go through how much we produce every year of new stuff, new waste, there’s now more than nine billion tonnes of plastic buried in landfills that would still need to be used up. There’s no way we can scale up our operations based on how much waste there is.
BioCellection is creating impact on a couple of different fronts. First we’re keeping plastic waste out of landfills and putting it back into the economy. Second, our manufacturing process for these sustainable materials has a lower carbon footprint than getting them from a virgin source. It’s also a process that uses less water compared to bio-based [plastics]. What our company creates is not just a solution to waste; it’s a better way to manufacture the stuff that we all use every day.
Economic development does not need to be at the expense of the environment. I believe we can grow our economy by running businesses that inherently improve the environment. The key to achieving that is ingenuity. All human beings have a shared interest in investing in the well-being of our future and of our planet. I think everyone on this planet wants to live a good life, without worry about personal well-being and financial stability. From my understanding of how humans got to where we are today, especially on the good side, it’s through technology — through our observation of the natural world, through our extrapolations and our understandings of it, and through applying that to do a real service to our world in a way that makes sense for everybody. And that’s really where BioCellection’s purpose comes from. At the end of the day, it gives me peace to know that we’re working on something that fixes a system — not just a symptom, but a system. Our work will lead the world, in the long term, to a much better state.
We live in a world where you’re not going to be able to eliminate synthetic materials. Synthetic materials are the reason we’re able to have the quality of life and life expectancy that we have today. Take the coronavirus pandemic: masks are made of polypropylene, which is one of the plastics that’s really hard to recycle. We’re living in a time where we have to use synthetic materials, and it’s up to us to figure out how to make them in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment. There are a lot of arguments that go beyond that, from health to microplastics. But from my perspective, a lot of those issues are related to compliance and better methods of keeping plastics out of the environment. I don’t necessarily think that we should not reduce plastic; it’s important that we reduce our consumption and the amount of virgin plastics produced. We should produce all plastic from plastic waste. I think that recycling is that thing that’s going to let you create a circular economy.
I was a well-rounded student — during my studies in college, I majored in science, but my minors were in business with a crossover in engineering and philosophy. I’m a big believer in being a well-rounded individual. When I’m not working, I do a lot of gardening. In the past year alone, I’ve been learning about grafting techniques, re-rooting certain plants from cuttings and arranging plants.
There are so many ways to work on having a better understanding of the world at large, of being well-rounded. Sometimes the best accelerator for your ideas is a quiet room, away from everybody else and noise. Just think about something. Maybe you’re drawing something or writing a journal; it doesn’t matter what. Originality and creativity are things that we have to practise. The more you do it, the more confident you become, and the more you enjoy it, the better your ideas.
Sometimes I feel down about all of the stuff that’s going on in the world. You’re like, how can that be so? How can the world be controlled by these types of people? Hope is a fluffy thing — you either feel it or you don’t. I think a lot of it comes down to persistence. The whole thing with the plastic issue is a puzzle; it’s the biggest enigma of our time. We have this incredibly successful product that is also bad for society. How can we reconcile something that is poison for us, but a very good poison? For me, what drives me is persistence. I’m extremely intellectually challenged by this issue, and it’s such a meaningful journey to go on. That’s what keeps me going. And I think it would keep a lot of people going.
Take on a challenge that, if you could find a way to solve that challenge, would make you feel that you rose to the occasion for your generation. Take on something big and ambitious, and build yourself a team and go on that journey. Don’t just sit around and wait for someone to give you hope. You shouldn’t be living life in a passive way, anyway. People should be driven by their love for what we have and how much good there is in the world and how much better it can become. Choose problems that are hard, and be driven by your desire to achieve a solution. That’s really what we should all be living for.
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This story is from the January/February 2021 Issue
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