108. MBA Polymers
Much of the world’s population has developed a “love-hate” affair with plastics, once called ‘the space-age material’, for a variety of reasons. One of the major reasons is that plastics often end their lives in ways that threaten human health and the environment. MBA has developed technology that enables the “above ground mining” of plastics from the largest and most complex waste streams in the world and harvests purified plastics that replace virgin plastics on a 1:1 basis. This results in the potential for enormous environmental and economic benefits as described below. MBA has also begun to commercialize it on a global scale with over 300 million pounds per year of processing capacity at its three world-scale plants – the three most advanced plastics recycling plants in the world. In fact, Dr. Biddle, MBA’s founder, was just awarded the 2012 Gothenburg Award, sometimes called the ‘Nobel Prize for the Environment” (previous winners have been people like Al Gore and Kofi Anann).
Plastics have become ubiquitous in our lives largely because of the many benefits they can provide. Plastics, once the ‘space age’ material, are used in products we come in contact with daily such as automobiles, computers and electronics, appliances, clothing, recreational and sporting equipment, toys, and packaging of all kinds. There are over 250 BILLION kg (over 500 billion pounds) of plastics consumed each and every year around the world – more on a volume basis than steel, for example.
In North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) countries and Europe, the annual per capita consumption of plastics is over 100 kg and is expected to reach as high as 140 kg per person by 2015. In the rapidly developing Asian region (excluding Japan), the per capita consumption is approximately 20 kg, and this is expected to grow dramatically, which suggests that the worldwide consumption of plastics will likewise grow rapidly given the large population in this region.
The amount of plastics consumed in the world will double in approximately twelve years even if the 6% annual growth rate simply stays the same. Countries in Asia and the Middle East are building production capacity in anticipation of this growth.
Even with plastics being such a prominent material in our lives and now in our waste streams, plastics are recovered at much lower rates than most other major materials. Most believe that this is due to their low value, but actually plastics are considerably more valuable on a price per weight basis than steel and certainly than glass and paper.
So plastics are the “last frontier” of material recycling not because the materials have low value, but because it is so difficult to sort them from other materials and especially from one another.
The large ocean ‘garbage patches’ have made news in recent years, and certainly plastics in our oceans are part of the serious damage humans have brought to our seas. However, there are other significant environmental and economic losses associated to the lack of proper management of plastics throughout their lifecycles. And while the recycling rate for plastics is very low, some of the plastics that are “recycled” in the US and other developed countries, are actually just collected, baled and shipped to developing countries where some of the plastics are recovered and some are disposed of improperly either in rivers that end up in the oceans (a very large contributor to the plastics in the oceans problem it turns out) or burned in open pits. Both of these practices present risks to human health and local and global eco-systems.
So the growing ‘love-hate’ relationship with plastics is understandable. Plastics provide many benefits to society and are valuable materials, but they need to be better managed at end of life.
This is the problem we solved and the opportunity we “mined”.
A bit over 20 years ago, I began examining why plastics weren’t recycled beyond 5 or 10% given their large and accessible volumes and their relatively high values. It became clear to me that the fundamental problem was that plastics, like most materials, ended their lives mixed with many other materials in our waste streams.
Companies developed automated and manual solutions for recovering paper, glass, metals and even wood from our waste streams, but not plastics. This is because plastics are very difficult to separate from one another using available technologies. Plastics have densities that overlap over a very narrow range, their magnetic and electrical properties are either non-existent or very similar to one another and any plastic can be any color so the traditional methods for separating all kinds of materials from one another simply don’t work for plastics.
We cracked the “separation code” with a variety of different technologies, we scaled those technologies and we have commercialized those technologies and proven that our plastics can replace virgin plastics in demanding applications such as IT equipment, electronics, appliances and automobiles. This wasn’t easy as lab ideas don’t always scale or commercialize in expected ways and manufacturers were skeptical that recycled plastics would meet their demanding requirements, especially if they had bad experiences in the past with inferior recycled plastics. This is why it took nearly 20 years from concept, literally in a garage in Pittsburg, California, to large-scale commercialization.
We are mining three of the largest and most complex plastics-rich waste streams in the world: residue from automobile shredders, plastics from electronics/computer recyclers and rigid plastics from municipal solid waste – the plastics you throw out in your recycling bin or garbage. And from these extremely dirty and complex waste streams, we mine and purify plastics that replace virgin plastics, “closing the loop” for some of the largest electronics and appliance manufacturers in the world.
Why it should be recognized:
Not only does our work keep plastics from polluting landfills or from being burned with potentially high-polluting and dangerous consequences, it helps keep plastics out of our oceans and threatening sea life.
Additionally, our process only requires between 10 and 20% of the energy compared to making plastics from petrochemicals! This leads to a savings of between 2 and 4 kg of CO2 for every ton of virgin plastics we replace!
And we provide manufacturers with a lower cost valuable material!
Over 1 million people around the world have watched MBA’s “viral” TED video. Please see: http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_biddle.html
Ford also sponsored a Hollywood produced series called the Big SHFT, honoring 10 innovators working on important “Shifts” we need to make as a society. Dr. Biddle was one: http://tinyurl.com/cpee3vw
Dr. Biddle and MBA have won numerous awards and rather than thinking this award might be “wasted” on MBA, we hope that these examples show that our “solution” has been reviewed and vetted by a wide variety of global organizations for its innovation and environmental impact. We would be very honored to be considered by your organization for recognition. A few examples listed below, but also summarized in a pdf attachment.
2012 Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development
2012 GoingGreen Company of the Year
Economist Award for Innovation for Environment
World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer
Tech Museum Environment Award