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New plastic recycling method

Turning plastic waste into a product of value. This is the mission of Miranda Wang, one of the Laureates of the 2019 Rolex Awards for Enterprise.
Published in October 2019Time to read: 2min 44s

This 25-year-old Canadian has had an idea capable of making history. As a businesswoman and molecular biologist concerned about the huge global impact that plastic waste has on the environment, Miranda Wang aims to reconvert it into a product of value through an exclusive chemical recycling technology developed by her company BioCellection, based in Silicon Valley, California.

Together with her friend and business partner Jeanny Yao, Wang is experimenting with a process by which polyethylene, one of the most commonly used varieties of plastic, is reconverted into a series of chemical precursors — the essential bases for the production of a wide range of substances — which would therefore have a high economic value. “As things stand today, there is practically no technology in existence that can operate with really dirty plastics,” Wang explains. “These plastics are of such low quality that it just doesn’t make sense to clean them or to try to make new products with them. We concentrate specifically on these problematic plastics that nobody wants to touch. With this in mind we have invented a new sustainable and economical process to produce high-quality industrial chemicals derived from these plastics. We have also been able to demonstrate that these products have the same quality as the equivalent products created using conventional oil.” Not only this, but in addition the process patented by Wang and Yao generates a much lower level of CO₂ emissions than if the chemical precursors were obtained from oil and, of course, much lower than if this unperishable waste were incinerated at a rubbish tip.

The Canadian molecular biologist and entrepreneur Miranda Wang received a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2019. Rolex and National Geographic collaborate on the Perpetual Planet initiative, whose mission is to support projects that bring solutions to the major environmental challenges of our time.

This pioneering initiative has naturally attracted the attention of numerous sectors, since the seriousness of the plastic problem has attained such immense proportions. Every year 340 million tonnes of this material are produced worldwide. As a further example of the extent of the problem, 30,000 tonnes of plastic have been accumulating per month in rubbish tips and municipal collection centres in the United States ever since China, previously the largest global importer of plastic waste, put a stop to all new imports of waste in 2018.

It is thus hardly surprising to find that Miranda Wang was one of the five people to receive a Rolex Award for Enterprise, together with the Brazilian conservationist João Campos-Silva, the French expert in neuroprosthetics Grégoire Courtine, the Indian scientist and conservationist Krithi Karanth, and the Ugandan information technology expert Brian Gitta. They have all been recognised by Rolex in a year in which the well-known Swiss watchmaker launched its Perpetual Planet campaign, which covers not only the above awards but also two very special collaborations: one with the National Geographic Society, designed to study the impact of climate change, and the other with the Mission Blue programme, led by the famous oceanographer and explorer of the Society, Sylvia Earle, who is committed to the preservation of the oceans.

Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao at the head office of their company BioCellection, in Silicon Valley. The two researchers met at school and have been pursuing the mission of solving the problem of plastic waste.

The idea of producing useful chemical substances from plastic waste started to occur to Wang and Yao several years ago, when they were classmates at school, and they visited a waste processing plant during a school trip. They were both impressed by the idea that all that mass of waste material could be treated in such a way that its harmful characteristics could be transformed into something positive.

Years later, they both persuaded the University of British Colombia in Canada to assign them a space in a laboratory so they could continue to develop their proposals. Near there, in the Fraser River, they discovered two different bacteria which, when nourished in a particular way, can be cultivated to decompose the chemical products that make up the plastic. Convinced that what they were dealing with could be really useful, they started to explain their project to anybody who was willing to listen to them. And they were successful, because between 2015 and 2019 these tireless entrepreneurs collected 3.5 million dollars, which they invested in the foundation of the BioCellection company, where they are now attacking their next aim: to develop a commercial processing plant in which they hope to recycle up to 45,000 tonnes of plastic waste from now on and until 2023, thus avoiding emissions from 320,000 tonnes of CO₂ and creating value from the plastic rubbish that society throws away in enormous quantities.

For all this enthusiasm and entrepreneurial energy, Rolex has conferred a laureate on Miranda Wang, who is a perfect representative of the values that the company seeks to pay tribute to: quality, ingenuity, determination and, above all, an entrepreneurial spirit which has always characterised the Rolex Awards for Enterprise since they were first awarded in 1976. The recognition conferred on Wang can be added to the 140 laureates whose projects have contributed in a significant way during the last four decades to protecting our planet and to improving living conditions in areas as diverse as health, technology, exploration and the preservation both of our cultural heritage and of the environment.

On the right, Wang at a waste recovery plant in California which has made huge quantities of very low quality plastics available to this molecular biologist to experiment on her patented recycling process, based on the principles of the circular economy.
Area of activity

Menlo Park, California

BioCellection, the company owned by Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao and located in California, develops cutting-edge technologies to transform plastic waste into high-value industrial chemical substances used in the production of cars, electronic devices, textile products and cleaning products.

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