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Climate solutions

How to solve the plastic problem

Can a new chemical innovation finally offer a solution for the world’s unrecyclable waste?
Published in December 2019Time to read: 3min 31s

Miranda Wang stood at the edge of a vast ditch about two football fields wide, three stories deep and slowly shook her head, shocked by what she was seeing. The muddy trench was filled with multiple small mountains of litter, consisting largely of plastic. Wang, in tenth grade at the time, was visiting her local landfill as part of a field trip with her high school’s environmental club. Eco-conscious from a young age, the teenager wasn’t naïve to the problem of trash. Yet the scale was staggering. The heaps of rubbish, she was told, represented only two to three days’ worth of the municipal waste collected in her hometown of Vancouver. The transfer station would soon be emptied; in another few days new piles of mostly plastic waste would replace the ones removed, in a seemingly endless cycle.

A decade later, that trip still looms large for Wang. She is now the cofounder, along with her former classmate Jeanny Yao, of an innovation chemical company called BioCellection, which is dedicated to solving the seemingly insurmountable problem of global plastic waste. Wang who recently won a prestigious award from Rolex cites their shared high-school landfill experience as the day they both realized the immensity of the challenge. “This was a big moment in our lives,” she said. “It was a wake-up call for us.”

Standing at the foot of those rolling hills of garbage in 2010, Wang couldn’t believe that more wasn’t being done to tackle the huge problem staring her in the face. She didn’t understand, then, that the accumulation of so much plastic waste wasn’t entirely caused by the negligence of businesses, households or individual consumers; rather, it was also due to the fact that many forms of plastic couldn’t be recycled. At least not back then. Not before Wang and her team developed an innovative chemical process that is poised to overcome this immense challenge.

This was a big moment in our lives. It was a wake-up call for us.Miranda Wang

  • 340 million

    metric tons of plastic produced annually.

  • 12 billion

    metric tons of plastic will be in landfills within three decades at the present rate.

The bacteria fallacy

Since plastic was first invented, the material has been infiltrating our ecosystems. Just nine percent has been recycled, while 79 percent has either been sent to landfills, ended up as land pollution or cast into the world’s oceans. (The remaining 12 percent has been incinerated.)

“You have an issue that is a global pandemic,” said Jeff Kirschner, the founder and CEO of Litterati, a startup aiming to curb plastic pollution by incentivizing litter collection. “Plastic waste affects and impacts the economy. It affects our environment. I would say it degrades communities’ sense of pride and even property values. It kills wildlife, and given all the plastic pollution in the ocean, it’s infecting our food system.”

Awoken to this crisis, teenage Wang and Yao immediately sought solutions. The duo had an interesting hypothesis: What if bacteria could break down plastic? With help from a renowned local biochemistry professor, Wang and Yao discovered a type of bacteria in a local river that was feeding upon plastics specifically, phthalates, a component used in a variety of products ranging from baby’s toys to food wrappers. The duo entered their research into a local science competition and won. Soon after, they were invited to give a 2013 TED Talk on the subject. The presentation went viral, inspiring countless other young environmentalists around the world, including many who wrote to Wang and Yao for guidance on how to replicate their work.

At university, however, as Wang’s studies in molecular biology progressed, she began to doubt the practicality of her discovery. “Using bacteria to break down trash is not a scalable method,” she said, noting their initial process wasn’t viable to address the worldwide scope of plastic pollution. The realization, however, sparked a renewed commitment to finding an effective approach to combatting waste. “And [Yao] felt the same way for us to get back together and do something,” she said.

You have an issue that is a global pandemic.Jeff Kirschner

A different type of recycling

In 2015, Wang and Yao started BioCellection, hiring three of their classmates to join the team within the first year. At first, the Silicon Valley-based startup was still focused on ways to use bacteria, investigating potential genetic-engineering methods of growing more efficient plastic-feasting microorganisms. But they soon abandoned their bacterial technique entirely. Instead, the team pivoted to a purely chemical-based solution, which could be more easily applied at scale.

This is the basis of BioCellection’s current technology. Their unique process, designed for polyethylene the most common plastic in the world, much of which is unrecyclable chemically breaks down the material’s molecular structure. What’s more, the method actually transforms the waste into new compounds that can be utilized in everything from solvents to perfumes.

The innovation has garnered funding support from sources as diverse as the United Nations and the founder of Salesforce, as well as a steady stream of accolades, most recently from Rolex. Wang was selected from among more than 950 candidates to be named one of five laureates of the 2019 Rolex Awards. Since 1976, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise have been discovering and fostering the work of exceptional innovators from all manner of world-benefiting endeavors.

“Because the program has been around for so many years now, the community is built up,” said Wang of her experience so far. “I think that has been the most rewarding part — finding people who are truly similar and crazily passionate about some problem that they’re working on.”

I think that has been the most rewarding part finding people who are truly similar and crazily passionate about some problem that they’re working on.Miranda Wang

Rolex has helped shine a light on the work we do boosting my fundraising to scale-up this new technology invention.Miranda Wang

The world wakes up

In recent years, the world has begun to come to terms with the plastic problem. Local governments have instituted plastic bag bans and restaurants are starting to offer reusable or compostable straws. Yet these interventions barely put a dent in the 340 million metric tons of plastic that is produced annually, says Wang.

“We’re at a point where everything that we use and make is vertically integrated and depends on this material,” she stressed. “So, whether we like it or not, we need to create an end-of-life solution. And that’s exactly what we’re working on.”

After a series of successful proof-of-concept tests on the chemical technology, the company hopes to begin partnering with material recovery facilities soon. The goal is to intervene and collect plastic before its combined with other garbage into 1,500-pound bales intended for landfills. A pilot project in the City of San Jose is currently underway.

The award has helped move these initiatives forward. “Rolex has helped shine a light on the work we do,” she noted, “boosting my fundraising to scale-up this new technology invention.”

The recognition may also yield some new collaborations. Wang mentioned the possibility of partnering with other members of the Rolex laureate community on future projects, though was guarded about the details for now.

These are initial steps, but ones that could presage a revolution in how we manage plastic pollution. The need has never been more urgent. At the present rate, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills within three decades.

Yet still, Wang’s perspective is much different today than it was when she first looked out over that Vancouver landfill. Her team’s work is giving her hope: “We feel like this innovation is the only missing piece of the link right now.”

These stories highlight Rolex's commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.
  • Since plastic

    was first invented

  • 9%

    has been recycled.

  • 79%

    has been sent to landfills, ended up as land pollution or cast into the world’s oceans.

  • 12%

    has been incinerated.

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