It’s comforting to think that once you drop your plastic container into that ubiquitous blue recycling bin, you’ve fulfilled your eco-friendly duty for the day. Unfortunately, the data says otherwise.
Only 9% of plastics actually get recycled. The rest is going to landfills and incinerators where it’s being burned for energy, but most of it is emitted as Co2 into the atmosphere. At the current rate of recycling waste plastics, it’s projected that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, the founders of BioCellection Inc. have found a way to address the plastic crisis, head-on. The cofounders relayed their ideation of BioCellection Inc. at the 2019 Women in the World summit held earlier this month.
“I think what’s so difficult for consumers to understand is that when we take a piece of plastic and put it in a recycling bin, that’s actually getting recycled. Well, guess what? It’s doesn’t … ” says Wang.
The 25-year-old co-founder of BioCellection Inc. graduated from University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology in 2016. Her business partner Yao graduated that same year from the University of Toronto with a BS in Biochemistry and Environmental Sciences. Both received recognition from Forbes 30 under 30 in 2018.
Together, the young entrepreneurs have subverted the notion that recycling our plastic is sustainable. Poor waste management and lack of waste collection infrastructure mean a large portion of plastic waste is leaked into our rivers and oceans. Rather than trying to resolve the fallibility of the recycling process, Wang and Yao are going right to the source of the issue by inventing recycling for the least recyclable plastic.
How plastic works
To understand the process, you need to know about Polyethylene. This plastic compound makes up over a third of all plastics produced globally. The reason it can’t breakdown in the environment is because of its size – it’s so large that microbes cannot access it to break it down organically.
According to Wang, using our society’s “current Mechanical recycling method, all of the plastics are mechanically broken down, washed, and melted. That’s like taking a tree leaf, cutting it apart and then gluing it together. That’s why recycling is not working.”
Instead, working from the concept of a “circular economy”, the chemists plan to take these molecules and fully recycle them to create new usable products, rather than releasing waste into the atmosphere.
Yao breaks down this highly complex method into simpler terms:
“What we do is use a chemical method to cut this [Polyethylene] chain into small pieces. These small pieces become functionalized with oxygen to develop interesting properties. These chemicals that we make out of plastic are actually precursors to higher value materials. It’s this exact material that is found in things like car parts, electronics, and textiles.”
Using this model, the vast majority of waste ( 91% ) that are deemed too contaminated to recycle actually becomes an untapped resource with unprecedented application potential. Rather than trying to fix a broken system, Wang and Yao are inventing their own.
What you can do now
Even if you aren’t a precocious chemist, there are still many ways you can help combat the plastic crisis. The simplest way to do so is to cut back on plastic waste altogether.
Today, technology makes this easier than ever. One app, from a startup called Omni Calculator, helps you keep track of your plastic waste by tallying up how many plastic bottles you use, and then telling you roughly how many pounds of plastic you use in a year or that you’ll use in your lifetime.
Another app, called My Little Plastic Footprint, goes further, helping users track their progress toward zero waste over time.
According to Wang, it’s important to remain radically optimistic about combating the plastic crisis, on an international level. “We are convinced that we can solve the plastic pollution problem within our lifetime, it’s just a matter of working with the right people to make it happen,” says Wang.
This article originally appeared on The Ladders.