Technology

A better way to recycle plastics? Mike Biddle replies to questions and comments about his 2011 TEDTalk

Last October, we posted this TEDTalk given at TEDGlobal 2011 by plastic engineer Mike Biddle, Founder and President of MBA Polymers, which has developed an incredibly energy and economically efficient method to recycle plastics — by turning it into the raw material  again.

The TEDtalk elicited over 1000 comments and questions on TED.com, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, including direct emails to Biddle and to the TED staff. Faced with the impossibility to answer them individually, Mike has grouped them together and addressed them below.

And now over to Biddle…

 I want to thank the TED community for all of the heartfelt comments and great questions. Although many of the comments were directed to me as I am the one that gave the TEDtalk, I’m replying here on behalf of the whole MBA Polymers team.  Much like the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”, it takes an incredibly dedicated team to reinvent one of the world’s largest industries and MBA has indeed attracted such a team.

In my personal blog at MikeBiddle.com, I talk a bit about the habits that my family and I practice in our efforts to tread more lightly on this planet and “walk the talk”.   Below, I direct my responses more to our work at MBA Polymers.

Why recycle?  Isn’t it better to reduce our use of plastics?

Absolutely!  I am not only a strong believer in the hierarchy of (1) Reduce, (2) Re-use, (3) Recycle, I try my best to be a practitioner of this hierarchy in my business and personal life.  I appreciate the sentiments expressed in this area, including the frustration some expressed for plastics waste.  And I believe that this type of concern should apply much more broadly to all types of waste.  We should all try to be more thoughtful about how we waste energy, materials and even time (see my personal blog for a few examples).

What can I do to help?

We at MBA have a crucial need: we need to recover more materials in more places, and to do that faster and better. It might sound strange, but our biggest resource constraint is raw material.  Yes there are hundreds of billions of pounds of plastics consumed every year around the world.  It comes down to a collection and aggregation issue.  You may have heard about the challenge of getting technology to your house referred to as the “last mile” problem.  I live in Northern California and I don’t have the highest speed broadband internet to my home.  It’s very difficult and expensive to get technology to every single home.

With recycling it’s the “first mile” problem.  Getting the recyclable end-of-life products and materials from your home and transported to a recycling facility has always been the most difficult and costly part of the recycling value chain.

Great strides have been made regarding plastic bottle collection and recycling, but the rates in California and much of the US for bottle recycling are still relatively low, even with a deposit (albeit a small one) on the bottles and curbside collection in most communities.  My kids and I still collect amazing numbers of plastic, metal and glass bottles at a high school parking lot near us on weekends.  Collecting 50 bottles from the high school parking lot and surrounding grounds after a sporting event is typical, even with plenty of trash and recycling bins within easy reach.

It’s even more difficult with other types of more complex waste from end of life durable goods like I showed in my TED talk.  People don’t discard these items as often as packaging (thankfully) and there are few organizations that will take them, unless they have high inherent value like a computer or are regulated and supported with an advanced disposal/recycling fee like TVs and CRT monitors (usually because of the leaded glass).

So you can help by spreading the word to your local communities and larger government agencies (states, provincial, federal, etc.) that you want collection systems for such items like they have in Europe, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.  These systems are also being put in countries like India, Canada and other forward-thinking areas due to policies adopted by those regions.  China, with a rapidly growing domestic consumption of electronics and automobiles, is also adopting recycling policies for these durable goods and is creating eco-parks where recyclers work together to maximize recycling rates and economies.  These countries clearly understand that there are valuable resources that their domestic industries can use in a more sustainable manner – more sustainable in both an environmental and economic sense.

Can you please build recycling plants here? Why aren’t there more in the US?

Our plants are currently in Europe and China. We need to locate our full processing plants, or at least what we call “preprocessing plants”, near the “mines”.  And while the US generates far more waste per capita than any other country, particularly from durable goods, the US doesn’t have the collection and recycling policies in place like those in most other “high consumption” countries.  So most of the materials are not effectively collected, aggregated and concentrated into above ground mines like they are in many other countries.  Tom Friedman dedicated three pages on our company and this problem in his newest book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.  See pages 307-309.

We decide where to build a plant mostly based on assured access to raw materials (i.e. plastic waste).  The key words here are assured and access.  Access is provided by having the infrastructure in place to collect and process the materials – which came into being in many parts of the world due to “take-back” and recycling policies.  But not yet in the US.

The other key word is about assurance of that supply.  No recycler can afford to make big investments in equipment and people, especially those required to handle these complex waste streams in manners that protect people and the local eco-systems, if they don’t have some strong assurances of supply and that they will be operating on a level playing field.  In some places in the world, like the US, many waste streams and materials can be pretty much freely traded without any restrictions on where or how the materials are processed or how the waste materials from the processes are handled.  As I pointed out in the TEDTalk, this can often lead to recycling that is low cost in the sense of dollars per pound, but which can have very high local human health and safety and eco-system costs that we’ve managed to “externalize” to others, typically in emerging countries, via what I call “environmental arbitrage”.

Europe, Canada and Japan, for example, have various types of regulations that govern where and how their recyclable materials can flow.  The US is also one of the few countries not to ratify the Basel Convention that prohibits the export of hazardous materials to places that aren’t equipped to handle it.  But we need to move beyond even that limited standard.

Much like the public and NGOs pressured brands in markets such as sportswear to develop and adopt standards for how their products were being manufactured in developing countries, we should demand the same accountability for how our end-of-life products and materials are being recovered and reprocessed.  And the processing and recycling of materials is often more intense and risky from an environmental and human health and safety standpoint compared to product manufacturing or even product recycling.  We should also realize that many of these recovered materials will end back up in our new products – recall the concerns over heavy metals in toys and jewelry.

On the environmental costs of recycling: What about waste to energy and bio-degradability of plastics?

As I mentioned in my talk, there are usually enormous energy and CO2 emission savings in recycling plastics compared to making plastics from petrochemicals.  These savings depend on the type of virgin material being compared and the specific plastics recovery process being used by the recycler, but the range of savings are usually between about 80 and 90%!

We are often asked about turning plastics to energy, since most are made from petrochemicals to begin with.  The plastics industry is a big supporter of this notion as it allows them to make more virgin plastics using their existing plant and equipment.  Energy recovery is a far poorer answer for plastics than recycling, but it is better than putting the plastic into landfills or burning without energy recovery if recycling is not possible.  We are looking at this for some of our organic byproduct streams (wood, foam, paper, cardboard and mixed plastics residues) that we can’t yet economically recycle.  But we first try to recycle as much of the material as possible because it has better economics and it is certainly better for the environment.

The benefits to recycling over energy recovery are obvious to most environmentalists and LCA (life-cycle analysis) practitioners.  EMPA, a leading Swiss research institute, presented such results at the International Electronics Recycling Congress in Salzburg, Austria in January 2010.  EMPA took actual data from waste to energy and plastics recycling plants and compared many different environmental metrics.  It showed that recycling plastics was far superior to waste-to-energy from an environmental impact standpoint.

We are also often asked about biopolymers, which are a rather new family of plastics.  We are certainly not experts in this area, but we do know a bit about the issues being discussed by various stakeholders.  To the best of our knowledge, what I present as a brief overview below is accurate, at least today.

It’s very important that we first differentiate between biopolymers and biodegradable polymers.  Many of the initial biopolymers were developed to bio-degrade to address the plastics litter and numerous plastics in the ocean problems.  Many environmental groups initially embraced biodegradable polymers, thinking it would solve the plastics waste issue, but they soon realized that this simply ensured single-use of the materials and was actually a very poor alternative from an environmental footprint standpoint because the energy, water and chemicals required to grow, extract, synthesize and produce the plastics would have to be repeated again and again.  There is also concern that some biopolymers might compete with land and water that could be used for food production.  Many groups now express concerns about biodegradable polymers, except for possible use in cases where recycling of the products can’t be imagined.

Might biodegradability help with the plastics in the ocean problem?  Possibly.  It largely depends on how quickly and to what extent the plastics “disintegrate”.  The reports on actual real-world degradation rates have been mixed, at least in landfills.  Furthermore, as they disintegrate into small pieces, just like less biodegradable plastics (nearly all plastics degrade over time at different rates with exposure to sunlight and other environmental factors), seabirds, fish and mammals will sometimes eat the particles with dire consequences.

If biopolymers are recyclable, from our perspective there is no fundamental reason why they shouldn’t be considered on equal ground with plastics from petrochemicals, or perhaps even more favorably if they can actually be produced with a lower OVERALL footprint that includes end-of-life considerations.

On the overall economics of recycling: Why isn’t this spreading more quickly if it’s such a great idea?

It sounds great, so why isn’t it spreading more quickly?  Good question!  I believe that there are at least 3 major reasons (and many small ones – as they often say “the devil is in the details”):

    1. The lack of infrastructure discussed above – a bit of the “chicken and egg” problem.
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    2. We (and other recyclers) are still rather new at this:A. Our current plants are large by recycling standards, but tiny compared to global petrochemical companies.  So some of the efficiencies we enjoy in energy consumption and raw material are forfeited in other areas in comparison to virgin-plastic companies because they have much larger economies of scale.  This is a common problem for any new equipment-intensive business.  But we are working on this one:  our 3rdplant, which started ramping-up during 2011, is twice as large as either of our first two.B. While the process works well and our plants are selling to Fortune 100 companies, like any new business/industry with a breakthrough technology (actually MANY different ones that all have to work extremely well together), we are still increasing the efficiencies of our various separation, purification and upgrading technologies every year.  We made great efficiency improvements during 2011 and have more planned for 2012, but the virgin plastics industry has been perfecting their processes for many decades.
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    3. Still-developing supply chains.  Oil is still rather cheap and the traditional plastics industry has not only been perfecting its technology, it’s been perfecting and rationalizing its supply chains for decades.   In fact, much of the plastics industry is part of the oil industry, using its low cost crude oil to make value-added products like plastic and plastic pre-cursor chemicals.   We are still working with a developing, somewhat bulky and widely dispersed supply of shredded materials of widely varying qualities and quantities.  Such wide variations in the availability, composition and quality of supply make it much more difficult to optimize a business and multi-step process.
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    4. Given our small scale, the cash-flow from our plants is not sufficient to fund the growth we’d like.  A common issue for young companies is securing financing, particularly for ventures needing to invest in plant and equipment.  Venture capital and private equity prefers to invest in less capital-intense ventures (such as software and Internet) and banks prefer to loan to larger and well established companies with long and successful operating histories.  And, of course, this has become even more difficult during the challenging economic climate of the last few years.

What about all the technical details?

I didn’t talk very much in my TEDTalk about the details of the technology. I can absolutely sympathize with those of you wanting more information.  I’m a sponge for technical information myself, but I also understand that I’m not usually going to learn about trade secrets practiced by a company (that’s why they are called secrets) and I survey the patent and other literature in areas in which I’m interested.

Like most process-intense companies, we protect our technology and the interests of our shareholders with a combination of patents and trade secrets.  Governments grant companies patent protection for a period of time in trade for making the patented technology public and “teaching the art”.  This gives others the opportunity to improve upon it and/or use it directly once the patent period expires.  Without patent protection, many inventors would instead keep their technologies completely private for as long as possible.

This also means that you can look up our patents if you wish.  Some TEDsters looked up our patents and pointed out that besides my confidentiality obligations as an employee of MBA Polymers, I certainly didn’t have time to go into many details about the numerous different technologies we’ve developed.

When we enter into discussions with companies that might be developing technology in our space, we usually ask them to NOT tell us any of their secrets because we don’t want to be accused of stealing anyone’s technology.  When multiple organizations are working on similar problems, there is always the chance that groups will stumble upon similar solutions at similar times.

We work with communities and other companies all over the world to make it happen faster.   We also use a wide variety of venues (including the World Economic Forum and all types of conferences around the globe) to spread the word about why it’s important and that it can be done.  Just getting the word out that it’s both important and possible to recycle plastics from complex waste streams is extremely valuable.  I’ve often felt that the two most valuable things to know about a problem or opportunity is its size/impact and if it’s “really possible”.   That simple knowledge paves the way for competition, creativity and investment.

Finally, we work around the globe to promote government and business policies to recover more materials from waste.  I believe that this helps everyone, including our existing and potential competitors.  We are helping to pave the way and like many pioneering organizations, we have the scars to show for it.

Thank you for your interest and engagement!