November 20th, 2019 by Steve Hanley
[Update: This story, originally published on November 18, has been modified to clarify that The Washington Post is the source of the information that follows.]
Kibbutz Tze’Elim in Israel’s Negev Desert boasts a population of 464, but it just may be one of the most important communities on Earth. There, inside a locked building, UBQ Materials is making the raw material for plastics from ordinary household refuse that would otherwise end up in landfills.
“The magic that we’re doing is we’re taking everything — the chicken bones, the banana peels,” Jack “Tato” Bigio, the chief executive at UBQ Materials, tells The Washington Post. “We take this waste, and we convert it. In UBQ, nothing goes to waste. Metals and glass go to recyclers. There’s no water in the process, so it’s really efficient in terms of the environment,” he says.
According to the company’s website:
UBQ’s revolutionary process makes new, raw material out of all Residual Municipal Solid Waste (RMSW) destined for landfills: food waste, soiled cardboard, paper and mixed plastics. By providing a highly pliant, climate-positive raw material, and displacing finite oil-based resources in the production of plastic products, we help manufacturers and brands alike to reduce their carbon footprint. The larger we scale, the more landfills are rendered obsolete, the faster carbon emissions are reduced, and the better the environment is preserved.
The company has been testing and refining its technology for nearly a decade in an attempt to find a solution to the nearly 2 billion tons of plastic waste created worldwide every year, a problem that has been exacerbated by China’s decision to ban the import of plastic waste a year ago. Skeptics abound, but some who have visited UBQ recently are beginning to change their minds.
Antonis Mavropoulos, a Greek chemical engineer who is president of the International Solid Waste Association, tells The Washington Post, “If we want to advance to a more sustainable future, we don’t only need new technologies, but new business models. In this case, we have a byproduct worth a very good price in the market.” Tato Bigio says the company is already generating a positive revenue stream.
Duane Priddy, CEO of the Plastic Expert Group and a former principal scientist at Dow Chemical, is more measured in his assessment. He tells The Washington Post, “Although we remain skeptical, we look forward to evaluating UBQ products and continuing to learn more about the UBQ technology to further validate their findings and broad applications.” If the technology proves commercially viable, “it could be a game changer for the global environment,” he says.
Recently Swiss environmental consulting firm Quantis evaluated its process and determined that keeping decomposing organic waste out of landfills and using it to create second generation plastics could significantly cut methane. For every ton pellets created by the UBQ process, about 15 tons of carbon dioxide are avoided. Adding as little as 10% of the material can make the result carbon neutral, depending on the type of plastic being created.
UBQ is tight-lipped about its technology, but biotechnology expert Oded Shoseyov, a professor at Hebrew University, tells The Washington Post that melting plastics and waste together creates a homogeneous substance strengthened by fibers in the organic ingredients.
The conversion process uses temperatures up to 400º C to break down any organic matter. UBQ’s proprietary process results in “a thermoplastic, composite, bio-based, sustainable, climate-positive material” that emerges as long, spaghetti-like strands that are then cooled and cut into round or cylindrical pellets. Those pellets are then colored to meet the requirements of customers.
UBQ’s only known customer is an Israeli company named Plasgad that makes pallets, crates, and other products. The Washington Post reports that 2,000 recycling bins manufactured by Plasgad have been shipped to the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority.
The company tells The Washington Post that plastics made from its pellets don’t break down the way conventional plastics do and can have more than half a dozen lives. Most conventional plastics can be recycled only once or twice before they degrade too much to be of further use.
The facility in Kibbutz Tze’Elim is capable of producing one ton of UBQ material per hour, which works out to about 7,000 tons annually. Bigio tells The Washington Post the company’s proprietary process can scale up easily. In fact, his company is planning another facility with an annual capacity of 100,000 tons. He won’t give specifics, but says the company is already profitable.
Plastic pollution is one of the most intractable problems the world faces today, with microplastics now found in the deepest parts of the ocean and atop the highest mountains. Until now, the biggest problem with recycling plastic is that most of it is contaminated with the products it was created to hold or other detritus after it is discarded. If UBQ is successful in showing the world how to create a truly circular economy, the world will be on its way to conquering the pernicious problem of plastic waste.
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