Tonight the pioneer in plastics recycling Michael Biddle and the social entrepreneur Björn Söderberg receive The Gothenburg Award. I met with Biddle for a talk on the art of separating plastics and the future of materials.
How come you took interest in plastics in the first place?
– One reason is my training. I’m a chemical engineer, I worked at General Electric a few years and I got exposed to plastics and I liked it and I thought it was interesting.
So what’s interesting about plastics?
– Well, 30 years ago plastics was this “space age material”. It was the new material, you could do anything, cool things, it was a sexy material. I went back and got a PhD in engineering plastics and then came back to the industry and worked for Dow Chemical and started specializing even more in plastics.
– At Dow I started not liking what the plastics industry was doing. I didn’t think they were being responsible, and I wasn’t proud to be a plastics engineer anymore. I said it’s got to be a better way, we have to be more responsible for our materials. Plastics is really the only material that is not recycled. Still today, after 20 years of working on it, it is still the lowest recycled of major materials. It’s unacceptable. When talking to Dow about this my director said “we didn’t hire a PhD in plastics to work on garbage”. I thought “maybe you didn’t, but maybe you should.”
Long story short, I convinced Dow to work on my ideas of recycling as a little reseach project with a group of 20 people. But after a while they shut down my laboratory. I gave them a chance and said “look, let me turn this into a very important business for the company”. But they didn’t let me continue, and I left and did it myself. It was the first scary thing I did in my life… I started my company MBA Plastics by the end of November 1992, literally 20 years ago. That makes it even more amazing to receive the award right now.
You appear to be the Steve Jobs of recycling, starting out in your garage to develop your recycling process for plastics… How long time did it take before you “broke the code” that makes it possible for you to close the loop in high value plastics?
– I think we’re continuing to break the code, frankly, we keep getting better. But until we knew it could be a profitable business it was probably seven years.
So what’s the secret?
– I always say I have to kill you if I tell you…
Do you have followers? Are there others doing the same thing?
– Well, plastics recycling has been going on for a long time, for decades, but typically it is from a few sources only. Firstly, it’s about making new plastics from manufacturing rejects. Just like in the old days of metal recycling, when you make something of aluminium there are pieces of aluminium scrap which goes into aluminium recycling. Then they tried to do cans later, but first it was just manufacturing scrap.
The same goes for plastics, when you make some plastic thing you have some scrap. You have either broken parts, or when you mold it… Have you ever built model cars or model airplanes? Remember those things that are left when you break the pieces out? Those things, manufacturing scrap, have been recycled forever. Then they moved into bottles, things that humans and machines can sort easily, like a PET bottle.
Now they’re getting a little bit into things like tv-housing, which is made from mostly one type of plastic. They just have to wash it and give it a little separation and then they can have a pure stream.
All these are mono streams.
And your process can handle poly streams?
– Poly poly poly streams with materials all mixed up. In Sweden for example, there is a big recycling company called Stena that handles waste streams from electronics and automobiles. They shred it in big machines and get it into small bits and recover the metals. Everything left over is called shredder residue – that becomes our feed.
Everything left over is a lot of stuff, it is wood, rubber, foam and even textiles, carpeting… So it’s a very complex mixture and it’s difficult separating all the things away from the plastics. That was the first problems we had to tackle, then you get to the mixture of plastics which is the really difficult part. That was a seven year journey.
How pure or “clean” is the outcome?
– Our outcome is a replacement for virgin material. It is not 100 percent the same, but it has to have the same properties. When a company like Electrolux comes to us they say “here’s our virgin property sheet, you have to match this”. There might be some negotiation, but usually not much.
Typically, if someone takes a tv-stream they don’t get it as pure as we get our material even though they’re starting with a mono stream. They’re typically doing an ok job, but still sometimes they don’t do a good job so they dilute it with virgin. So in most recycled content, parts are mixed with virgin to lower the contamination, but with ours you don’t have to do that.
What about colors and chemicals from the original materials, are they still there?
– Good point. They are. It’s a mechanical process. Some of the old plastics has a legacy of additives that are not good, like brominated flame retardants, cadmium was used for coloring, lead was used as a stabilizer in some plastics. We don’t remove those elements from the plastics, that would be a chemical process that probably wouldn’t be possible. So what we do is that we can see if those additives are in the plastic particles, and we remove that specific particles.
And that means that the final outcome does not contain those additives?
Could your material be Cradle to Cradle certified?
– It could, but i haven’t gone down that path. Though, we recently went through a similiar testing process with another independent third party. The study compares us to making plastic from virgin and it compares us to disposing plastic by incineration, because that’s becoming the chosen solution for plastic waste. It is the answer the plastics industry wants and that’s what they fund. The study looks at many dimensions: water, air, energy, CO2.
How big is the potential of using plastics from waste, from above ground mines as you put it?
– About two thirds of the steel in the US is recycled steel, and that’s the biggest number I know. The number for plastics is hard to measure, and it’s very low. How high can it get? Can it get as high as steel? I hope so, but it’s a long way there. I’d be happy if we reach 25 percent. Could it get to 50 percent? It could, but we have a lot of work to do.
Would it be possible to actually dig up plastics from landfills?
– Yes, probably. Many companies are doing above ground mining for metals from cars and electronics, and we’re doing above ground mining for their waste. They could use the same technology to dig up landfills, but the landfills are not as rich as above ground mining. Modern landfills are sealed and the content doesn’t decay, which means that it contains a lot of food and newspapers from decades ago that still looks like food and newspapers. We’re entombing our waste, mummyfying it.
What do you think about the cradle to cradle principle? Is it the future to think like that?
– It has to be. I don’t think we have a choice. We were doing cradle to cradle before they wrote the book [Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart], but we didn’t have that name for it. So as soon as I saw that title I thought “yeah, that’s what we do, exactly”. Brilliant, thank you Bill. I completely embraced the concept. But frankly, I didn’t like the book that much because it’s too hard to read. Communication is so important, you got to make it appealing and accessible.
If plastics was the “space age material” 30 years ago, what is the material of the future now? And how should we handle it?
– Let me answer this way: I don’t know, frankly. But every material has to be reusable. I think plastics is a good material but i know that there is a love-hate affair with it these days, and I completely understand that. It’s got chemicals in it, we see it everywhere, it’s killing sea life… It’s horrible, I get that. But I get a little concerned when people think the answer for plastics is biodegradeability. Five years ago, that was the holy Mecca within the plastics field. The answer is not to stop using plastics and the answer is not to make it biodegradable, because that’s reencouraging the one way society.
Then you’re talking about using plastics as a technical nutrient, exclusively. But what is happening now is that we see examples like Puma’s new collection with compostable shoes in it, where plastic is used as a biological nutrient. What do you think of that?
– I get why people like that, but if you do the LCA on that, the life cycle analysis, it’s not very good. If you learn how to reuse that material it would be a much better LCA. Environmentalists are turning against biodegradables, by the way. Now the biggest biodegradable company in the world, Nature Works, who make plastics from renewable resources, is desperate to have a recycle source, to show that it is sortable and recyclable. Thankfully. Making plastics demands high energy usage. And even if it is from plants you have to use fertilizers and energy in harvesting the plants, and extracting the chemicals from the plants is energy intense, it requires a lot of water as well, and you have to compete with food for the crops. If you have spent all those resources to make it – please use it again, don’t make it turn to dust. That’s my message.
Isn’t it also about how complex the product is? In Puma’s Cradle to Cradle collection the jacket is made of recycled and recyclable polyester, but the shoe is compostable, supposedly because it’s more complex and contains many different materials which are hard to separate.
– It will look good for Puma, but I think it will end up in a modern landfill, it’s just gonna sit there. In an ideal situation outside, exposed to the elements, maybe eventually it will degrade. But in a landfill, sorry, it’s gonna be entombed and you’ll find the shoe 50 years from now, completely intact. It’s the reality. And it’s not… sustainable. Having products turned to dust is not sustainable… Though, I love that Puma is trying. Thank you for trying. I just want to help them get the right answer. Do the LCA, that’s all I ask.
THE GOTHENBURG AWARD
The Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development recognises and supports work to achieve sustainable development. The award, which is one million Swedish crowns, is administrated and funded by a coalition of the City of Gothenburg and twelve companies. Among the previous award winners are Kofi Annan (2011), Al Gore (2007) and Gro Harlem Brundtland (2002).
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