21 Sep 2018 Story Green economy

Young Champion of the Earth, winner for North America

Miranda Wang is Young Champion of the Earth for North America. The Young Champions of the Earth Prize is powered by Covestro.

Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of BioCellection Inc, an innovation company that turns unrecyclable plastic waste into chemicals, and recyclable or biodegradable materials for consumer and industrial products. She is a CNN “Tomorrow’s Hero,” one of New York Time’s 30 Visionaries with the Courage to Change the World, Echoing Green Fellow (2018), a finalist in the 2018 Pritzker Environmental Genius Award hosted by the UCLA IOES, and a winner at the Wharton Business Plan Competition (2016), the Westly Prize (2018), and the CITEO Circular Challenge International grand prize (2018). She received her Bachelor of Arts in biology, philosophy, and an engineering entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania.

Back to basics: stripping down plastic

I never truly considered what happens to our plastic waste before. I would pick up a straw in restaurants for my drink or grab a takeaway wrapped in plastic, on my way to classes. But when I visited my first waste plant, the scale of the problem hit me. All that waste. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that just nine per cent of plastics produced are recycled - the rest is sent to landfills, incinerated or leached into the environment.

Then, as I was waiting for the bus on a rainy day, I watched as someone tossed a recyclable bottle into the trash bin, which was right next to recycling bin. I suddenly realized that it’s unrealistic to expect people to solve the plastic problem by recycling properly. The problem is so big, it has to be solved through industrial technology.

Miranda Wang: Chief Executive Officer of BioCellection Inc. Photo by BioCellection Inc.

Creating another way

Our unsustainable plastic addiction threatens marine life, destroys ecosystems, and contaminates terrestrial and aquatic resources. At the same time, most plastic is made from virgin petroleum. Oil drilling cuts through habitats, pollutes natural resources and emits harmful carbon dioxide. Yet we are dependent on these processes because there are no real alternatives.

The root cause of our plastic problem is the lack of economically viable markets to justify the recycling of dirty, low-grade post-consumer plastics. Oil companies have substantial influence on environmental policy, strengthening social injustice around the world. Co-founder Jeanny Yao and I decided to tackle plastic pollution head-on.

We toured every type of waste facility that exists in North America and sourced plastic samples from around the world. On these trips, we collected and brought back to the lab boxes of plastic waste from different waste-streams, in efforts to recognize patterns and invent methods to recycle such complex and contaminated materials.

Hitting a breakthrough

Then we hit a breakthrough. By using plastic waste to produce organic acids, we invented a catalyst-driven chemical recycling system. It reverts plastic back to its basic components, which we can use to make virgin-quality chemicals. Our innovation means we no longer need to export our waste or rely on petroleum.

After hundreds of trials, we can now treat 1-2 kg of plastic film every three hours. We are converting 90 per cent of plastic waste into biodegradable chemicals, while using the same amount of energy as a TV screen.

Beginning next March and over the course of 12 months, our scalability pilot will involve turning 100 metric tons of previously unrecyclable film plastic into valuable chemicals, which can be used to make new products in place of plastic.

We are currently working with GreenWaste and the City of San José on a pilot with a goal to develop the technology in a way that it can be easily integrated onsite into existing solid waste-management systems. At commercial scale in 2021, we will work with city governments and recycling facilities to process 36,200 metric tons of plastic – reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere in making plastic by 290,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the same as taking 57,000 cars off the road.

Our goal is to create a circular plastic global economy that generates benefits for everyone. We are just starting: our next step is to spread the word among schools and youth groups to create a massive campaign to gather waste and educate the public about the plastic pollution. We hope you’ll join us on our journey.

Follow the Young Champions of the Earth journey on social media #YoungChamps.