Revolutionary recycling? A new technology turns everyday trash into plastic treasure.
KIBBUTZ TZE’ELIM, Israel — Eight tons of trash are piled high at the entrance of a small factory in this tree-lined kibbutz — rotting food mixed with plastic bags, dirty paper, castoff bottles and containers, even broken toys. But nothing is headed for a landfill. Instead, what’s next is a process that could revolutionize recycling.
Within hours, the mound will be sorted, ground, chopped, shredded, cleaned and heated into a sort of garbage caramel, then resurrected as tiny pseudo-plastic pellets that can be made into everyday items like trays and packing crates.
“The magic that we’re doing is we’re taking everything — the chicken bones, the banana peels,” says Jack “Tato” Bigio, the chief executive at UBQ Materials. “We take this waste, and we convert it.”
Such upcycling is desperately needed by a world seeking solutions to the environmental challenges caused by the 2 billion tons of waste generated annually. Turning that trash into treasure has long held allure. Yet attempts have fallen short, and cynics abound.
UBQ says it has succeeded where others have failed, creating a radical technology that transforms garbage into the raw materials for plastics manufacturers and earns them a profit in the end.
And by diverting household refuse destined for long-term burial, the process will help to reduce landfill production of a powerful greenhouse gas while creating new life for hard-to-recycle plastic. The loop exemplifies a “circular economy,” in which waste is turned into something useful.
One skeptic turned convert calls it a breakthrough that could, in the best way, “create very serious disruption.”
“If we want to advance to a more sustainable future, we don’t only need new technologies, but new business models,” said Antonis Mavropoulos, a Greek chemical engineer who is president of the International Solid Waste Association. He visited UBQ’s plant here in the Negev Desert and came away convinced. “In this case, we have a byproduct worth a very good price in the market.”
Others are still dubious, though they have softened their tone recently. Duane Priddy is the chief executive of the Plastic Expert Group and a former principal scientist at Dow Chemical. Until a call last month with UBQ executives, he and his group had scoffed at their claims. Now they’re keeping a more open mind.
“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,” the group said in a statement. Should the technology prove commercially viable, “it could be a game changer for the global environment.”
The company’s push is part of a broader effort during the past several decades as the colossal scope of the world’s waste problem grew impossible to ignore. One approach has been to excavate existing sites, in part to recover potentially valuable debris. The strategy hasn’t proved profitable, however.
UBQ aims to keep trash from ever going into landfills.
An analysis it commissioned by the Swiss environmental consulting firm Quantis found that keeping decomposing organic waste out of landfills and using it to create second-generation plastics could significantly cut methane, the gas that in the short term contributes more to global warming than carbon dioxide. Substituting a ton of UBQ’s pellets for the same amount of polypropylene saves the equivalent of about 15 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, Quantis concluded; adding as little as 10 percent of its material can make the result carbon neutral, depending on the type of plastic being created.
What’s the “magic” behind this? Executives are coy, but biotechnology expert Oded Shoseyov, a Hebrew University professor who has consulted for UBQ, says melting plastics and waste creates a homogeneous substance strengthened by fibers in the organic ingredients.
So far, that alchemy only happens at the plant in Kibbutz Tze’elim, population 464.
A Bedouin woman, her face almost completely covered by a black veil, was among several people at work at the first stage of the process on a Sunday morning. She plucked out a variety of items — larger things like shoes and coffee machines are culled at this point — while household flotsam moved along a short conveyor belt.
Next up were two automated cullings, one involving a magnetized oval track, to eliminate both ferrous and nonferrous metals. Then the waste was shredded and ground into brownish-gray confetti before more sorting, this time targeting glass and rocks.
These stinky prep stages can vary. Bigio says UBQ works to a customer’s specifications for characteristics like tensile strength and flexibility. If its material is going to be used in injection molding, trash is sorted again and again to remove glass and metals that could damage delicate molds. If the material’s final fate is for use in construction — in composite brick, for example — the sorting is less rigorous.
Regardless, there’s one final check and cleaning using near-infrared spectroscopy.
“In UBQ, nothing goes to waste,” Bigio said as he led visitors on a tour, past dunes of confetti awaiting their metamorphosis. “Metals and glass go to recyclers. There’s no water in the process, so it’s really efficient in terms of the environment.”
The conversion stage takes place in an adjacent building. As much as five tons of waste can be fed into a red hopper leading to a multi-chamber reactor that sits behind a closed sliding door to block prying eyes. Temperatures up to 400 degrees break down the organic matter into its core elements, and then it and the plastics are re-engineered into a matrix through chemical and physical reactions that UBQ keeps secret.
The result is something of a tongue twister that seems too good to be true, what Bigio calls “a thermoplastic, composite, bio-based, sustainable, climate-positive material.”
That is pulverized into a gray powder that looks and feels like ashes, the afterlife of people’s waste. The final stage turns the powder into long, spaghetti-like strands that are cooled and cut into round or cylindrical pellets in an array of colors — forest green, bright orange, fire