Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao met at a school recycling meeting when they were in the eighth grade. It was then that they realized just how bad our plastic problem is, and how lacking our recycling systems are, so they started working on a science project that would yield a reasonable solution for it. Today they are known as the “Plastic Girls” and are leading innovators in their field. Last month we got on the phone with them to talk about their drive towards sustainability, the development of their technology, what it implies for our future and their hopes for an environmentally conscious world.
Wang and Yao first got involved in recycling through school, and it was during those meetings that they learned that, for the most part, recycling doesn’t happen. As Wang explained in the interview, what we often refer to as recycling is only the sorting process, meaning the action in which a consumer throws his or her trash into designated bins. However, “the true definition of recycling is when we have a material and then we put it through a process called recycling and then a new product comes outs that can be used again.” That cycle rarely happens.
One reason it doesn’t happen is that many waste management companies simply don’t have access to the technology necessary for the process. This lack of infrastructure has led to tons of plastic being stuck in landfills. Wang elaborated that there is simply not enough technology for companies to realistically sort, recycle and resupply plastic back into the market; and even then there is no market, or economy, to support the second part of the plastic’s life cycle. This means that recycling is an expensive process with no real incentives for companies to execute.
As Wang and Yao described, “There is a severe imbalance between all the innovation we have on designing packaging and just creating new plastic to use in packaging products versus the severe lack of innovation and technology available to change that plastic from a product of packaging and turn that into something else valuable enough for the recycling process to be worth happening; there is a huge imbalance.”
The technology that Wang and Yao have developed eases this imbalance. What it does is takes polyethylene plastic packaging, breaks it down into chemical intermediates, and then repurposes it to make other types of plastics. “In this process we actually upcycle the value of these molecules turning them from market value plastics, which are … are not recyclable at all, meaning there’s no market for them… so we start with negative value plastics, because it costs money to landfill them, and we turn them into chemicals worth on average upwards of 500 dls / metric ton. So by doing this and upcycling the plastic, we are actually incentivizing the sortation and isolation of these plastics so they don’t end up in landfills and oceans”
The true innovation in this prototype is not the novelty of its technology, but the road it paves towards creating a trash based economy that will ultimately be responsible for turning the linear lifespan of plastic into a full circle of usability and profitability. The prototype that Wang and Yao have created is a pioneer in aligning economic incentives for big business with environmental solutions. They continued to say, “The key here is just to make a product that works enough that it justifies the process of using trash as a starting material.”
Now that the “Plastic Girls” have developed and perfected the chemistry and technology to recycle an upscale polyethylene plastic, they have big plans for the future. They are already talking about scaling up, and in 2020 they will be rolling out their first commercial prototype. By doing this they hope to attach enough value to plastic to, “keep it away from landfills and from oceans.” Furthermore, they hope that by creating this “sustainable business model”, which appeals to the economic agenda of companies, they will create enough momentum to catalyze a recycling movement that could potentially see the end of the plastic problem within our lifetime.
In their closing remarks of our interview, the Plastic Girls remind us that, “mankind has faced worst challenges than the ones we face today” with far fewer technology and understanding of the world. So in continuing to face and tackle the plastic problem the solution is simple, “more people just need to think a little bit harder about the question, ‘what do we do with plastic?’”