What is the future of water containers? with Miranda Wang

Miranda Wang is the co-founder and CEO of Biocellection, a chemical recycling technology start-up that is inventing and scaling up a new technology to turn currently unrecyclable plastic packaging into chemicals. We went to meet her in her laboratory near San Francisco. As for all our interviews, we first showed her a series of testimonies that we collected around the world. In this one (that you can see below), people express their wish to find an alternative to plastic. That's how our conversation started. 

20 Questions about Water: What is your first reaction to these testimonies?

Miranda Wang: I think there is a really big knowledge gap between everyday people when they think about what’s causing the plastic problem, and what the solution could be. There is a large pattern of people saying that the solution should be a new type of material that is biodegradable and that big companies are responsible and should pay more money to do that. I see where this is coming from, but the problem is actually a lot more complex than that. The main reason is that if we create a material that is self-destructive and biodegradable on demand, then how do you control it so that it breaks down at the right time? As opposed to when it’s on the shelf when it’s supposed to be protecting the food item or the product before it has finished its consumer use life. There's really no kind of packaging that can do that. The packaging that is good at protecting a product is also something that will likely be so durable that it does not break down. What makes a piece of plastic good is what makes it bad for the environment.

The reason we have shifted in our perspective on plastics to this terrible thing we need to ban and avoid is the lack of available technology to recycle this material.

20QAW: Why has the perception of plastic switched from being a great innovation to an inconvenient material?

M.W.: Plastic was only invented about a hundred years ago; it has been massively used for about fifty years. Plastics are very expensive materials, sort of miracle materials in fact! And one of the most defining characteristics of the modern age.

The reason we have shifted in our perspective on plastics to this terrible thing we need to ban and avoid is the lack of available technology to recycle this material. Today, a packaging designer can decide to change their design and use a new type of plastic. And overnight, that company can change the waste stream of cities all around the world! It means it takes a lot of money for a city to establish collection and sortation, and further processing downstream markets for these materials, it is a very capital-intensive process. For instance, when a new machine is installed for ten years, the city or the private company working for them has to keep using that machine. It means, in that 10-year span, recycling is locked in to that state-of-the-art technology. But new packaging designs arise on an on-going basis because packaging is one of the most defining aspects that helps a product distinguish itself on a store’s shelf. So the problem is this gap of recycling innovation. We have a huge amount of materials all over the globe that aren’t being reused or recycled and are causing pollution.

This is really where the real problem lies. How do we move away from a linear lifecycle of extracting oil, making plastic and dumping it, to a circular model in which after plastics are used, these carbons are turned into something else, maybe chemicals or base precursors to create more materials to be used on and on?

If you really look into the stats of what types of packaging get recycled, majority of it is some form of PET, especially the clear water bottles

20QAW: How far is plastic recyclable?

M.W.: I presume we're talking about PET water bottles. PET water bottles are actually the most recyclable plastic we have on the planet. If you really look into the stats of what types of packaging get recycled, majority of it is some form of PET, especially the clear water bottles. They can be recycled I believe at least six times. This type of plastic is very good and when it’s put into a mechanical recycling system to generate a second-generation product that is valuable and that has the structural properties needed to be packaging again. The plastic packaging that causes the problems are other things like the polystyrene, the polypropylene, and the polyethylene. Those plastics right now suffer from a lack of markets, as well as the PVCs but that's another story. Plastic is very complex, we have at least 7 types that are commonly used for packaging on a regular basis and PET is actually one of the better ones.

 

20QAW: What are the different types of innovations being developed today for water containers and plastics in general?

M.W.: There are quite a few innovation companies that are sprouting up and doing well. A lot of the innovation is happening in the PET space, the plastics used for clear water bottles. There are two main camps.

The first is mechanical recycling, a physical change to the plastic, taking multiple bottles, cleaning them up, and turning them into new bottles. That involves some shredding and melting. And the newest innovation in this space focuses on removing the ink from the plastic if there is colour contamination.

And the other camp concerns chemical recycling. PET being a type of polyester, its chemical structure is relatively easy to destabilise because there are two types of chemical units that come together to make up this plastic’s composition, and an ester linkage is relatively easy to break up chemically. So all the chemical companies operating in this space are basically molecularly recycling PET back into those base units to make PET again. The challenge is to make new precursors that are on the same level of quality as the ones that originate directly from oil. Companies such as Loop Industries are claiming an attractive result as a solution going forward.

The challenge is in the other types of plastics, my company Biocellection works with polyethene because it is the world’s most produced plastic by quantity, even ahead of PET, and has one of the lowest rate of recyclability. That’s because polyethene’s chemical structure makes it very difficult to react.

I don’t believe the solution to the plastic problem is to make new things; it is the exact opposite of what we should do.

20QAW: Is a biodegradable bottle realistic at an industrial level?

M.W.: I believe it is possible, but the real question is should we? PET is a simple material to recycle, you can recycle it mechanically, up to at least six times, you can chemically recycle it back to its basic precursors, and it’s quite high-value so there are people who will pick it out of the trash. There is no reason why we should change away from PET, because if we were to adopt PLA for water bottles, then you’re never going to have a 100% transition overnight, it will cause confusion, as those plastics don’t look very similar. For a waste-processing company that has the entire infrastructure with machines that rely on infrared light to sort plastics, how do you avoid contaminating the waste room and make their life more difficult? Compostable plastics need industrial composters, which are very expensive, and most cities around the world do not have any. When these compostable plastics do not enter industrial composters, they simply do not break down so they become the same pollution as everything else, and they are more expensive to produce and likely not compatible with, as I mentioned, most packaging manufacturing infrastructures.

I don’t believe the solution to the plastic problem is to make new things; it is the exact opposite of what we should do. The solution would be to make fewer things, fewer types of things, all of the plastics in the world should be more standardised, there should be a list of chemicals that we do not put into them, there should be limits as to how much pigment or dye or other additives we can use, and there should be recycling methods corresponding to these specific types of packaging. It could be more than one technology for each type of polymer, because sometimes it’s all about what kind of downstream markets you can drive, it has to make sense in a lifecycle analysis. That’s what I believe the solution should look like, and it may be a little counterintuitive for the average person.

Everything from food to medical products depend on this packaging, even I would say to achieve the low mortality rate we have today.

20QAW: How far can human behaviour be a solution to plastic pollution?

M.W.: Human behaviour will undoubtedly play a role, as avoiding disposables is part of the solution. But it is a small part. I know a lot of people will say “No we need to fight the plastics, and we’ll win!”, but plastics are not used in packaging by coincidence, they’re the only material that can perform the way we need them to. Everything from food to medical products depend on this packaging, even I would say to achieve the low mortality rate we have today. It is an essential material in our lives, and the disposability of something is sometimes required for a product to stay clean. But when it becomes a matter of convenience, like a straw or a spoon, yes these can of course go. But what would you use to substitute for that function, and the problem is that currently we don’t have the substitute materials.

A lot of people claim compostable plastics are, but like I mentioned, they are a surface solution. They are very new; not because these polymers are newly invented, they’ve actually existed for as long as the polymers we use in our normal packaging, they’ve been around for a long time, but they just haven’t made it to the mainstream and don’t have the performance attributes, they’re not as strong and break very easily when you still need them to be strong.

Moving away from a disposable culture and changing consumer behaviour is important. We have to raise awareness to this space so more people start working on these innovations, more consumers are able to judge whether or not they should use plastics for a specific purpose, and cafeterias can assess whether or not they should buy a dishwasher to provide metal utensils. It’s essential to have this conversation, and to critically think about this issue as opposed to taking the disposable products as default. But the actual solution will need to be industrial, just like the source of the problem. The packaging comes in industrial quantities, so it has to be solved in an industrial way.

 

20QAW: How do you imagine the future of water containers, let’s say in a hundred years?

M.W.: I think for water containers, I think there will be less diversity in the material used to make water bottles. Today, the lids are made from a different type of plastic than the body, and there’s a layer of film wrapped around to display the brand and label. I think it will become a simpler packaging, but in terms of plastic, maybe it will still be the same type of plastic, like PET. But the sourcing of molecules for that PET will hopefully come from a fully recycled source, to close the loop. If we achieve that with water bottles, we’ll solve the problem.

 

Watch Miranda's video interview here