A 24-year-old has invented a new way to break down plastic waste and prevent it from landing in the ocean

Miranda Wang/BioCellection
  • More than 220 million tons of plastic is produced around the world each year, but less than 20% is recycled.
  • Miranda Wang, the 24-year-old CEO of BioCellection, has invented a new way to break down plastic waste.
  • BioCellection focuses on recycling polyethylenes, which are the most common but least recyclable type of plastic.
  • In early November, Wang’s company received $US100,000 from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability for the invention.

A 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate has invented a new way to break down plastic waste and help keep single-use packaging out of oceans.

Miranda Wang, co-founder and CEO of the company BioCellection, focuses on recycling polyethylene, which is the most common but least recyclable type of plastic. Most polyethylenes, like bubble wrap and plastic bags, end up in landfills.

In early November, Wang’s company received a $US100,000 prize from the University of California Los Angeles Institute of the Environment and Sustainability for the invention. UCLA’s annual award, funded by the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, honours innovators below the age of 40.

Each year, more than 220 million tons of plastic is produced around the world, but over 80% of it is not recycled, according to UNESCO. A significant amount – roughly 18 billion pounds – ends up in oceans, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted last year that plastic will outweigh fish in oceans by 2050.


Read more:
How ocean pollution affects humans

BioCellection takes polyethylenes and turns them into chemical building blocks for new products. The company converts plastic packaging into chemical precursors through a catalyst, which can function at a very low temperature. The team then purifies the building blocks.

Wang emphasised that she and co-founder Jeanny Yao are not trying to form a new market for recycled materials – instead, she wants her invention to be a high-quality drop-in replacement for existing solutions. Manufacturers would not need to change their supply chain processes to use BioCellection’s products instead of petrochemicals, Wang said.

Miranda Wang BioCellectionMiranda Wang/BioCellectionBioCellection co-founders Miranda Wang (left) and Jeanny Yao.

BioCellection’s process can convert about 99.5% of plastic packaging by weight, but the company is still developing its purification process. Wang’s team has surpassed 80% purity but needs to reach the 90-per cent range for the solution to be commercial-grade, she said.

Wang said she hopes the solution will be commercial-grade in the next six months, adding that the $US100,000 prize will go toward developing the purification technology.

Other recycling methods, Wang said, have high energy inputs because they operate in the 500-1000 degree Celsius range.

“These are notorious for being very capital-intensive because you just need to build a very sensitive machine to be able to handle those conditions,” Wang said.

BioCellection’s process can operate at about 120 degrees Celsius. It is also more narrow in focus than existing alternatives, which take in other types of plastics in addition to polyethylene.

Wang said her company makes four different products, with values ranging from $US1,600 per metric ton to more than $US12,000 per metric ton, and she expects to have a demonstration unit out by the middle of 2019. By then, Wang said she hopes to have a better idea of the costs involved, adding that she would like to secure a commercial partnership by 2020.

“This technology can become the pillar of what would enable people around the world to mine landfills for plastics as a new carbon source,” Wang said after receiving the Pritzker award. “We don’t have to drill for oil anymore to make the things around us.”

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.