Mike Biddle calls himself the “Garbage Man” and thinks of garbage piles as ‘above ground mines’. Less than 10% of plastic trash is recycled — compared to almost 90% of metals — because of the massively complicated waste management issues, the problem of finding and sorting the different kinds.
In 1992, Mike Biddle, a plastics engineer, set out to find a solution. Frustrated by this waste, Mike has developed a cheap and incredibly energy-efficient plant that can, and does, recycle any kind of plastic. He set up a lab in his garage in Pittsburg, California, and began experimenting with complex-plastics recycling, borrowing ideas from such industries as mining and grain processing.
He says: “I consider myself an environmentalist. I hate to see plastics wasted. I hate to see any natural resource – even human time – wasted.”
Most people, even those who understand the menace of plastic find solace in thinking that “At least I am recycling it”. Even though consumers are doing their part and should continue to do so, these good habits don’t do much to help the situation if there in an inadequate recycling system in place. Throwing water bottles into the recycling bin doesn’t begin to address the massive quantity of post-consumer plastic that ends up in landfills and the ocean.
Of the approximately 250 billion kgs (550 billion pounds) of plastic used annually on a global basis, less than 10% of these plastics are currently recycled. In comparison, over 90% of the metals, such as steel, copper and aluminum, are recycled from these same complex waste streams.
Why then are plastics—far more valuable than steel on a cost per weight basis—so undervalued as recovered materials?
Because it’s so difficult to separate the various kinds of plastics – up to 20 kinds per product – that make up our computers, cell phones, cars and home appliances, only a small fraction of plastics from complex waste streams are recycled, while the rest is tossed. Different kinds of plastic have overlapping characteristics that makes it impossible to separate them. Metals on the other hand have distinct physical and chemical properties that helps the sorting process.
Since then, Biddle has developed a patented 30-step plastics recycling system that includes magnetically extracting metals, shredding the plastics, sorting them by polymer type and producing graded pellets to be reused in industry – a process that takes less than a tenth of the energy required to make virgin plastic from crude oil. Today, the company he cofounded, MBA Polymers, has facilities in California, China, Austria and the UK can process over 300 million pounds (over 140,000 tons) of waste per year, selling the purified plastics back to some of the largest manufacturers in the world of IT, electronics, appliances, automobiles, office, home and garden products. Moreover, the process is very efficient, saving over 80% of the energy and between 1 and 3 tons of CO₂ for every ton of virgin plastics replaced.
MBA Polymers is changing the way the world sees recycled plastic, creating a highly valuable commodity while it provides a significant economic benefit—all in a sustainable way.