Meet Michael Biddle, this year's recipient of the prestigious Gothenburg
Prize which focuses on sustainable development (Kofi Annan and Al Gore
are previous recipients).
Biddle is the founder of MBA Polymers, a 20-year-old company with three plants (in China, Austria, and the U.K). The company tackles recyclables that others don’t want, or don’t know how to deal with: plastics from coffee makers and toasters, TVs and cell phones, fittings from cars and trucks, and so on. Here he is talking about it on TED:
As Biddle explains to FastCoExist, these materials are actually more valuable and more plentiful than steel, but tend to get passed over since they're more difficult to separate from the waste stream. Most of them will end up in landfills, burned in incinerators, or shipped to dangerous and inefficient sorting plants in the developing world. Unlike metal, these plastics have infinite different colors, share
similar densities, and have no electrical or magnetic properties that
make sorting easier.
At MBA Polymers, they take waste from "shredders" that have already separated out metals, then isolate up to 40 plastic types in a multi-stage process to produce virgin plastic pellets that can be reused in the same way as traditional plastic, but with an 80% savings in energy, and a lower cost.
Biddle calls this "above the ground mining," and thinks there is a huge potential. He points out that the overall problem of un-recycled plastic is getting worse (computer and electronics waste is the fastest growing part of the world’s waste stream), and that while many developed countries now collect standard recyclables such as PET Coke bottles and milk jugs, the rates for other plastic types are almost nonexistent.
Biddle wants to improve collection of these types of neglected plastic in developing countries, where there are thousands of "pickers" who already sort through the trash looking for materials they can sell to make some extra money. The work is often unsafe, and the economic opportunity and environmental benefits aren’t maximized. Biddle’s currently looking at ideas for coordinating informal pickers into organized teams, possibly working in some kind of public-private partnership. And he thinks he can improve incomes, and health and safety standards, as a result.