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Mike Biddle: Why plastic is still ‘the last frontier’ of recycling

 
Mike Biddle

Mike Biddle has stepped down as MBA Polymers CEO. Photograph: MBA Polymers

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Mike Biddle: Why plastic is still ‘the last frontier’ of recycling” was written by Marc Gunther, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 26th February 2014 15.00 UTC

This month, Mike Biddle, the founder and longtime CEO of a pioneering plastics recycling company called MBA Polymers, stepped down as an executive at the firm, ending more than two decades of unrelenting effort to reduce plastic waste.

Biddle’s story is one of great success, as well as ongoing frustration. He sat down with me last week at the 2014 GreenBiz Forum in Phoenix to talk about MBA Polymers, the potential of the so-called circular economy, and why, despite all we know, the vast majority of plastics discarded in the US still wind up in incinerators, landfills or, worse, the ocean.

Plastics, he says, remains “the last frontier of recycling.”

Biddle, who is 58 and has a PhD in chemical engineering from Case Western and an MBA from Stanford, left a good job at Dow Chemical in 1992 in the hope of solving the difficult puzzle of plastics recycling. During the next seven years, he attracted about $7m in grants and loans from the state of California, the Environmental Protection Agency and a plastics industry trade group.

The money enabled him to develop a set of technologies needed to make high-quality plastic pellets – which can be used to make new products – from big, messy and mixed post-consumer waste streams, particularly electronic waste and junked automobiles. He calls it “above-ground mining.” (MBA Polymers doesn’t bother with PET plastics, the type used to make soda bottles, leaving that particular waste stream to the beverage industry.)

Plastics Pellets

MBA Polymers turns hard-to-recycle post-consumer plastics – such as those found in electronic waste and junked automobiles – into high-quality pellets like these, which are, in turn, used to make new products. Photograph: MBA Polymers

Since raising its first round of venture capital in 1999, MBA Polymers has attracted more than $150m from investors. Its latest round was a Series H. Now, the company, headquartered in Richmond, California, operates recycling plants in China, Austria and in the former coal mining town of Worksop in the UK, which together process more than 300m pounds of plastic waste per year. It also won a 2013 Katerva Award for the materials and resources category, announced today.

The company has proven that the economics of plastics recycling can work, so long as there is an adequate supply of waste to be reprocessed. And closing the loop on plastics also delivers big environmental benefits. Recycling plastics not only keeps waste out of landfills and oceans, but also reduces the need for petroleum-based feedstocks, requires 80% less energy than making plastic from oil and dramatically reduces carbon emissions.

Of all this, Biddle is justly proud. He considers himself an environmentalist, as well as an entrepreneur. “I absolutely hate waste,” he says.

But Biddle is disappointed that he has been unable to take the company further. He estimates that as much as 500bn pounds of plastics are thrown away every year, only a tiny fraction of which is captured by MBA Polymers.

He’s especially frustrated that the company isn’t operating in the US, the country that educated him and provided the seed money for his research. MBA Polymers employs about 300 people, and all but a handful of engineers work overseas. “I’d like to create jobs here,” he says. Biddle himself had been commuting to the UK.

Why can’t the company gain traction in the US? Building plants to reprocess plastics is expensive, and MBA Polymers cannot be sure it will get a large enough – and secure enough – supply of US plastic waste to justify the capital cost.

 

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