A study found that by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which had already become waste. Of that total waste, 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment, 12% was incinerated, and only 9% was recycled. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. As a result, plastic pollution has become a global crisis that threatens the safety of wildlife and human populations.
But imagine if we could turn that plastic waste into valuable products, thus reducing the amount of plastic accumulated in the environment. That’s what inspired Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao to found BioCellection, a company that is coupling chemistry and synthetic biology to tackle the plastic waste problem.
Their platform pre-treats plastic waste using chemical methods, processing it into a mixture of smaller molecules that are easily digestible by bacteria. These microbes have been engineered and evolved to effectively biodegrade these plastic-derived compounds and in turn, biosynthesize valuable products such as lipids that can be used by the textile industry.
Miranda Wang, the CEO and co-founder of BioCellection, has been thinking about creative solutions to plastic pollution since childhood. She raised $1 million in grants and investment and brought BioCellection to its first paid pilots in the United States and beyond. She is also a TED speaker, record-setting winner of the Wharton Business Plan Competition, and among the top 10 North American recipients of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a member of the Penn iGEM team.
Check out our interview with Miranda and register for SynBioBeta to learn more.
Why is synthetic biology such an exciting field to be part of at the moment?
I believe synthetic biology will be the key to sustainably produce human necessities, such as food and medicine, as well as replace harmful substances, like chemicals, fuels, and materials, with biodegradable ones. It is exciting to know that the smallest organisms on the planet can be so powerful.
Can you tell us about your projects to upcycle plastic waste into valuable products?
Each year, less than 14% of all plastics that our world produces gets recycled. The rest is incinerated, landfilled, and leaked into the oceans, where it reappears in our food. The majority of plastic pollution is films and small format packaging, which do not have downstream markets due to contamination and property incompatibilities.
We recognize that the root cause for plastic pollution is an innovation void that exists for the treatment of hard-to-recycle plastics. This void exists because it is, we believe, unrealistic to create one invention that can treat all plastics scalably and will also generate one product needed in such large quantities. People have tried in the past with plastic to oil technologies, and they have failed due to poor economics. The solution must be an innovation platform–many inventions– that work together to turn the gigantic amounts of hard-to-recycle plastics into hundreds, if not thousands, of different products for a new circular economy.
Our vision is to build a long-term solution to plastic pollution by developing inventions that will turn hard-to-recycle plastics into starting materials for currently unrelated production processes, such as synthetic biology. We have been able to invent a series of thermochemical processes that can turn unrecyclable plastics into microbial food and substrates for synthesis.
What challenges persist in solving the plastic pollution problem, and what progress has your team – or other peers – made in overcoming them?
It is crucial to understand the biggest causes of plastic pollution and the gaps in the technologies and services available. The plastic pollution problem originates from land, where plastic products are made, consumed, and disposed of. The most problematic plastics are ones that do not have valuable downstream markets for recycling. These are often consumer single-use packaging such as food containers and plastic bags. BioCellection is targeting these materials streams from the source by working with material recovery facilities and city governments (City of San Jose and GreenWaste Recovery), intercepting the waste before they end up in landfills or oceans.
What are the upcoming milestones and long-term priorities for your company?
As an innovation platform for turning plastic waste into valuable goods, BioCellection is focused on innovation as a long-term priority. The key is to generate various lines of products that can drive up the demand of using plastic waste as a raw material. Our most immediate milestones include the successful completion of the pilot project with the City of San Jose and GreenWaste Recovery and initial sales of our first product, artist oil paint, which is currently being finalized in development.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other budding young biotech entrepreneurs?
When someone tells you “no,” ask them why. Then take some time to think about what they’ve said until you understand a deeper level of insight that you may have not understood before, but don’t let it dampen your spirits.
What are you most looking forward to at SynBioBeta SF 2017?
Meeting and hearing talks from field-defining scientists and entrepreneurs, and seeing snippets of the future.2