Revolutionary recycling? A new technology turns everyday trash into plastic treasure.
KIBBUTZ TZE’ELIM, Israel — Eight tons of trash are piled high at the entrance of a small factory in this tree-lined kibbutz — rotting food mixed with plastic bags, dirty paper, castoff bottles and containers, even broken toys. But nothing is headed for a landfill. Instead, what’s next is a process that could revolutionize recycling.
Within hours, the mound will be sorted, ground, chopped, shredded, cleaned and heated into a sort of garbage caramel, then resurrected as tiny pseudo-plastic pellets that can be made into everyday items like trays and packing crates.
“The magic that we’re doing is we’re taking everything — the chicken bones, the banana peels,” says Jack “Tato” Bigio, the chief executive at UBQ Materials. “We take this waste, and we convert it.”
Jack “Tato” Bigio, chief executive of UBQ Materials, stands atop a pile of shredded garbage. His company will convert the trash into pellets that can be used in manufacturing plastic. (Jonas Opperskalski for The Washington Post)
Such upcycling is desperately needed by a world seeking solutions to the environmental challenges caused by the 2 billion tons of waste generated annually. Turning that trash into treasure has long held allure. Yet attempts have fallen short, and cynics abound.
UBQ says it has succeeded where others have failed, creating a radical technology that transforms garbage into the raw materials for plastics manufacturers and earns them a profit in the end.
And by diverting household refuse destined for long-term burial, the process will help to reduce landfill production of a powerful greenhouse gas while creating new life for hard-to-recycle plastic. The loop exemplifies a “circular economy,” in which waste is turned into something useful.
One skeptic turned convert calls it a breakthrough that could, in the best way, “create very serious disruption.”
“If we want to advance to a more sustainable future, we don’t only need new technologies, but new business models,” said Antonis Mavropoulos, a Greek chemical engineer who is president of the International Solid Waste Association. He visited UBQ’s plant here in the Negev Desert and came away convinced. “In this case, we have a byproduct worth a very good price in the market.”
UBQ’s process uses discarded food, containers, wrappers and other trash typically destined for landfills. (Jonas Opperskalski for The Washington Post)
Others are still dubious, though they have softened their tone recently. Duane Priddy is the chief executive of the Plastic Expert Group and a former principal scientist at Dow Chemical. Until a call last month with UBQ executives, he and his group had scoffed at their claims. Now they’re keeping a more open mind.
“Although we remain skeptical, we look forward to evaluating UBQ products and continuing to learn more about the UBQ technology to further validate their findings and broad applications,” the group said in a statement. Should the technology prove commercially viable, “it could be a game changer for the global environment.”
The company’s push is part of a broader effort during the past several decades as the colossal scope of the world’s waste problem grew impossible to ignore. One approach has been to excavate existing sites, in part to recover potentially valuable debris. The strategy hasn’t proved profitable, however.
UBQ aims to keep trash from ever going into landfills.
An analysis it commissioned by the Swiss environmental consulting firm Quantis found that keeping decomposing organic waste out of landfills and using it to create second-generation plastics could significantly cut methane, the gas that in the short term contributes more to global warming than carbon dioxide. Substituting a ton of UBQ’s pellets for the same amount of polypropylene saves the equivalent of about 15 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, Quantis concluded; adding as little as 10 percent of its material can make the result carbon neutral, depending on the type of plastic being created.
What’s the “magic” behind this? Executives are coy, but biotechnology expert Oded Shoseyov, a Hebrew University professor who has consulted for UBQ, says melting plastics and waste creates a homogeneous substance strengthened by fibers in the organic ingredients.
So far, that alchemy only happens at the plant in Kibbutz Tze’elim, population 464.
A Bedouin woman, her face almost completely covered by a black veil, was among several people at work at the first stage of the process on a Sunday morning. She plucked out a variety of items — larger things like shoes and coffee machines are culled at this point — while household flotsam moved along a short conveyor belt.
Next up were two automated cullings, one involving a magnetized oval track, to eliminate both ferrous and nonferrous metals. Then the waste was shredded and ground into brownish-gray confetti before more sorting, this time targeting glass and rocks.
These stinky prep stages can vary. Bigio says UBQ works to a customer’s specifications for characteristics like tensile strength and flexibility. If its material is going to be used in injection molding, trash is sorted again and again to remove glass and metals that could damage delicate molds. If the material’s final fate is for use in construction — in composite brick, for example — the sorting is less rigorous.
The conversion process
Step 1: At UBQ’s plant, the transformation process starts with untreated garbage.
The conversion process
Step 1: At UBQ’s plant, the transformation process starts with untreated garbage.
Regardless, there’s one final check and cleaning using near-infrared spectroscopy.
“In UBQ, nothing goes to waste,” Bigio said as he led visitors on a tour, past dunes of confetti awaiting their metamorphosis. “Metals and glass go to recyclers. There’s no water in the process, so it’s really efficient in terms of the environment.”
The conversion stage takes place in an adjacent building. As much as five tons of waste can be fed into a red hopper leading to a multi-chamber reactor that sits behind a closed sliding door to block prying eyes. Temperatures up to 400 degrees break down the organic matter into its core elements, and then it and the plastics are re-engineered into a matrix through chemical and physical reactions that UBQ keeps secret.
The result is something of a tongue twister that seems too good to be true, what Bigio calls “a thermoplastic, composite, bio-based, sustainable, climate-positive material.”
That is pulverized into a gray powder that looks and feels like ashes, the afterlife of people’s waste. The final stage turns the powder into long, spaghetti-like strands that are cooled and cut into round or cylindrical pellets in an array of colors — forest green, bright orange, firehouse red, basic black, plus others.
Getting this far has taken some time. The company has been shepherded for about a decade by Rabbi Yehuda Pearl, a businessman who built Sabra into a hummus superpower before selling his interest to PepsiCo for nearly $50 million. Its pilot facility opened in 2013, and scientists, technicians and other staff spent the next several years on below-the-radar research and testing to ensure the green credentials and profitability of their product.
Pearl, a soft-spoken man with a grandfatherly bearing, said the team wanted to be “bulletproof” given the doubters they’d inevitably face. The company, which these days has more than three dozen employees, holds patents in Israel, the United States, Canada, China, India, South Korea and other countries.
Now UBQ — short for ubiquitous — is stepping into the market. It has publicly acknowledged just one customer, an Israeli company named Plasgad that makes pallets, crates and other products. In August, UBQ announced that 2,000 Plasgad-manufactured recycling bins were headed to the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority. Those bins, made with UBQ pellets, can be recycled in the future using the UBQ process.
According to Pearl, the company is in advanced talks with numerous Fortune 1000 firms interested in utilizing its material. Prominent names are on its board as advisers, including Roger Kornberg, a Stanford professor and Nobel laureate for chemistry.
This glimmer of hope for recycling is timely. The latest data show that Americans generate 262.4 million tons of waste a year — about 4.4 pounds per person per day. Where to put it is increasingly problematic. In 2018, China blocked the import of most plastic waste, essentially forcing more into landfills around the world. Some U.S. cities have ended their recycling programs.
UBQ Materials is itself a recycled, upcycled idea. The company’s genesis traces back to a member of the Israeli armed forces who received compensation after he developed cancer during training dives in the polluted Kishon River. As Shoseyov recounted, the soldier took the money and started a company to mix plastic with polluted mud from the river — what he thought would be an inexpensive solution to encasing toxic substances in the riverbed. Scientists, Shoseyov said, would never have pursued such an outlandish concept.
Pearl invested $3.5 million in it, however. And while that first venture went bankrupt, he consulted with experts and decided the core idea had promise. He obtained the original patents and formed UBQ in 2012. The big breakthrough came when he asked whether the material could be liquefied enough to flow, a feat many experts told him was near impossible.
In the laboratory, the first tests replaced 10 percent of plastic with UBQ material in an injection molding machine. It worked, creating a small cup. Gradually, the amount of UBQ material was increased. Even at 90 percent, that garbage caramel still flowed.
The team continues investigating new applications and testing characteristics like durability. UBQ says its material doesn’t break down and can have more than half a dozen lives, unlike most plastics, which can be recycled only once or twice because they degrade. Research has shown that additives can also be blended in to provide flame retardant or UV protection.
“This lab is the heart of the company,” said Bigio, a businessman by training. He has lived in Israel since 1984, though his native Peruvian accent comes through in both Hebrew and English.
The plant’s raw material is waste hauled from Tel Aviv’s Hiriya transfer station, which otherwise would go to a landfill near Beersheba. The company has also imported waste from around the globe to ensure its approach works with garbage from other countries.
A landfill just minutes from the UBQ factory in Kibbutz Tze’elim treats waste the usual way: by burying it. (Jonas Opperskalski for The Washington Post)
The facility can produce about one ton of UBQ material per hour, 5,000 to 7,000 tons annually. Another site, with an annual capacity of up to 100,000 tons, is being planned. Demand is huge, Bigio said, with the global plastic injection industry a $325 billion market. He and Pearl — one working from Israel, the other from New York — say their technology is easily scaled. They say UBQ is already making money on its manufacturing process, though they declined to give specific numbers.
Moving a start-up into the mainstream is a familiar refrain for Pearl. He owned a kosher specialty grocery in Scarsdale, N.Y., when he invested in Sabra in 1994, helping increase revenue from $1 million annually to $7 million in eight years. After he took control of Sabra in 2002, its fortunes skyrocketed. Sales jumped by 50 percent annually. He’s had comparable success with his Long Island synagogue, Anshei Shalom, which started with seven families. Today, it has more than 300.
“It was similar with UBQ,” he says. “I saw the germ of an idea that might be grown and influenced.”
This time, instead of putting hummus in every refrigerator, he’s aiming to put garbage in every piece of plastic.
About this story
Story editing by Susan Levine. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Development and design by Andrew Braford.