Remember these famous lines from The Graduate?
At a graduation party, a well-meaning family friend takes a young college grad aside to give him some good advice for his future. “Ben, I just want to say one word to you…just one word. Plastics! There’s a great future in plastics.” That was 1967. Here we are, half a century later, and we have a big, big problem on this beautiful blue planet. One word. Plastics!
FIRST, THE PROBLEM
The Plastic Pollution Coalition states, “Plastic is a substance the Earth cannot digest.” Plastic degrades, but it does not disappear; it disintegrates into smaller and smaller particles. These particles get into the food chain and are found in the tiniest plankton to the great whales. Earthday.org reports that by 2050 there will be more plastics by weight in the ocean than fish. Science Magazine and The Ocean Legacy Foundation report more than eight million tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean annually. We have all seen the heartbreaking visuals of the entangling, strangulating, choking effect of plastic refuse on animals, who ingest alarming quantities of plastic waste.
Bisphenol A is a synthetic compound used to strengthen plastic. BPA “free” does not make a significant difference in the health effects of this compound. It is used in plastic drinking bottles, toys, and the lining of canned food containers. According to Healthline.com, it has a similar structure as the hormone estrogen and can negatively affect male and female fertility. It is suspect in myriad other health issues for children and adults.
Plastics! Not quite the promising product of 1967!
Here is the good news. There are some amazing young people out there in the world who care about the environment and are out to save us. One very intriguing hero is Priyanka Bakaya, CEO and founder of Renewlogy, a clean energy company that converts plastic waste to fuel.
Priyanka grew up in Australia and saw the accumulation of plastic waste on the beautiful shorelines of her home. One of her family’s very close friends was a man called Percy Kean, a childless bachelor, who was a clean energy inventor who loved showing the young girl oil he had created from waste using a depolymerization process.
After a stint at Stanford, Priyanka went to work as a Wall Street energy analyst, but she didn’t like it. She remembered Steve Job’s words in his address to her graduating class, “If today was the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” He then said that whenever the answer is “no” too many days in a row, it’s time to change something. She remembered Kean’s work.
Priyanka poured over the patents Kean had developed. She applied to MIT and went there to develop the process of turning plastic waste into fuel. Partnering with Chemical Engineer Benjamin Coates, Ph.D., Priyanka founded PK Clean, now called Renewlogy, a company using catalytic depolymerization to convert plastic waste into fuel. PK was a privately funded enterprise. Priyanka and Coates designed and built a lot of their own machinery. They set up in Salt Lake City, Utah, a city that supports new businesses and clean technology.
In Salt Lake City, PK Clean converts 20,000 pounds of plastic a day into 2500 gallons of fuel that can be sold to refineries. Plastic, all types and grades, is chopped up like confetti, heated so the carbon chains break, and turned into fuel. The grade of fuel depends on what temperature the plastic is processed, so different grades of fuel can be produced. There are no polluting emissions from the process and the fuel is sulfur free.
The goal is 50 plants around the country, each processing 30 tons of plastic a day. Twenty-five per cent of the nation’s fuel needs could be met by recycling plastic. The plastic would never reach the water tables, rivers, lakes, or the oceans.
BRIDGES OF CONNECTIVITY
What makes Priyanka Bakaya so intriguing to me is her ability to connect things—ideas with technology, people with technology, history with the future—all aimed for the good. Stopping plastic from getting into the landfills and the oceans is a mighty mission. Empowering people along the way elevates the goal.
In a pilot project in Pune, India, Priyanka has made a connection between the most ancient form of waste managers and the newest technologies. Priyanka built a small PK plant that produces diesel fuel. She enlisted the poorest of the poor, the waste pickers, scavengers and collectors of waste. She tripled their income buying plastic waste from them while making it mandatory their children go to school. Thus, all involved become part of the future.
So, young graduates of 2019, I have just two words for you. They will bring you wealth, international travel, and a chance to save the earth: Waste Management. There is a great future ahead in waste management! n
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