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MRF Hard-to-Recycle Plastics Upcycling Pilot in San Jose, CA

We are building a chemical process for MRFs that can turn unrecyclable plastics into 12 chemicals for synthesis with markets worth $83B.

Photo of Miranda Wang
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The following content is an outline of a 18-page Pilot Plan that has been developed in collaboration by BioCellection Inc, GreenWaste Recovery, Inc., and the City of San Jose for a Stage 1 R&D Pilot to be launched on August 14, 2017. The detailed Pilot Plan is available upon request. We are creating this submission in hopes of engaging both funding and input from the EMF community as part of a first step to circularize the plastic economy in San Jose, CA.

The problem

Plastics are difficult to recycle and occupy substantial volume in San José’s waste stream. Small format plastic packaging and films are among the most problematic materials still being landfilled even after reaching a material recovery facility (MRF). Current methods for treating unrecyclable plastic include incineration, plastic-to-fuel technologies, and landfill disposal. Plastic incineration results in adverse environmental consequences, as does the disposal of plastics in landfills. These expensive methods pollute the environment and waste materials that could be used as a raw feedstock for new products.

Purpose of Pilot Collaboration

The purpose of this pilot collaboration is to accelerate the development of a novel and promising plastic trash-to-value technology, which does not turn plastics to fuel, in efforts to not only divert unrecyclable plastic waste from landfills after it has reached a MRF, but also to open new downstream markets through the upcycling of plastics into chemical precursors (organic acids, carbohydrates and alcohols) for the materials and biological industries. The BioCellection Team has proven successful conversion and >50% mass reduction of unrecyclable plastics in over 200 chemical reactions (experimental data available upon request). The waste material of interest to this pilot is a variety of hard-to-recycle plastics comprising but not limited to small format plastic packaging (e.g. single-use sachets, bottle caps and tear-offs, coffee cup lids and straws) found in MRF residue, plastic film (e.g. LDPE, HDPE, and unlabeled types), post compost-treated plastics and agricultural films, and recycler-rejected rigid and foam plastics. This pilot is intended to serve as the first stage of a longer term collaboration between GreenWaste, the City of San José, and BioCellection Inc., with the ultimate goal of benefitting the City of San José through waste reduction, economic development for a circular economy, and job creation, and create competitive advantages for GreenWaste through advanced innovation. 

How this novel plastic upcycling technology works

Current technologies can convert plastics into fuel and electricity, which are low-value commodities. The patent-pending technology being developed by BioCellection will convert plastic polymers into value-added chemicals that have applications in myriad fields such as in the manufacture of paints, plasticizers, textiles, polyurethanes, detergents, cleaners, etc. Two main chemicals produced are succinic acid and adipic acid, which are essential precursors for virgin nylon 6,6 and polyurethane. This process is referred to as upcycling and it involves two steps: 1) a hydrolysis process that converts paper and organic waste, often present in the waste plastic stream, into sugars and alcohols, and 2) an oxidation process that converts waste plastic polymers into useful organic compounds. The second step of the process involves breaking the polymer chains into smaller pieces and adding oxygen to these chains to form different chemical precursors. Through this two-step approach, the BioCellection process does not require pre-sorting of plastic waste. The conditions used are considerably milder than pyrolysis processes and the products generated are worth 8x more than fuel and 2-3x more than recycled plastic resin.

Pilot Design

This Stage 1 R&D Pilot is a triphasic project that elapses over a duration of 18 months and takes place in the laboratory. During this period, GreenWaste Recovery will supply unrecyclable plastics from its various waste streams along the MRF sort line for the BioCellection team to break down in its 20x process scale-up. Specific technical success metrics have been identified. By the end of this pilot, we will be able to scale the process to a 240kg/day treatment process for unrecyclable plastics that can be bolted onto a conventional MRF sort line. Facilitation of the pilot will be performed jointly by the City of San Jose Environmental Services Department and GreenWaste Recovery through a Pilot Council. 

Local Implementation Design

In Stage 1, the goal is to engage downstream customers who could make use of the chemical outputs produced from the BioCellection process. These customers may be packaging companies that are looking for sustainable sources of polymer feedstock, textiles companies looking for raw materials, and synthetic biology companies looking for new carbon feedstock and substrates to replace corn-based sugars. Our goal is to be able to turn unrecyclable materials from San Jose's local MRF into chemical feedstock that can be used in local companies. 

In Stage 2, the 100L BioCellection process will be placed on-site at GreenWaste to process 240kg/day of material. The chemical output will be transported off-site to a purification center before being sent to a downstream chemical synthesis manufacturer. 

Company / Organization Name

BioCellection Inc. in partnership with GreenWaste Recovery, Inc. and the City of San Jose Environmental Services Department.


Where are you / your team located?

San Jose, California, USA

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

This process prevents small format plastic packaging waste by turning it into useful chemicals. No major changes to currently existing waste collection and treatment processes are required. Consumers can toss small format plastics into recycling bins in this new system. Currently, small format plastic packaging is a waste because there are no recycling technologies or end markets available. BioCellection's process creates downstream markets by connecting MRFs to chemical manufacturers.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Case 1 Mark: he can toss energy gel sachet into a recycling bin on the streets. Case 2 Carmen: her recycler will be able to accept her tubs after they add our technology to their process. Case 2 Trevor and Benjamin: they can put all picnic waste into the recycling bin in an area where MRFs use our technology. Case 2 Michaela: Her tear-offs are recyclable if her recycler uses our technology. Case 3 Nigel: Recycle straws in city park bins and ensure recycler uses our technology

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

City of San Jose, CA is the first region of implementation. Our goal is to engage other cities and waste recovery companies in the San Francisco Bay Area as we scale. Our technology can be bolted onto any existing material recovery facility.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

In the beginning, our process is suitable for developed countries with currently established waste collection and sorting pipelines, and involve facilities like MRFs, anaerobic digestors, and industrial composting. We are working with the City of San Jose as a model city to bolt our technology onto all these types of waste facilities, and then to expand into the 500 MRFs in USA, beginning from the west and east coasts. We aim to establish local systems centered around cities.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Prototyping: You have conducted some small tests or experiments with prospective users and will continue developing idea through these tests.
  • Piloting: You have started to implement your solution as a whole with a first set of real users. You may have started to develop a business model for your idea, including identifying key customer segments, relevant partnerships, go-to-market strategy, and draft financials.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

Goals: 1. Complete Stage 1 Pilot with engagement of potential downstream partners who could find applications for our virgin products made from city trash - finding 1 downstream partner 2. Raise funding to fund scale-up and R&D Key tests: 1. Understand what sustainable materials the industry is looking for and work together to make them from our products 2. Test a broader variety of unrecyclable plastics and design the technology based on what will make maximum future impact

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

This work is the result of full-time research of a team of scientists at BioCellection led by Miranda Wang (CEO) and Jeanny Yao (CTO), who have been working on various ways to tackle the plastic problem through science since 2011. We work with advisors from the chemical and waste industries.

Tell us about your work experience

2012: research on plasticizer biodegradation by soil bacteria 2013: TED talk on 2012 research 2015 - present: founded BioCellection Inc., company adopted chemical approach

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

BioCellection Inc. is a Delware C-Corp based in San Jose, California.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Rachel Major

Turning waste into a resource is necessary for a sustainable future. Recycling plastics to make valuable chemicals is a great initiative!

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