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Recycling

New hope for solving our plastic problem Add to ...

Take something plentiful that people don't want and figure out how to make it into something scarce that people are paying increasing prices for. Sound like a good business proposition?

Though it might seem like the impossible quest of ancient alchemists, who sought to make gold from base metals, what Pushkar Kumar is trying to do actually works. His company, Toronto-based GreenMantra Recycling Technologies, has a process for recycling plastic into useful waxes and oils.

Used plastic is, to put it mildly, plentiful. According to Stewardship Ontario, the province alone used 235,000 tonnes of plastic packaging in 2009. Only about a quarter of that was recovered.

Noting this fact, about seven years ago, Mr. Kumar decided to look for a solution. A metallurgical and materials engineer, he worked with his father, a chemical engineer, on the project.

They reasoned that all plastics are polymers made of molecules found in many other materials. Once broken down, those polymers could be converted into other things. But what could they convert the plastic into? And what kind of process would accomplish it?

The Kumars eventually found what seemed the ideal answer to the first question. Synthetic waxes are usually a byproduct of oil refining, but refiners can make more money - especially in today's world of $100-a-barrel oil - from creating gasoline than from waxes, which are used to make floor wax, shoe polish and car waxes.

So they have been altering their processes to produce less wax. That has reduced supplies, Mr. Kumar explains, which is driving wax prices up.

That creates an opportunity. GreenMantra won't compete for raw materials with existing suppliers and will have lower upfront costs than they do, he says. Does that mean GreenMantra can produce the products for less cost than established producers? Mr. Kumar says he isn't sure whether he can undercut their prices, but he is sure he can compete - and, he says, "at least I can guarantee that the prices are stable."

As an added benefit, he says, GreenMantra's use of recycled materials could be a boon to municipal recycling agencies that often struggle to find markets for the mountains of plastic bags, bottles and other containers they collect.

The challenge, explains Lyle Clarke, vice-president of innovation and blue box at Stewardship Ontario, is efficiently recovering and realizing value from the many different grades of plastics consumers put out for recycling. GreenMantra, Mr. Clarke says, is "going at the heart of the challenge in the system."

Mr. Kumar says his process can handle a variety of plastics, including bags and bottles. Perhaps most important, he can process mixed loads of material, potentially eliminating the time-consuming job of sorting, since existing recycling processes are mainly limited to a particular type of plastic.

A key to making this work was finding a catalyst to drive the chemical process that breaks up the molecules. Loads of plastics are bound to contain impurities - bits of metal, glass or other materials - and GreenMantra needed a process that would continue working despite those impurities. The company found a catalyst a couple of years ago and has been refining its methods since.

The beauty of GreenMantra's business model is its simplicity, argues James Sbrolla, entrepreneur-in-residence at the MaRS Discovery District, the Toronto technology incubator that has helped Mr. Kumar build his company. "They're not trying to change the world. They're picking a very simple niche that they can do well at."

Mr. Kumar completed an MBA at the University of Western Ontario in 2008, giving him what Mr. Sbrolla calls "an excellent combination of skills." It was the MBA, Mr. Kumar says, that led him to start thinking beyond developing the technology and start work on commercializing it himself.

GreenMantra set up a pilot plant in India, and Mr. Kumar says the company has been talking to recycling agencies and potential customers.

Mr. Kumar is operating out of an office at MaRS, which has provided him with valuable contacts and advice on financing. Last fall the Canadian Innovation Exchange chose GreenMantra as one of Canada's 25 most innovative companies.

GreenMantra has come a long way, Mr. Sbrolla says. The next challenge will be scaling up from its pilot plant in India to a full commercial operation in Canada. "I'm sure that they'll be able to do it," Mr. Sbrolla says, "but it won't be easy."

Mr. Kumar understands that, but seems ready for it. "There are always challenges," he says, "but that's where the fun is."

 

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