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When Miranda Wang was in Grade 11, she went on a field trip that would change the course of her life, and may eventually contribute to solving one of the biggest challenges of our era.

This environmental entrepreneur has a bold vision to reduce and recycle plastic waste at her start-up, Novoloop, based in Menlo Park, California.

©Rolex/Bart Michiels

How Canadian scientist Miranda Wang is tackling our global problem with plastic

When Miranda Wang was in Grade 11, she went on a field trip that would change the course of her life, and may eventually contribute to solving one of the biggest challenges of our era.

The trip to the Vancouver South Waste Transfer Station set Wang on a path toward becoming a recycling entrepreneur, a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate and, in time, the scientist who solves humanity’s plastics problem.

“Humans have always defined the era we live in based on the material we have to build with,” says Wang, who grew up in Vancouver and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where her company Novoloop is based. “And right now it’s plastic.”

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The entrepreneur’s goal is to recycle hundreds of tonnes of plastic a year by 2023, into valuable resources that can be transformed into clothing, car interiors or sports equipment.©Rolex/Bart Michiels

According to a July, 2021 report by Google in collaboration with AFARA and IHS Markit, humans produce 276 million metric tonnes of plastics each year, and only 7 per cent are recycled. Thirteen million metric tonnes leak into the oceans each year, at the disheartening rate of a dump-truck’s worth every minute. If current trends continue, the report says, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050.

When Wang visited her local waste transfer station a decade ago, she did not have those figures in hand, but the experience made an indelible impression. “What was really emotionally impactful was seeing how much plastic was there,” she says. “It’s hard for anyone standing in front of that pit, looking at all the waste constantly being dumped in, to not think, ‘Where’s this going?’”

As both a scientist and an environmentalist, Wang was troubled by this thought, and it inspired her to come up with a solution. Working with her friend Jeanny Yao, the pair’s research into using bacteria to break down plastic in B.C.’s Fraser River earned them a Sanofi Biogenius Canada award in Grade 12. After completing a science degree at McGill University, Wang would go on to found Novoloop with Yao, a company that has the potential to turn humanity’s giant mountain of plastic waste into a gold mine.

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Wang founded Novoloop with fellow Canadian, Jenny Yao. Friends since high school, they began their careers as scientists and environmentalists in grade 11.©Rolex/Bart Michiels

While the science behind Novoloop’s process is complex, its aim is very simple: To take plastic destined for landfill – grocery bags, furniture overwrap and food packaging, to name just a few – break it down chemically, and reform it into new materials.

Rather than simply churning out rolls of plastic wrap, Novoloop’s technology allows the company to upcycle these low-density plastics into more durable and more valuable forms, which can be sold at a profit. The result, Wang and her team are hoping, could be that the shrink-wrap you’re throwing in the recycling bin today will eventually transform into sports equipment, clothing or a car’s interior.

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Wang is transforming plastic waste with proprietary chemical technology developed at Novoloop’s biocellection laboratory©Rolex/Bart Michiels

With a clear vision and the technology in place, Wang says her main challenge is scaling Novoloop into a profitable business as both a plastic recycler and a plastic manufacturer. Like a true Silicon Valley entrepreneur, she is thinking big. “We’re building a company [similar to] companies that built the first railroads, or the first electrical grids,” she says. “This is a new type of infrastructure that’s very much needed for society to sustainably move forward.”

In pursuit of this goal, Wang is working to see Novoloop recycle hundreds of tonnes of plastic a year by 2023. As a result, there will be reduced waste in landfills and waterways and up to 4,600 tonnes of CO2 potentially eliminated.

This mission was given a major boost in 2019 when Rolex named Wang a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate. Launched in 1976 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rolex’s Oyster – the world’s first waterproof wristwatch – these awards reflect the ingenuity and determination of the company’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf. The Rolex Awards for Enterprise were envisioned to lend much-needed support to exceptional individuals who are working to advance human knowledge, and protect the planet’s most vulnerable species and ecosystems. Today, Wilsdorf’s legacy and enterprising spirit live on through Rolex’s support of innovators like Miranda Wang, one of 155 individuals from 190 countries to be honoured as a Rolex Awards Laureate to date.

“It’s very cool to be in the same room as people who are on the covers of National Geographic and doing all sorts of extraordinary work,” Wang says of the experience. “But there’s also just a sense of responsibility that you get when you’re one of five laureates chosen among thousands. It is one of the rare moments along the journey where you feel like there’s a light shone on what you’re doing.”

With any luck, Novoloop’s prospects – and the outcome of our Plastic Age – will only get brighter from here.

IN PARTNERSHIP WITH

This partnership with the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative shares in-depth stories about global innovators and adaptors who are finding solutions to environmental challenges.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Rolex. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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