Taiwan-based Miniwiz is one of the World Economic Forum’s 2015 class of Technology Pioneers. The company is pioneering new ways of making materials from waste, and showcasing their use in everything from the construction industry to high-end consumer products. Communications director Johann Boedecker explains.
Not many companies sell iPhone cases and designer chairs, do interior design for Nike stores, and construct trimaran boats and nine-storey buildings. What ties together everything you do?
The common denominator is that we make things from consumer recycled material, or what we lovingly call “trash”. If we want to succeed in closing the loops and creating a truly circular economy, we need to change the common perception that goods made from recycled materials are always a downgrade on what was recycled to make them, and suitable only for low-value applications. We are exploring how materials can be “upcycled”, showing that you can take trash and create applications that are higher value, higher performance and desirable for consumers.
So we do two things. We innovate upcycling technologies that produce new kinds of material with different properties, and we design products showcasing how these materials can be used. Actually, these two things go hand in hand because the production knowledge informs the chemical science – we look for ways to manipulate the materials so that we get the optimal shape and form for the application, whether that’s bricks, acoustic ceiling panels, shading systems or shelving units. We always make sure that our materials can be recycled again when the time comes.
What do you do to trash to get materials with properties suitable for higher-end applications?
A variety of things, because different applications demand different properties, like strength, workability, tactile or visual attractiveness, or the capacity to be injection-moulded into three-dimensional shapes. To offer a comprehensive portfolio of materials for the looped economy, you can’t be a one-trick pony.
Sometimes the recycling process is all about purification with mechanical filter systems. Sometimes we reinforce the polymer matrix with non-toxic mineral additives such as nano silica from agricultural waste. Mixing plastic waste with agricultural waste is a bit like trying to mix oil and water, because organic things tend to be hydrophilic – they soak up water – whereas plastics are hydrophobic, repelling water. We do it by introducing nanoparticles in new ways, manipulating the surfaces of materials to make them bond. Natural fibre composites are essential to offer diverse tactile and visual experiences.
We have also created a new class of materials called SRPX, or self-reinforced polymer matrix. These are polymers reinforced with fibres of the same polymer – PET fibres inside a PET matrix. This offers similar properties to carbon fibre, but at a fraction of the cost and with re-recyclability.
Do you aspire to be primarily a design company, or primarily a company that supplies innovative materials which others can use to design and make their own products?
We’re in the process of transitioning from one to the other. Our own products and design services have been vital up to now, not least because selling them has funded the company’s growth. We’re not in Silicon Valley and we don’t have institutional investors, but we are now becoming less of an architectural project-based company and more of a supplier of materials, semi-finished goods and systems at large scale to regular clients.
Projects like the nine-storey building you mentioned – the EcoARK in Taipei, which is made from 1.5 million recycled plastic bottles – are necessary to showcase what can be achieved and persuade others to take up designing and building with these new materials. In the case of the construction industry, we’re up against a range of go-to materials that are basically unchanged since Roman times – glass, steel, wood and concrete. Paradigms this entrenched take time to shift.
An analogy that we aspire to is Intel: a respected brand in its own right, and an enabler of the designs and products of others. And we very much want to inspire more companies around the world to experiment with doing the same kinds of thing we do – partly because it will help to create markets for us, and partly because the world does need to move to a looped economy sooner or later. We can debate the rate at which global resources are depleting, but they are certainly depleting, and they are finite.
Are you limited by the ways in which society currently collects, sorts and recycles its trash?
We pride ourselves that everything we create is capable of being recycled using current systems and processes. The natural fibres that we put into plastics to create new materials, for example, will not ruin a batch of recycling when mixed in with regular plastics. That said, we hope and assume that as closed production loops become more mainstream, the ways in which society handles private and municipal waste will keep on getting better, and make our job easier.
Frankly, there’s no reason why anything you throw away has to be incinerated or dumped in landfill. And what you find is that, once the initial effort is put into separate waste streams, new corporate life forms will spring up and find something productive to do with that stream of separated waste. It may take some time, but it will happen.
Is there a role for public policy?
Absolutely, in the sense that clearly it’s within the cognitive capacity of human beings to separate their trash – if the systems exist. But, we don’t do it, it’s because we’re too lazy. Here in Taiwan, we have very high recycling rates – a percentage in the high 90s – but what’s even more impressive is that only 2% of waste is thrown in the wrong container. Contrast that to, say, Germany, where as much as 20% of garbage is thrown in the wrong container, often ruining the capacity to recycle it.
Governments need to play a parenting role here, partly by educating people through marketing campaigns, and partly by punishing people when they put their waste in the wrong place.
What are the most exciting things you’re working on now?
We recently bought a plane, and we’re making wings for it out of SRPX. We intend to fly the plane to make a point: if you can meet the needs of the aeronautics industry in looped fashion, what can’t you do?
Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here.
Author: Johann Boedecker, Partner, Communications Director, Miniwiz, a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer.
Image: A construction worker touches up a wall made with plastic bottles inside the EcoArk building during a media preview in Taipei April 9, 2010. REUTERS/Nicky Loh