Climate Change

This start-up can turn dirty nappies into sustainable plastics

A baby wears a newly-changed diaper that a start-up can upcycle.

Household trash, including dirty nappies, can be recycled instead of going to landfill. Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • About 2 billion tons of household waste is generated a year.
  • Almost 70% of it is sent to landfill or openly dumped.
  • Tel Aviv company UBQ can recycle household garbage into reusable plastics.
  • This can be used in the manufacture of products including furniture, car parts and construction materials (such as bricks).

Bags full of garbage going to landfill is a big contributor to climate change.

Treating and disposing of this waste – from diapers to drinks containers – creates about 5% a year of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to World Bank data on solid waste.

What if our household trash – including food, dirty nappies and mixed plastics – could be recycled instead of going to landfill?

This is the vision of Israeli startup UBQ Materials.

The company, based in Tel Aviv, is developing a way to turn household waste – including food residue, mixed plastics, card, paper and even dirty diapers – into a form of fully recyclable plastic.

The material can “substitute conventional plastic, wood and concrete” in thousands of everyday products, UBQ says.

This includes construction goods like pipes and bricks and transport items like shipping pallets. It is also being used in furniture, auto parts and 3D printing, the company adds.

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Saved from landfill

To create this material, household waste – apart from metals and minerals – is dried and shredded. Organic waste is broken down into its molecular components – like cellulose and sugar – and then reassembled and bound with the mixed plastics. This creates a thermoplastic material.

Thermoplastics are types of plastic that can be melted and made into new products. UBQ says its material is ‘bio-based’ – meaning most of its content comes from organic matter.

By diverting household waste from landfills, UBQ says it is preventing the emission of methane, ground water leakage and other toxins.

Disposable nappies are among the materials that can be used to create UBQ's thermoplastic material. Nappies are especially hard to recycle because they are made from mixed materials, including plastic. They can take up to 450 years to break down in the ocean, according to America’s ocean monitoring and weather forecasting agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Biodegradable and reusable alternatives are growing in popularity.

About 2 billion tons of solid waste are generated a year, according to World Bank data. This is predicted to grow 70% by 2050. Landfill and open dumping accounts for almost 70% of solid waste disposal - as shown in the lower three sections of the chart below. Only around 19% is recycled or composted.

Global waste composition

a chart showing what landfill waste is made up of
Landfill and open dumping accounts for almost 70% of solid waste disposal. Only around 19% is recycled or composted. Image: What A Waste 2.0, The World Bank
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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

Steps forward
Throwaway ‘single use’ plastics are a key contributor to plastic pollution. UBQ hopes to help combat this in a trial with fast food chain McDonald’s. In 20 Brazilian state capitals, 30 McDonald’s restaurants replaced old plastic trays with 7,200 serving trays made with UBQ. It is hoped the first stage of the trial will cut more than 3,000kg of carbon.

a chart showing what UBQ materials are made from
UBQ Materials says its recycling tech can turn household trash bags into new products made from sustainable thermoplastic. Image: UBQ

UBQ is building its first full-scale production facility in the Netherlands. When this is complete in 2022, it hopes to produce 70,000 tons of its thermoplastic a year.

Developing and scaling sustainable technologies can take time. For example, LEGO tested more than 250 materials over three years before developing a new prototype brick made from recycled plastic bottles.

Global innovation

But there's no one single solution to solving the issue of plastic pollution.

'Upstream' solutions (pre-consumer, such as material redesign, plastic reduction, and substitution) and 'downstream' solutions (postconsumer, such as recycling and disposal) must be integrated finds the Breaking the Plastic Wave report.

The World Economic Forum's Global Plastic Innovation Network (GPIN) is an open collaboration platform designed to harness the power of innovation and accelerate high-impact solutions that can help eradicate plastic pollution.

It is supported by the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) and hosted by UpLink, the Forum’s open innovation crowdsourcing platform.

The network takes a holistic approach to addressing plastic pollution, inviting innovators, investors and other innovation enablers to engage across five plastic action focus areas: waste prevention, materials and product design, waste management and recovery, ecosystem data and transparency, and engaging society.

Recyclable thermoplastics might just be one piece of the puzzle to reducing plastic waste and plastic’s carbon footprint.

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