10 Questions with Priyanka Bakaya
by Priyanka Bakaya
January 10, 2019
This interview with Priyanka Bakaya, the founder and CEO of Renewlogy, was conducted and condensed by frank news. It took place November 30, 2018.
How did Renewlogy begin?
I started working on this back when I was in grad school at MIT. What triggered me to look at this further was spending the summer in India working on electronic waste. I realized how bad their process was, it really opened up my eyes to what a huge issue plastics is and the fact that we recycle less than 10% globally. I went back to MIT to look at what other technologies exist beyond mechanical recycling, and that's how we discovered chemical recycling technologies to use chemistry to take plastic back to it's basic building blocks.
What’s the process of taking plastic back to its original building blocks?
We depolymerize plastics. Plastic is a series of long polymer chain, and we're breaking down that long polymer chain into shorter chains. Once you take it back to it's basic molecular form you can make various extra chemical products from it, whether it's building blocks to make new plastic, or fuels, or waxes. There's a wide range of petrochemical products that you can make by taking it back to it's basic building blocks.
The fuel you’re creating is similar to diesel?
That's right, we make a fuel similar to diesel.
Who do you sell it to? Where does it end up?
We use it in the off roads people market, on roads requires special licenses. Off road it’s used widely by industry and agriculture. In equipment and that type of thing. That's really our main concentration, the off road people.
Is there an environmental incentive to the fuel you’re making?
There's definitely advantages to using it. It's already been through the refining process so it's a much cleaner fuel than the fuel you get out of the ground.
How wide is your reach?
We have two facilities right now one in Salt Lake City and one in Nova Scotia, Canada and we're sequencing the deployment of more across other cities in North America right now. And really the main thing that takes time is building the local relationships and contracts, etc. to get the local waste and everything set up there, but that's what we are currently up to.
You obviously understand the damage that has already been done because of plastics. Does the work you’re doing now make you feel optimistic about the future of plastic?
I'm a natural optimist but the numbers don't look good. We produce over 300 million tons of plastic each year. We recycle less than 10%.
The most recent estimate was 9.1%, I say estimate because of the Chinese import restriction, that number is going to fall to 4.4% this year, 2.9% next year.
The trend doesn't look good in terms of recycling, but I am hopeful we can move to a more circular economy around plastics. It just requires more investment in different parts of a supply chain. Whether it's collection or market what we're trying to do is give plastic value, once you get it back into that supply chain less of it will end up in the environment.
I'm hopeful that there are solutions, but we definitely have to act fast and start investing heavily in this space for their to be an end.
Why are recycling statistics so low?
That's a great question, and it's a number affective. We have a chart explaining the various parts of the recycling supply chain for plastic and why it's broken at each point because it's not straightforward. It's not like there's one reason why it's so low, there's a few different reasons. Basically from the time plastic is created a lot of it's not being created in a way that allows itself be recycled to begin with. And then collection is a challenge.
About 50% of the U.S. lacks quality access to recycling, which means they lack equal access to disposing it.
Then, end markets. A lot of plastic is challenging materials. We're using more and more flexible pouches and multi layer materials that can't be recycled through traditional chemical recycling, so there's no end market for all of that material.
Renew Energy is trying to address multiple levels in the supply chain, so we're creating the end market and a high value product. We're also trying to be creative in terms of how we're collecting the material and what we're doing with the material. If it ends up in the environment we have our oceans initiative. We're really trying to make it all right throughout the supply chain because each market is broken in it's own way.
The oceans initiative targets ocean bound plastics that start in rivers because the majority of plastic stem from rivers. There are a few key rivers that they stem from, most of them are in Asia. By setting up bio fences in some of those rivers we can keep the plastics from entering the oceans and with the material that's collected at the bio fence, we're able to convert that into fuels. We use a small scale off grid version of our system to do that.
What makes your work urgent?
The statistics are scary enough in terms of the urgency – we will have more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050
How rapidly the recycle rate is going down, while the amount of plastic we're producing is going up, there is definitely an urgency. But I think stakeholders also have to be motivated to make a change. For instance petrochemical companies are the ones that make the plastics and they could take some of the product that we make to make new plastics, but that's going to be more expensive than using natural gas, because natural gas is so cheap and most plastic is made from natural gas. For them to feel motivated enough to actually use fuel coming from plastics themselves to close that loop requires them to feel like there's enough business for that shift to happen, in terms of pure economics they're better off getting natural gas and making plastic out of it.
Right. A conscience I guess is helpful
That's such a prime example, but take landfill operators for instance. They make money from people landfilling plastics so they're not very in touch with encouraging recycling either. There's a lot of challenges in the supply chain and people not being economically incentivized to move toward recycling companies.
Why do you think there’s a lack of capital in the space?
I think it requires investors who are thinking long term and are also thinking about impact. It's not a typical short term investment, you have to have a long term horizon, so I think it just becomes more challenging. That being said I think that there are really exciting opportunities for investors to get involved and have a lot of financial return – but it is very new space and not a typical space for an investor to invest in.