After 'Sea of Plastic' found in Caribbean, one Israeli firm is off to the rescue

Kibbutz-based Infimer seeks to alleviate $40 billion-a-year cost of plastics pollution.

November 6, 2017 18:37
3 minute read.
Plastic pollution

Plastic pollution. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A colossal “sea of plastic” was discovered last month in the Caribbean, with bunched-up bottles and bags stretching for miles.

It reminded one Israeli environmental entrepreneur of the polluted Haifa Bay and Kishon River — with all of its petrochemicals.
“All the plastics, they stay for hundreds of years inside the water. We are the only solution for the Caribbean that can process all the organic waste together, and you don’t have to separately sort it,” said Yuval Tamir.

As a former naval commando for twenty years, Tamir would dive regularly into the contaminated Kishon River for training. Shortly after being discharged, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Tamir doesn’t know whether prolonged exposure to debris caused his cancer, but he battles the disease by founding Infimer Technologies, which seeks to recycle plastic from your household waste.

Some 300 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide annually — from plastic forks and spoons to water bottles and ziplock bags — of which only nine percent is recycled, according to a recent paper in Science Magazine, with another 12% incinerated and 79% accumulating in landfills. Plastic is polluting the world — from commercial fishing and general health to the environment — and it costs around $40 billion annually, according to a conservative estimate from the United Nations Environment Programme.

With the amount of plastic produced expected to double in the next two decades — their large-scale production and use dates back only to the 1950s — Infimer has devised a patented technique to more efficiently recycle plastic into raw materials, which can be used by manufacturers, and then sell it for a profit. Unlike most recyclers worldwide which rely on public subsidies, its money-making factory removes minerals — glass, sand and stone from your garbage — turning the remaining organic waste into a new thermoplastic material.

Based in Kibbutz Barkai, some 60 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, Infimer Technologies is manufacturing a recycled composite polymer, named infimer. The composite can serve as raw material for plastic manufactures, and it can be combined with virgin plastic to make high-quality chairs, tables, crates, plumbing pipes, toolboxes, “a huge variety of furniture and infrastructure products, both indoor and outdoor,” said Tamir.

Much of the materials used to make plastic — such as polyethylene and polypropylene — are made from fossil fuels, and none are biodegradable. One obstacle to recycling is that it is difficult to combine polyethylene and polypropylene, which are incompatible, into a combined, strong polymer.

“Infimer is a composite material that can bind to any kind of polymer. So we can recycle all plastic together. With most recycling, you have to recycle carefully, and you have to separate  polyethylene and polypropylene. But for infimer, it’s no problem. We can bind it together and we make one composite material,” the VP of marketing and Yuval’s wife, Tal Tamir, added.

The company was founded in 2013 and began selling commercially in 2015, and its factory can process some 700 kilograms of municipal waste per hour, in return producing half-a-ton (454 kilograms) of infimer. Until the Ministry of Environment approves all of its permits, Infimer Technologies gets irregular garbage shipments from Tel Aviv, Caesarea and Haifa.

Once your garbage reaches the Infimer Technologies factory, it is split into either minerals — glass, sand and stone — or organic material, coming from cardboard and rotten vegetables. Only the organic material can used, as it is transformed into crude oil and from there, into plastic.

“We are repeating the process of what happens in nature, over millions of years, in just 15 minutes,” said Tamir, as the organic material becomes a type of fossil fuels.

Infirmer Technologies employs some 15 people and raised $2.4 million in 2015 when it merged with EZ Energy, now listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange as INFR. In total, the company has raised around $5.7 million (NIS 20 million) and it received grants worth $1 million (NIS 3.7 million) from the Israel Innovation Authority.

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