Israel’s UBQ Materials turns garbage to ‘greenest thermoplastic material’

Other lovely buzzwords which can be used to describe UBQ are “sustainable,” “cost-effective,” “recyclable” and “green.” And it is all very real.

Jack (Tato) Bigio, UBQ Materials co-founder and CEO of UBQ Israel, holds plastic discs made from UBQ material. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jack (Tato) Bigio, UBQ Materials co-founder and CEO of UBQ Israel, holds plastic discs made from UBQ material.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With so much bad news, an interview with Jack (Tato) Bigio, UBQ Materials co-founder and CEO of UBQ Israel, is like stepping into a rose-colored fantasy world where unicorns are real, chocolate is calorie-free, and garbage is converted into reusable material instead of contributing to the pollution of the environment in sprawling landfills.
It all seems too good to be true, and of course most of it really is – except for the converting garbage part. In fact, in September, UBQ Materials announced its expansion into the international market with a full-scale waste conversion plant to be built in Netherlands using UBQ’s patented process which converts waste into a sustainable thermoplastic material. Yes, that’s right: it converts garbage into an environmentally-friendly, sustainable new material  which will take garbage out of landfills and put it into something which contributes to a “circular-economy” – the next up-and-coming buzz word in the world of environmental sustainability.
Other lovely buzzwords which can be used to describe UBQ are “sustainable,” “cost-effective,” “recyclable” and “green.” And it is all very real.
Tom Vos, director of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency in Israel, says:  “As the Netherlands, we are looking forward to welcome UBQ into our strong recycling and circular cluster. It’s not without reason that we are known as the Holland Circular Hotspot, we are moving forward to be a fully circular economy in 2050. To do so, we stimulate start-ups, scale-ups, SMEs and corporates to develop and implement novel techniques to prevent waste and to turn waste into valuable products again. UBQ fits this profile perfectly.”
He predicts that UBQ would have a “thriving” future in the Netherlands.
Europe is “very mature” for this type of industry, says Bigio, and the Dutch plant is expected to produce 65,000 tons of UBQ material a year. In parallel, the company is continuing with its development efforts in the US, he says, for now in the east coast.
They have also been overwhelmed with inquiries from Canada, Japan, Brazil and Singapore, and more recently following the Abraham accords they have been approached by the UAE and Dubai.
“We will get all over the place,” he promises. “We are just getting started.”
They are also anxious to do more work in Israel when it catches up to the growing trend. “We have more plans for Israel when we find an environment like that in Europe, which is so supportive. It is difficult to compete with that set-up. The US also has a good set-up,” Vos says. “Israel, regrettably, in terms of sustainability does not have a supportive framework. But we are an Israeli company, and we will continue to be an Israeli company and we are shouting that very loudly.”
With an Israeli plant already functioning in Kibbutz Tze’elim in the South with a capacity of producing 5,000 tons of UBQ material a year for the local market, UBQ has been taking Israelis’ waste and garbage and producing sustainable plastic-like UBQ pellets which are eco-friendly since 2018, converting waste previously destined for landfills – such as plastic yogurt containers, organic waste, cardboard and even dirty diapers – into this sustainable bio-based material, which can significantly reduce the carbon footprint left by garbage.  
Describing the novel material as “climate-positive,” UBQ’s Bigio says it can substitute conventional plastic, wood and concrete in manufacturing thousands of every day products. In fact their little UBQ pellets are already being used in collaboration with the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority in the recycling bins made with UBQ, currently used throughout Richmond, Virginia.  In late 2019, Arcos Dorados Holdings, the largest independent McDonald’s franchise in the world based in Uruguay and serving 20 countries in Latin America, took the unprecedented step to partner with UBQ Materials to begin using this new environmentally-friendly material in some of the restaurants’ items starting in the first quarter of 2020.
Last January, automotive giant Daimler AG, the owner of Mercedes Benz, became the first automotive company to partner with UBQ and announced that it will begin testing UBQ in the production of automobile parts. “The reason our material is so attractive to the industry is because we are highly sustainable, using material nobody really wants and bringing it back to life, contributing to a circular economy,” says Bigio. “It is saving methane gas release from land waste, putting UBQ as the greenest thermoplastic material available today.”
More recently, in early November, the company also announced a partnership with global retail solutions provider Mainetti, the leader in producing garment hangers for well-known retail and apparel brands, which has developed hangers containing the UBQ material.
“It is easy to overlook the impact of a hanger, but when we zoom out, we understand that hangers are the common denominator across all brands, across the globe,” Bigio said in a press release announcing the deal. “The beauty of manufacturing products with a climate positive material such as UBQ™ is the ability to significantly impact carbon footprints while leaving no impact on consumers’ experience.”
With billions of hangers produced globally each year, the impact that this retail mainstay alone can have on the environment is significant.
Receiving his degree in economy and finance from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bigio, who immigrated to Israel from Peru in 1995, began his professional career working with an international development company in financing. In 2002, he was appointed CEO of the investment company AMPAL and then went on to co-found Merhav Renewable Energy in the renewable energy sector developing projects in the solar, wind and bioethenal realm.
“When I was CEO of AMPAL I started realizing that these technologies using solar, wind and bioethenal clean fuel are becoming alternatives to conventional energy production,” says Bigio. “The technology was advancing and improving dramatically.”
Eight years after partnering up with New York-based Rabbi Yehuda Pearl, honorary chairman and co-founder of UBQ Materials, Bigio said all their dreams have been realized even bigger than they had thought possible.
“UBQ is a company that surprises you every day, so what we were able to do in a very primitive way years ago, they do in a matter-of-fact way today, and what we do today in matter-of-fact way, tomorrow will be ground for future development,” adds Pearl, now rabbi emeritus of Anshei Shalom Synagogue in West Hampstead in a phone conversation from New York. “The future of UBQ literally unfolds every single day and as the original scientist (who we worked with) told me: The material will have to show you how to deal with it.”
The two partners credit the team of local and international scientists, research laboratories – both in-house and others – investment partners and shareholders they put together for the success of UBQ. They have encountered no opposition from the large plastic industry companies such as DOW Chemical, DuPont and British Petroleum, says Bigio, because the companies also realize that the world is moving in the direction of sustainability and that is what the consumers are demanding.
“They realize there needs to be a space for this kind of material because the consumers and the industries they supply are also demanding these types of materials so they are interested in working with us to position themselves as a green company,” he says. “We have had positive reactions, we see synergies. They don’t see us as a threat.”
While there are other companies producing bio-based materials Bigio is championing UBQ’s “uniqueness” of taking otherwise unwanted material and creating a very usable material.
“I think we are on top of the pyramid. We are doing something absurd, turning the pyramid upside down,” he says.
Without revealing the exact process by which the magic happens, Bigio explains that the organic material is broken into its basic natural components  and to create a matrix where they are no longer a potato or piece of chicken, and are recomposed to create the UBQ, where the plastics also become a part of the matrix. “And then we have a thermoplastic, bio-based, composite material,” he says.
Though the words roll off his tongue seemingly with ease, as he contemplates the journey he has taken from the world of finance to the innovative world of hi-tech sustainability, Bigio says, “You can’t imagine the amount of knowledge you acquire while you walk this walk. It is incredible. We have had to invent a technical process, make sure the new material is safe, works consistently and does not pose a health issue.”
In the initial stages, Pearl says, he was warned away from getting involved in the seemingly impossible endeavor. “It appeared to me that something that could be a process that would take substantially unsorted waste and create a material that you could do something with seemed like something worthwhile to invest time and money in,” he says. “In the end they were proven to be incorrect. It is a magical idea.”
The first day he saw the first UBQ material pellets being made, he says, he hoped he would be granted more years of life in order to be able to see the “manifestation of the invention in its full sense.”
Being a part of the UBQ family is a “gift and a responsibility,” he says.
“It is very unusual in a person’s life that you have the ability to create a new way of living, a new industry, a new ecosystem and a new product that has only good things to contribute and that there are no negative aspects and it is financially successful as well,” he says.
Still in its infancy, though, they prefer not to discuss the financial numbers, Pearl says.
“What [UBQ] will be in the future is extremely different from what it is today,” he says. “You can’t describe the value of a company in one way. At every different stage the value of the company is set by different parameters. When you are founding something like this the parameters of judging its value are by the quality of the people connected to it, the quality of people using the product, the quality of people who certify its status. So we have gold star people and organizations that have connected themselves in a very amazing way with UBQ.”
What about the origin of the company’s name? “UBQ stands for ‘ubiquitous.’ There is a ubiquitous problem, and we provide a ubiquitous solution,” quips Pearl. “I am a person who is very appreciative of the things that I have. I have been blessed with in the world,” says Pearl. “Every time I walk into my house I look at it and I think what a gift to live in such a nice place. Every time I see the machine creating a product out of UBQ material I look at it and say, ‘Can that really be happening?’ So for me it is an ongoing miracle.”■