Hillel's Tech Corner: Could trash be the next gold rush?

Each year, we generate two billion tons of waste, most of which ends up in landfills and pollutes our environment.

Turning trash into a new resource  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Turning trash into a new resource
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Allow me to start with a disclaimer you might not like. I am no environmentalist. I mean, I am as concerned about the future of our planet as the next guy, but I cannot claim that I have made this my agenda in a significant or meaningful way. Having said that, there are some issues even I cannot ignore.
In a world of limited resources and the ongoing need to make the best use of the resources we have, there is one thing that just does not add up.
If our planet has one plentiful resource, it’s trash. But it is a resource that is currently a problem in search of a solution.
Here are some numbers for you to wrap your head around.
Each year, we generate two billion tons of waste, most of which ends up in landfills and pollutes our environment. Fourteen million tons of plastics – the equivalent to one trash truck per minute – wind up in the ocean every year. It accelerates global warming and affects the lives of every living creature on the planet. Those are all just undeniable facts.
The crisis is compounded by an overcomplicated and broken recycling process, which causes far less waste to be recycled than many people think. On top of that, China, one of the world’s largest clients for recycled materials, last year stopped accepting much of its orders after determining that too much trash was mixed together with recyclables.
What if there was a productive use for our waste?
Israel-based UBQ Materials has realized this vision. The company has developed a globally patented process to transform unsorted household waste (including recyclables) – everything from chicken bones to yogurt containers to dirty diapers to mixed-plastics and cardboard – into a bio-based plastic alternative that can be used to produce everyday goods: municipal trash cans, food trays, shopping carts, shipping pallets, piping and flower pots.
The growth of the company could bolster the impact of recycling and provide a meaningful solution for countries without organized waste infrastructure. In the end, UBQ’s mission is to eliminate landfills and the concept of waste, converting it from a financial and environmental burden into an infinitely renewable resource.
UBQ was founded in 2012 by Tato Bigio, a leader in the renewable energies and industrial sector, and Rabbi Yehuda Pearl, the serial entrepreneur and founder of Sabra Dipping Co., who sold his hummus brand to PepsiCo in 2007.
Pearl and Bigio had a vision that was as simple as it was audacious: a truly sustainable and circular business model where trash would not end up in landfills but instead, in a new resource, a material that can be used to create the goods that society needs – and then re-used again and again.
To bring its vision to life, the two built a zero-waste pilot factory in the unlikely hub of the Negev Desert in Tze’elim.
The reason for doing so was two-fold.
First, UBQ saw a mission-alignment in the communal model of the kibbutz. The company could serve the community by diverting its waste from landfills and converting it back into usable materials.
The second reason was a chance to create real economic opportunity in Israel’s periphery. Rather than being located in an industrial center, UBQ could help provide stimulus to its rural neighbors, such as the underserved Bedouin community from the nearby town of Rahat. More than a third of UBQ’s team members have come from Rahat and the company prides itself on having helped reduce the town’s unemployment rate from 34% in 2014 to less than 14% today.
How it works
On its quest to create its new material, the team discovered that nearly all household waste, regardless of origin, consisted of roughly 85% organic and 15% plastics. To create a homogeneous new composite material out of a heterogeneous waste stream, the company breaks down the organic waste into its most basic natural components, such as lignin, cellulose, sugar and fibers, and recombines it into a bonding matrix. The end result, called UBQ Material, is a climate-positive thermoplastic material that can substitute conventional oil-based plastics, at a competitive price.
The remarkable value proposition of what UBQ has created is its ability to be integrated into existing manufacturing processes. Rather than depending on producing goods itself, UBQ sells its material to product manufacturers around the world, expanding its potential impact exponentially.
Recent momentum
Over the years, UBQ Materials has raised more than $40 million, boosted by backing from private investors and leading venture capital firm, Battery Ventures.
To scale the company, Bigio and Pearl established an all-star board of the world’s most brilliant minds in biochemistry, finance, industrial engineering and environmental science. The board includes Executive Chairman Albert Douer, owner of an international conglomerate of plastic factories; Scott Tobin, managing partner at Battery Ventures; Benny Bachrach, senior economist with vast industrial experience; Prof. Oded Shoseyov, renowned bioscientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Prof. Roger Kornberg, Nobel prize laureate in chemistry 2008; John Elkington, world authority on corporate social responsibility and sustainability; Connie Hedegaard, former EU commissioner for climate action. Just to name a few...
To validate its impact, the team had Quantis, an international leader of environmental assessments, look into the carbon footprint and life cycle of the material. Quantis assessed that every ton of UBQ Material produced diverts approximately 11.7 tons of CO2 equivalent, and deemed it, to the best of their knowledge, the most climate-positive thermoplastic on the planet.
After years of ensuring that its process, material and value proposition was sound, the company is now hitting its stride.
In September, UBQ Materials was named “Best For The World 2019” by “B Corp” – the only Israeli company to receive this year’s designation in the “Environment” category from the respected global non-profit B Lab, ranking UBQ Materials in the top 10% of all certified B Corps.
UBQ recently announced the state of Virginia as its first US customer, purchasing 2,000 recycling bins made with UBQ Material, with plans to significantly increase quantities as the roll out expands statewide. The company is currently working with leading international brands in the fast food, automotive, retail and consumer industries and plans to reveal these partnerships within the next few months.
In addition to amassing customers, the company is scheduled to open a large-scale US based facility to meet the growing demand for its sustainable, climate positive materials.
The development of new UBQ factories means more waste can be diverted from landfills, more conventional plastics can be substituted with environmentally friendly materials, more natural resources can be preserved for future generations, while we can inch closer to a truly circular economy.
When I hear the words uttered by tech CEOs, “We are trying to make the world a better place,” a phrase that is significantly
overused, I generally roll my eyes. Then I encounter companies like UBQ and I realize that some technology truly has the ability to impact our planet as we know, both present and future. The fact that this company is based in Israel? Well, that is just the cherry on top!