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By Kristen Shirley | August 22 2019
Earlier this summer, Rolex honored five visionaries and their audacious projects to save the planet, eradicate malaria, help paralyzed people walk again and protect wildlife through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. One major distinguishing factor of these awards is that the laureates are not being honored for past accomplishments. Instead, the awards are given to promising new projects; this year, the oldest laureate was 45. This crucial funding and recognition can help get projects off the ground that otherwise might not have been able to find the resources to launch. Considered projects must always benefit humanity or the planet, and this year many of the laureates’ programs focused on the environment, which is understandable during this day and age of climate change.
For our first installment, we look to sunny California and a bubbly young Canadian molecular biologist, Miranda Wang, who at just 25 has created a viable solution to the massive plastic problem polluting our oceans and waterways, and filling our landfills. And the problem is growing more urgent by the day. Wang says, “By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean.” Oftentimes, environmentalists look at the solution to the world’s problems solely through a moral lens. Of course fixing the environment is a moral imperative, but as the saying goes, money talks. And what better way to get companies involved than to find a way to make money out of it?
That’s what Wang did with her “market-based science approach.” She found a way to make the unrecyclable recyclable. (Currently, less than 1/10th of the world’s plastic is recycled.) Her company, BioCellection, has invented a process that breaks down polyethylene (PE) plastic into precursor chemicals, which are then purchased by companies to build new products. This means she can transform dirty plastics, plastic bags and single-use plastics into a valuable product (the process increases the value of plastic waste 40 times).
Currently at the end of a pilot program in San José, California, the project has proven that it works in real life, with real city garbage, not just on test projects in a lab. After scaling the program to a full-sized industrial process, Wang wants to work directly with companies that produce plastics to make adjustments to additives used, such as changing the ink used on grocery bags, that will help her recycle even more; create new processes that will work on all types of plastics; and increase the value of the final product.
When asked what her ultimate goal is, she replies that it is to stop using virgin oils to create the plastic products that people need. She wants “to demonstrate to the chemical world that you can make chemicals without using petroleum, and you can make them to not only perform the functions people need, but also to potentially make new materials or biodegradable materials from intermediates that are made from these non-biodegradable plastics. That’s another thing I’m really excited about with this kind of recycling. These building blocks are so small that you can build them into so many options. And so many of the options that we are looking into are compostable and biodegradable. So, imagine a future where we have materials that are green and biodegradable that were made from rescuing plastics that were littered and polluting beaches. That is the kind of future that this technology will lead us to.”
To learn more about the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, please visit rolex.org. All images are courtesy of Rolex.