Everything we do creates waste. Naturally, it can be found all around us. With this great issue in mind, many governments and businesses have installed recycling bins and plants. However, not everyone chooses to recycle, not everyone has the access to these bins, and at the end of the line, not everything is sorted. So, what can we do with this waste? And how can we do it?
A Certified B Corporation, UBQ Materials is an Israeli cleantech company that converts unsorted household waste into a climate-positive, cost-competitive, and fully recyclable thermoplastic. The final product, UBQ™, is a raw material that can substitute wood, concrete, or oil-based plastics in thousands of applications.
We had the opportunity and the honor to speak with Albert Douer, Chairman and Co-CEO of UBQ Materials about the beginnings of the company, its challenges and what they hope to accomplish in the future, which is nothing short of amazing.
Tell us about the roots of UBQ. How did the idea come to mind; did you encounter people that opposed the idea? How were those almost 7 years of R&D?
Humans have become adept at both producing massive amounts of waste – over 2 billion tons per year – and ignoring the growing challenge of disposing of that waste. Literally everything we do creates waste; and with so many of us, the amount of waste we generate is growing at an exponential rate. We see evidence of this reality in overflowing trash cans, our beaches and parks, and growing landfill sites. What if there were a way to not only eliminate this waste, but put it to good use?
At UBQ we set out to answer this question and rethink what it means for something to “go to waste.” We developed an advanced conversion process to turn the entire waste stream – everything from leftover food, cardboard, plastic, and even dirty diapers, into the feedstock for our versatile thermoplastic material, UBQTM. The material has thousands of applications and can replace or augment conventional materials such as wood, concrete and plastic.
Knowing we would encounter sceptics to this idea, we remained in R&D stealth mode for 7 years to ensure we hit the market with the highest quality product, both in terms of environmental impact and performance. We made sure that each and every one of our claims had the credibility of industry certifications, third-party validation and backing from the scientific community. Throughout those years we were able to turn a dream into science and then into a practical, market-ready solution.
What has been the most challenging part about working with actual trash? What’s an area of this process you would like to see improve?
Introducing our technology to the market was not without its challenges, at least in the initial stages. Converting “trash into treasure” understandably invites a healthy level of hesitancy. As time went on, we became adept at breaking down the science and leading the conversation around sustainability, life cycle assessments and methane. Fortunately, discourse on these subjects is becoming more and more commonplace. When UBQ Materials began its journey, it was quite novel.
Repositioning waste as a valuable resource in the eyes of industry professionals as well as the general public has been a test. We are encouraged by the public’s commitment and eagerness to make real impact. People understand that time is ticking and that it is our collective responsibility to initiate change. When global leaders of industry, like Mercedes-Benz, adopt and implement UBQ™ as an advanced material in their products, the shift in subsequent conversations is palpable. With extensive R&D, third party validations, and world-renowned partners, we no longer need to convince the public that waste needs to replace finite natural resources. It has become a foundational assumption.
Can you describe your technology? How does it break down trash into particles? Is there any type of waste that works better or worse?
Our patented conversion process uses the entire unsorted household and municipal waste stream. Only metals and minerals, which are easily recyclable, are sorted out and sent to the correct recycling facilities.
First, the waste is received, either as residual solid waste diverted from landfills or as RDF, already dried and shredded. In either case, the waste runs through multiple stages of automatic refinement, which removes even the smallest particles of metals and minerals. At this stage it is cleared as feedstock for our reactor; physical processes set off a chemical reaction in the waste, breaking down the organic elements to their basic particulate components: lignin, sugar, cellulose, and various fibers. These components are reconstituted into a homogenous matrix with the melted plastics to create UBQ™. When you are looking at feedstock as a ratio of organics to plastics, municipal waste is surprisingly consistent. It doesn’t matter if one household discarded chicken bones and cardboard boxes while the neighbour tossed garden trimmings and yogurt cups; across municipalities, continents and seasons, the ratio remains largely the same. This supports a seamless process for UBQ conversion, where we can guarantee consistency and homogeneity in our material, each and every time.
Are there any statistics you have found interesting during UBQ’s time? For example, how many kg of waste can make up a chair made with UBQ material?
One thing that always fascinates me is the understanding that substituting even small amounts of conventional materials and oil-based resins can have a significant impact on a product’s final carbon footprint. For example, substituting UBQ™ for 25% of the polypropylene needed to manufacture a standard doghouse prevents up to 40 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions from entering the atmosphere. Scaling up for industrial manufacturing quantities, you begin to understand the world changing potential of this material.
Another statistic that has stuck with me is that while approximately 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste have been produced since the 1950s, only 9% of plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. This confirms that our problem is not necessarily with the products themselves, but the way in which society disposes of them.
Are there any plans to expand?
Yes – last year we announced that we are establishing a full-scale production facility in the Netherlands, which will be operational in 2022. This will mark our official expansion outside of Israel.
Shortly afterward, we will continue to scale up and establish UBQ Materials facilities around the world. As we expand, we can further localize our waste to the production cycle, providing inherently more sustainable materials to market.
Does UBQ look more toward working with local governments or other companies? What would the ideal international cooperation look like to you?
The ecosystem of influences driving implementation of UBQ™ is threefold – governments, brands, and consumers.
National and local governments introduce important regulations and incentives that propel the market in a more sustainable direction. Consumers apply the pressure of purchasing power, signalling to manufacturers that UBQ™ makes them more confident about buying and using products. Manufacturers themselves take the important step of integrating UBQ™ into their operations, supporting and advancing SDGs in the process.
Large brands that make UBQ™ a part of their material strategies – companies like Mercedes-Benz, Keter and Mainetti – add momentum to further adoption and implementation. A beautiful component of ideal cooperation is that these companies themselves discover new uses for UBQ™ across the various stages of their supply chain. Challenging industrial norms and effectively tackling the global waste crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck approach; governments, NGOs, investors and everyday consumers must prioritize our planet’s health in their decisions and domains of power.
What is the biggest challenge for UBQ?
The biggest challenge has been overcoming the disconnect between the sense of urgency we at UBQ feel, and the slow pace of change for standards and policies in place.
The climate crisis is real and it’s happening now. Humanity cannot afford to pass the buck to another generation. We have a solution to address one of the world’s most pressing issues, but it requires quick and widespread implementation to have the greatest effect.
What are the biggest or craziest dreams for UBQ?
We envision a world without waste. Yes, really.
By unlocking the inherent value in waste, we advance a truly circular economy where human consumption lives in harmony with the planet. A world without waste will ensure a habitable world for generations to come.