Renewlogy Repurposes Plastic Waste Into Fuel
By: Casha Doemland
Priyanka Bakaya discovered a passion for technology, the environment and entrepreneurship at an early age while growing up in Australia. She also made regular trips to India, and there she was exposed to extreme poverty, and it was a formative experience for her.
"These trips created a deep sense of responsibility that I needed to give back in some way," states Bakaya, founder of Renewlogy. "During both college and grad school, I specifically scheduled trips that would allow me to work on the ground and have an impact."
Bakaya received her undergraduate from Stanford, where she first stepped into social entrepreneurship and focused her studies on the environment. From there, she received her MBA in Entrepreneurship & Innovation at MIT, and it was there that she discovered a way to combine all of her passions into a career.
"Initially, I leaned towards Electronic Waste and finding solutions for that," starts Bakaya. "When I went to spend a summer in India for it, I realized while there was a high value for recycling metals, plastics ended up being burnt or dumped in environmental waterways."
Soon after, she met chemical engineer Benjamin Coates, and the two founded PK Clean, a company dedicated to solving the problem of plastic waste entering the landfill and environment by transforming it into fuel.
Over the years as the company grew out of a class project, so did the name, which led her to reevaluate and reflect on what the goals and missions of the company were. At the end of it, she realized the focal point was to renew waste, and what better name than Renewlogy to embrace that ethos?
Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Renewlogy started up their demonstration facility— the first of its kind to run in the US—with a second in Nova Scotia, Canada, to convert mixed plastic waste in fuels.
“Plastic is made of long carbon chains," says Priyanka. "It comes from various fuels, to begin with, so when you chemically recycle plastics back to their basic form, you're taking them back into their basic molecular structure and can make a wide range of products.”
The process starts by feeding the mixed plastics into an oxygen-free system that melts everything from a solid to a liquid, and then a liquid into a vapor. As the vapors cool, you're ready to make new products. Renewlogy doesn't burn the material, and since no oxygen is present throughout the process, no toxic fumes are released, and the plastic returns back to its basic building blocks.
"78% of it will become the liquid fuel product, and 20% becomes a noncondensable gas," says Priyanka. "The great thing is, noncondensable gas is more than enough to keep the product heated, so the plastic is created with its own energy throughout the process."
A few of the products produced are diesel fuels, distillate fuels and Naphtha – which is a building block for plastic. Additionally, Renewlogy is capable of making industrial waxes and 3D-printer filament.
The remaining 1-5 percent of the process is char, or anything that hasn’t converted in the process due to contamination from food and labels, and it can be disposed of safely in a landfill. "The char also has markets to be an aggregate in cement, but right now our volume is too low to set up that offtake," states Bakaya. "Our hope is to be set up end markets for the char, and be zero landfill longterm."
As for costs, Renewlogy estimates that operations run at $30 per barrel to make fuel. However, there are many variables that come into play to produce that barrel like geography, labor and electricity.
“There is a 75% reduction in carbon compared to getting fuel from the ground and can be an extremely hazardous process,” says Bakaya. “Most of the plastics, which are already thrown away have been through the refining process, so it makes more sense to repurpose than to drill from the ground and risks oils harming the environment."
Outside of repurposing plastics for fuel, Renewlogy has also launched an initiative to help save the oceans.
“Basically what we’ve done is scaled down our large-scale facilities into a mobile system that does about 100 kilograms per day of plastic. It is designed for use in the developing world because we wanted to address the issue of ocean plastic. It's much easier to work with these smaller, more localized solutions in the developing world,” shares Bakaya.
Renewlogy’s strategy is to start on the rivers because much of the plastic entering the oceans derives from 10 of the major rivers in the world. The idea is to set up the bio-fences – plastic structures – that will catch the plastic coming down the river, and the waste pickers, which Bakaya vowed to work with her in Ted Talk, will take the materials and place it in the smaller facilities to be repurposed into fuel.
“We are really excited about this, and the idea is to set up 100 of these bio-fences in the coming years, targeting the main river and hopefully divert a significant amount of plastic from entering the ocean by collecting it in rivers prior,” states Bakaya. “The plan to start in India at The Ganges is sort of from my story because the idea came from spending time there that summer at MIT and it’s really cool that we go full circle and return.”
Renewology also has a Zero Waste Challenge, where individuals, companies or schools aim to limit their trash to a mason jar (individually) or collection bins (teams). “We give them extra collection bins or big buckets for your mix recyclables, compost, trash and a bin we like to call plastic non-bottle, which is basically all the plastic you can’t put into the recycling bin – wrappers, plastic utensils and that type of material.”
As the plastic non-bottle items cannot be recycled mechanically at the plant, Renewlogy collects the items to be recycled chemically, which is something the company has vowed to do with Hefty and Dow Chemical Co. and the Hefty Energy Bag Program.
This program supplies the Boise and Omaha residents with an orange bag for all of their plastic non-bottle items that can be picked up on the curb with your blue recycling bin. The bag gets sorted at the plant and then shipped to Renewlogy for fuel.
“The program is currently in the works of trying to launch in a few more cities, and it’s a great way to try to capture the plastic that can’t be recycled in normal recycling bins,” chimes in Bakaya.
Moving forward, Renewlogy hopes to expand their facilities throughout North America, as well as around the world.
"The idea, instead of having big facilities where materials are transported over long distances, is to have smaller facilities that can be co-located and directed to waste facilities,” says Bakaya. “Our scaling model is to go where plastic is and to have it be more localized."
With groundbreaking technologies such as Renewlogy's, not only can we improve the livelihoods of waste workers across the globe, but we can find another solution to the plastic menace that plagues society. From launching their first two facilities in Salt Lake City and Nova Scotia to setting up bio-fences along major rivers, it's no wonder Bakaya has been recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30. Her accomplishments are not only inspiring, but they're creating a positive impact on the planet and those who inhabit it.
LA-based and Georgia-bred, Casha Doemland spends her days crafting poetry and freelance writing. Over the last two years, she’s been published in a variety of publications and zines around the world. When she’s not nerding out with words, you can catch her watching a classic film, trekking around the globe or hanging out with a four-pound Pomeranian.