Throwing water bottles into the recycling bin doesn’t begin to address the massive quantity of postconsumer plastic that ends up in landfills and the ocean. Because it’s so difficult to separate the various kinds of plastics – up to 20 kinds per product – that make up our computers, cell phones, cars and home appliances, only a small fraction of plastics from complex waste streams are recycled, while the rest is tossed. In 1992, Mike Biddle, a plastics engineer, set out to find a solution. He set up a lab in his garage in Pittsburg, California, and began experimenting with complex-plastics recycling, borrowing ideas from such industries as mining and grain processing.
Since then, Biddle has developed a patented 30-step plastics recycling system that includes magnetically extracting metals, shredding the plastics, sorting them by polymer type and producing graded pellets to be reused in industry – a process that takes less than a tenth of the energy required to make virgin plastic from crude oil. Today, the company he cofounded, MBA Polymers, has plants in China and Austria, and plans to build more in Europe, where electronics-waste regulation (which doesn’t yet have an equivalent in the US) already ensures a stream of materials to exploit – a process Biddle calls “above-ground mining.”
He says: "I consider myself an environmentalist. I hate to see plastics wasted. I hate to see any natural resource – even human time – wasted.”