The Green Elephant in the Room: Turning Waste into New Materials

By Holly Clayman Published on Apr. 29, 2021

More than 2 billion tons of household waste are produced every year. Seeing that number on the page should be alarming enough as it is, but as most people do not need to imagine such incredible quantities on a regular basis, it may be useful to picture something more tangible than a pile of trash – elephants, for instance. According to an elephant conversion by the New York Times, 2 billion tons is the equivalent of two hundred million African elephants. That is a ton (2 billion tons, to be precise) of trash.

The far-reaching impacts of this extreme level of waste production lends to a long list, with environmental pollution and rising greenhouse gas emissions at the top. One solution to this problem is the notable “three r’s”: reduce, reuse, and recycle. While this approach is critical - 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, and transport is trashed within 6 months – we not only need to kick the trash habit as consumers, but manufacturers of products need to adapt, innovate, and find solutions to unsustainable production methods and develop environmentally-safe products.

The unsettling prediction is that waste production is only expected to rise. In 2018 the World Bank estimated that waste generation will increase as much as 70%, from over 2 billion tons to 3.40 billion in 2050. How can concerned earth-dwellers disrupt this cycle of waste and turn household garbage into something climate positive?

One startup’s solution: turning trash into a sustainable new material.

Israel-based cleantech startup UBQ Materials, has developed a conversion technology that turns household trash into a new, 100% sustainable material. UBQ™ is a patented material converted from 100% unsorted household waste, containing food leftovers, mixed plastics, paper, cardboard, packaging materials, and diapers. Pretty much everything that is thrown out into garbage cans around the world gets to make the exciting journey from rejected rubbish to a valiant material of the future. This unsorted residual waste stream is reduced to its most basic natural components, reassembled, and bound together into a matrix, creating a composite material with applications across industries. The only elements removed and recycled in the process are minerals and metals.

This startup’s product is a powerful sustainability additive with flexibility across processes and materials. Additionally, this climate-positive polymer is a substitute to plastic, concrete, wood and minerals and can be compounded with additives to address product specifications such as coloration or UV resistance. UBQ™ polymer is compatible with the following technologies: extrusion, 3D printing, injection molding, and compression molding.

The good news is this is both an energy efficient and commercially viable process and was the basis of a pilot in STARTUP AUTOBAHN powered by Plug and Play’s recent program batch 8.

ubq before after.png

A sample of UBQ: before & after

Looking at the automotive industry, it is no secret that plastic polymers can be found all over vehicles, interior and exterior, from bumpers to steering wheels. As industries around the world pledge paths to carbon neutrality, this includes OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) looking to replace unsustainable materials with green alternatives.

Plug and Play partners at Motherson Group, a leading Tier 1 supplier, teamed up with the Israeli startup as part of STARTUP AUTOBAHN’s Program 8, to reimagine automotive parts. The partnership was sparked out of a previous collaboration between Mercedes-Benz AG and UBQ showcased at STARTUP AUTOBAHN powered by Plug and Play’s EXPO 7 in Stuttgart, Germany. This innovative new material has reached other parts of the value chain.

It is significant to note that there are high regulatory barriers in the automotive industry, especially when it comes to the usage of new materials. UBQ has developed a bio-granulate that meets all the requirements and rest assured, it is not characterized by a certain scent that one might expect when hearing the word trash.

ubq materials group.png

UBQ Materials booth at STARTUP AUTOBAHN EXPO 7 in Stuttgart, Germany

In this startup-corporate collaboration, the teams transferred the traditional polymers used to make “plastic” car parts with UBQ™. The project started with the exploration of interior parts production with the automotive-grade material, and the results were positive. The next steps include moving on to the exterior. Watch more about the project in a pilot video here.

The partnership between UBQ Materials and Motherson shows how this corporate-startup collaboration is literally turning trash into sustainable car parts of the future. Furthermore, UBQ Materials has an industrial plant in Israel and is supplying to local suppliers with a capacity of 5,000 tons per year.

And while the two-billion-ton elephant in the room remains, it appears there is a path forward. Innovation plays a key role in reshaping, reconstructing, and redesigning the world around us, one new material at a time.

At Plug and Play’sNew Materials & Packaging Accelerator, we match large corporations with top-tier startups that are changing the world as we know it.Join our platform today.