Wednesday, April 6, 2016

“Waste is a Terrible Thing to Waste”

Bonnie Monteleone, Found of Plastic Ocean Project, introduces Priyanka Bakaya, founder of PK Clean 
to the audience of students, faculty, local government, and members of the community attending her presentation at UNCW.

“It’s really going to be the biggest problem of our generation.” Forbes ’30 under 30’ award winner, Priyanka Bakaya begins the plastics-to-oil conversation here in Wilmington, NC to a large crowd of about 70 UNCW students and faculty, community members, and local legislators. The Stanford-MIT grad is the CEO and founder of PK Clean, a new company successfully and efficiently converting oil derived plastics back into usable fuel.

Priyanka Bakaya, Founder of PK Clean

Currently about 10% of our waste is recycled in the US per year, competing with an 8% increase per year in plastic consumption. Most often recycled are plastics numbered one and two, while numbers three through seven often end up filling landfills (and our oceans). Every piece of plastic created (with the exception of the plastic that has been incinerated) is out on the planet somewhere. Now imagine that  inside each and every piece of plastic that there was energy, just waiting to be utilized. Clean energy we can use to fuel our cars and heat our homes.

“Instead of seeing [plastic] waste disappear into the trash can, we are seeing it as a resource.” – Priyanka Bakaya, PK Clean

While growing up in Australia, Bakaya spent much her time along side family friend, Percy Kean, in his homemade chemistry laboratory. He shared with her his process of converting typical waste into fuel by reducing long carbon chains. Having always been interested in the environment and where our waste ends up, this big idea stuck with her through her years at Stanford and after the death of Kean.

“Once you have all that desire to solve [the plastic problem], you have the ability to find a solution.” Starting about 5 years ago, working with other engineers at MIT, Bakaya was able to honor Kean’s lifework by working hard to perfect his model and creating the company PK Clean (in his namesake).

This process takes all plastic types (including landfill bound unrecyclables) through its continuous reactor system. This oxygen free environment means the plastics are not being combusted (a process often leading to the emission of dangerous dioxin chemicals). The process does emit a light hydrocarbon gas (methane) that is put back into the system to keep the reactor heated, as well as an inert char (formed from organic and unreacted materials on the plastics). Once through the continuous reactor system, the plastic has successfully been converted to crude oil and can then be distilled to diesel fuel (or other fuels by distilling at different temperatures). This product is then ready for use in a lawnmower, asphalt, etc.!

PK Clean’s technology is the most efficient plastics-to-oil converter to date. It has an energy recovery ratio of 52 to 1, meaning for every unit of energy put in, 52 units are produced. The operating costs of PK Clean’s system is $30 per barrel of diesel fuel ($40 less than market price). According to the American Chemistry Council, the plastics-to-oil sector could produce 36,000 jobs and bring in $6.6 billion dollars annually to the US (2014). PK Clean expects “standard off-the-shelf technology within a decade”, Bakaya explains. Their plan has been to start local in Salt Lake City, taking this project across the country, and globally, currently exploring options in Canada and Australia.

In 2014, Bonnie Monteleone (founder of the Plastic Ocean Project) reached out to Bakaya and her team at PK Clean about the possibility of converting ocean plastics into fuel via this process. Ocean plastics often spend decades at sea constantly being broken up by wave action, scattered by wind, and degraded by light. The surface of ocean plastics will absorb toxins (BPA, PCBs, DDT) and grow organic matter. This makes ocean plastics a different animal than plastics from recycle centers. However, that didn’t stop PK Clean from using samples collected by Plastic Ocean Project members from a beach in Hawaii and putting it through their reactor. What it produced was clean fuel! Using the same process of other plastics.

Together with the Plastic Ocean Project, they want to bring this technology to coastal communities and islands to tackle the ocean plastic pollution problem. By giving waste value and exposing the amount of energy locked up in each and every piece of plastic, PK Clean and POP hope to encourage a movement from the throw away culture so prevalent in today’s society.

“I hope you’ll join us in our mission to end plastic waste forever”, Bakaya urged the UNCW audience as she discussed ways to become involved. By raising awareness, starting local with a major local impact, extending our knowledge of the process through research and exploring community funding opportunities are all great ways the local Wilmington community can get involved right now. We know that plastic waste is the problem and “being conscious of your own habits with waste” (Bakaya) will be the key to the solution.  

Following Bakaya’s talk, New Hanover County Commissioner, Rob Zapple, stood up to say a few words. “[We need] to start mining our landfills and recovering that energy”, Zapple stated. He also announced the establishment of a new material recovery facility in New Hanover.

Rob Zapple - New Hanover County Comissioner

Priyanka's presentation left the audience feeling inspired and ready to support this plastic pollution solution. “UNCW and the Plastic Ocean Project has opened my eyes (even wider) to the problems that so many people don’t think are problems”, Gen Wright, UNCW undergraduate.

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