This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Plastic pollution in our oceans represents an “Eco-genocide” according to Bonnie Monteleone, Executive Director and Director of Science Research and Academic Partnerships at Plastic Ocean Project, Inc.
Priyanka Bakaya, 34, founder and CEO of PK Clean, invented a scalable process to convert plastics back into the diesel fuel they came from, not quite spinning straw into gold but exciting nonetheless.
When Monteleone had learned that plastics could be converted back into oil. She saw that as a way to emulate nature by creating a circular system where plastics removed from the oceans could be converted back into fuel. When she looked for partners, she was worried about the contaminants in the plastics extracted from the oceans.
“PK Clean invited us to send them two pounds of our ocean plastics to turn into oil. They sent the oil back with their analysis that quelled our concerns,” Monteleone said.
PK Clean’s operations generate no toxic emissions and require no special permitting, Bakaya says. The company operates northwest of downtown Salt Lake City, well within city limits. The primary output from the system is diesel fuel.
The process costs $25 to $30 per barrel of diesel produced. With market prices in the range of $60 to $70 per barrel, the operation currently enjoys tremendous margins.
Monteleone now a customer, says, “PK Clean provides both economic and environmental hope to help mitigate the negative impacts caused by plastic pollution.”
PK Clean sold a benchtop demonstration unit to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to perform tests. Monteleone appreciated the transparency and says, “They have earned our confidence as a viable solution.”
PK Clean is a fast-growing start-up already operating at a breakeven that will generate $2 to $5 million in revenue in 2017, Bakaya says. “We have a strong customer pipeline for the coming years.”
The start-up is also raising a $50 million project finance fund to provide capital for the customers’ projects deploying the company’s units.
The pricing model for the units involves an upfront fee for the plastic-to-fuel units plus PK Clean takes a royalty on the production so they get an ongoing revenue stream from the installed units.
Bakaya, who earned degrees at Stanford and MIT, says the best customers for PK Clean are folks who are already handling large amounts of plastic waste, some of which may be going into the landfill. She sees the biggest opportunities on the East Coast where high landfill tipping fees create an even bigger incentive to convert waste plastic into diesel fuel.
She notes that the units and the fuel take up relatively little space when compared to the mountains of plastic typically associated with recycling centers, making it optimal to co-locate the PK Clean conversion units.
The opportunity for recycling remains huge, despite global efforts to increase recycling. Bakaya says only 9% of plastic is recycled. Plastics vary in quality as indicated by the numbers stamped on the bottom of plastic packaging. Those that are high scoring are more likely to be recycled using traditional processes, but all plastics–even those horrible shopping bags–can be converted using the PK Clean processing units.
PK Clean’s innovation was to identify a process that was reasonably well understood but that had only been done in small scale, unprofitable operations and to make it scalable, efficient and profitable.
PK Clean is committed to the environment. This fall, the company will launch its “Zero Waste” campaign in Salt Lake City with a goal of getting people to reduce their waste to the size of a mason jar per month. Getting people to recycle all of their plastic will be key to that initiative.
Scaling PK Clean will be its own challenge. Bakaya says they already have hundreds of inquiries coming in from people wanting to build units on their sites.
“We don’t want to promise that we can make a hundred of these in the next year. You know we’re sort of gradually scaling up and picking which sites make the most sense to begin with,” Bakaya says.
Each full-scale unit converts ten tons of plastic per day into about 60 barrels of fuel. Recyclers can install as many units as they may need to process their volume of plastic.
Monteleone is excited about the potential for PK Clean to help mitigate plastic pollution in the oceans. “Plastic consumption increases at roughly 4% annually, according to the World Economic Forum, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. We need PK Clean technology to help mitigate the eco-genocide caused by plastic pollution.”
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