Cover Miranda Wang, Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex/Bart Michiels)

When it comes to waste, Rolex Laureate Miranda Wang decided to become part of the solution—so she founded a company that is pioneering plastic upcycling

Plastic is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, but also one of the greatest hazards humanity has created. Cheap, versatile, sterile and durable, plastic is all around us—but it’s that very durability that makes plastic in its single-use form so potentially dangerous. The problem is that plastic doesn’t biodegrade; instead, it retains its original form for years or even decades, and even then doesn’t disappear, instead gradually turning into tiny particles that can enter the food chain and wreak all sorts of havoc. When you throw it away, it’s there forever. We’ve all seen the photos of plastic despoiling the landscape, strewn across land and filling up the ocean—our seas take delivery of a barely credible 10 million tonnes of plastic a year—and endangering all manner of marine and bird life.

Read more: Under the Same Sky: How Rolex Laureate Grégoire Courtine Is Using Technology to Help Paralysed People Walk Again

An obvious solution to the problem is recycling, but plastic has traditionally been particularly hard to recycle. Until Miranda Wang came along, that is. The 2019 Rolex Awards Laureate was inspired aged just 15 to do something about the mountain of plastic waste that people were producing after seeing it for herself on a trip to a Vancouver recycling plant. After studying biology at university, she set about doing so, setting up California-based start-up Novoloop, formerly known as BioCellection, with her school friend Jeanny Yao.

The company tackles one of the cheapest, most durable, and least recycled plastics out there: polyethene, which is used for everything from plastic bags to cling wrap, and which is the world’s most commonly used type of plastic, accounting for about 30 per cent of the global total.

Wang and her company have developed a new process called accelerated thermal-oxidative depolymerisation, or ATOD, that gives the plastic a whole new lease of life. It breaks it down into chemicals that can themselves be used to make plastic—the same ones that are usually extracted from the oil ultimately used to make the plastic in the first place. But it also goes a step further, upcycling it into new plastic products that are more valuable than the cheap plastic being used. Its first product, Oistre, can be used to make everything from clothes to cars to electronics, and comes with a carbon footprint up to 46 per cent smaller than virgin plastic, according to life cycle assessment company Aspire Sustainability.

In February 2022, the company announced a funding round worth US$11 million led by Seoul-based venture capital company Envisioning Partners, as well as a relationship with advanced thermoplastics company Bemis Associates, which plans to introduce the start-up’s upcycled materials in its popular bonding products. With Wang’s help, cheap, single-use plastic is being transformed from trash to treasure.

Modern Heroes: Andy Li

In much the same way as Miranda Wang, Hong Kong’s Andy Li is also trying to remove plastic waste from the equation, in his case by providing a way for it to be recycled. Hong Kong generates nearly 100 tonnes of polyfoam waste a day, consisting of two types of plastic: polystyrene and polyethene. The government doesn’t collect it because the city lacks facilities to recycle it. Li is trying to solve that as founder and project director of Missing Link—Polyfoam Recycling Scheme. The name describes the NGO’s role as an intermediary, forming the bridge between people wanting to recycle plastics and their ability to do so. It collects polyfoam waste at points around the city, installed alongside various partner organisations, melting it down into plastic materials that are then sorted so that they can be reused, and in the process helping to make Hong Kong a greener city.

Under The Same Sky

Though we often feel worlds apart, the truth is that today, more than ever, people are more connected than ever. Local is the new global, and the only way to make an impact on a global scale is to first engage on the home front. Under The Same Sky is a collection of stories that demonstrates this undeniable interconnectedness and the shared passions and actions that unite us. In partnership with Rolex, through its Perpetual Planet initiative, we bring together key advocates from the region and individuals from around the world who are crafting solutions to environmental challenges and committing to a sustainable future.

Learn more about the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative here

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