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From trash to treasure with circular startup UPPACT
Face masks, food packaging, worn-out sneakers, discarded quilts, worn-out fishing nets or sand-covered agricultural plastic; all of it can go straight into UPPACT’s machine, which in turn is to produce high-quality poles and planks. At the Chemport Innovation Center, the circular startup is busy making great strides. CEO and co-founder Jan Jaap Folmer talks about the pilot, their ambitions and why Northern Netherlands is a great place for a circular startup.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a fairly gloomy report about a year ago. The world produces twice as much plastic as it did 20 years ago. And only about 9% of it is recycled. “Most people think we’re doing pretty well in terms of recycling,” says Jan Jaap Folmer, CEO and co-founder of UPPACT. “But that’s just not the case. The vast majority ends up in landfills, is incinerated or ends up in the environment. Or it’s exported to other countries and considered recycled by governments, when in reality the problem is just being moved to another location.”
Aside from the fact that far too little is recycled, there are also plastic waste streams that normally cannot be recycled. For instance, mixed plastics and textile waste. And it just so happens that UPPACT has a solution for these waste streams. “Different plastics all have different melting temperatures,” Folmer explains. “So the big problem with heating mixed plastics in a traditional way is that some plastics burn, while others haven’t melted yet.”
“So you can’t really do anything with that,” Folmer continues. “Unless you are able to separate, sort and wash everything perfectly. And for most of the plastic waste, it’s just not viable. That’s why even in the Netherlands at best only 30% of all plastic waste is recycled.”
So how can UPPACT do what others can’t? With an Australian invention called the UnWastor. “It’s a very unique process actually,” Folmer says. “Through friction and high pressure, the different plastics are heated and mixed together. Ultimately, you get a homogeneous mass, which we use to make poles, boards and plates.”
“It doesn’t have to be separated, sorted or washed,” Folmer continued. “Whether it’s face masks, food packaging contaminated with food particles, worn sneakers, discarded quilts, worn fishing nets or sand soiled agricultural plastic…It can go straight into the machine.”
Pilot and lessons learned
For the past year, UPPACT has been busy testing the technology. And it works, according to Folmer. “Much better than we expected even! The only exception is PVC, because it releases acids that corrode the metal of the machine. And it also releases gasses that are not exactly healthy, and our machine does not have the appropriate filter system for that. In the end, it was mainly a lot of testing to find the right mix of properties that ensure a good final product.”
As an example, Folmer mentions the medical face masks from the UMCG, which UPPACT also works with. “Those masks have a low melting point and just slide through our machine, so to speak. The result is something so hard that it breaks into a thousand pieces if you throw it on the ground. Of course, that’s not a good property if you want to make planks out of it. You want these planks to be a little more flexible. So we have to mix the masks with plastic bags, for example, so that it does get the right properties.”
Big ambitions for the circular start-up
Ultimately, the goal is to make all non-recyclable plastic and textile waste in the Netherlands (and beyond) circular on a region-wide basis. The first large processing plant with a planned capacity of 15,000 tons per year is also planned in Northern Netherlands. “We found a place at the Chemport Innovation Center for the first phase, which is a demo plant with a capacity of 4,000 tons per year. We’re currently busy with the financing and in talks with the NOM other parties for this purpose. We hope that we can get all the financing fully in place this summer, so that we can order the various machines. If all goes well, we can be up and running in just under a year,” says Folmer.
For UPPACT, the Northern Netherlands feels like a a great place to call home. “There are so many organizations and people willing to help out, from Groningen Seaports, to Chemport Europe, the NOM or SNN. That’s not just really great, it’s also incredibly important for a startup like us. It’s really a lot tougher to do in the Randstad metropolitan area. That’s why we prefer to put our energy into realizing this first demo plant in the Northern Netherlands, because we can get so much more done here. Tthere’s also a really great ecosystem here in terms of waste management and circularity, which is something the region should be proud of and really foster.”