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Jeanny Yao, co-founder of BioCellection
Jeanny Yao, co-founder of BioCellection

Alchemy

Mother of Invention winners turn plastic waste into useful chemicals

By WITW Staff on March 8, 2019

Jeanny Yao, the 24-year-old co-founder of revolutionary plastic recycling company BioCellection, received Toyota’s 25th Mother of Invention award at a special event co-hosted by The Wing in Los Angeles on Friday.

Never ones to waste time, Yao and her co-founder Miranda Wang started thinking about new ways to deal with the world’s growing plastic waste problem before they’d even finished high school. After meeting through their high school’s recycling club, the then-17 year olds discovered that bacteria in their local river had evolved to degrade plastics. The findings led them to present at the TED2013 conference.

Two years later, while Yao was studying at the University of Toronto and Wang at the University of Pennsylvania, the two friends launched BioCellection to innovate a new and forward-thinking approach to recycling plastic. Modern plastic packaging, Yao explains, has become so complicated that recycled materials can become impossible to effectively reuse. But by chemically breaking down the plastic, they found that it could be turned into valuable chemicals that can be used to create products such as nylon, paint, and even additives for pharmaceuticals.

Yao and Wang’s decision to launch their recycling company before even graduating college was motivated by the urgency of the threat plastics pose to the planet. Since plastics entered large-scale manufacturing in the 1950s, an estimated 8.3 billion tons have been produced. Roughly 92 percent of plastics are discarded as trash, with much of this ultimately finding its way to the ocean. If things continue at this rate, experts have warned, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by the year 2050.

BioCellection’s goal, Yao says, is to help jumpstart a new plastic economy in which recyclers are paid to take people’s plastic waste, break it down into biodegradable components, and then sell the resulting chemicals to manufacturers. BioCellection’s current technology is focused on polyethylene, which is mostly used in packaging and is the world’s most common plastic, making up about 34 percent of the global plastics market.

While the world of waste management has long been dominated by men, Yao says that women are the ones leading the way when it comes to recycling plastic waste. Groups from the city of San Jose and material recovery company Green-Waste Recovery that have partnered with BioCellection are made up of women representatives, according to Yao. And her own team currently has 5 women and just 2 men. But it won’t stay small for long. BioCellection is preparing to scale up and will soon increase the amount of plastic it works with by a factor of 100. More, she says, is still to come.

“I’m incredibly humbled to be honored as a Mother of Invention by Toyota and aspire to create real-world impact with the invention my team and I have developed,” says Yao. “I believe this honor will help my organization continue on our path to become an innovative and world-serving enterprise.”

See Yao and Wang talk about their innovative recycling method below.

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