The Garbage Man

Mike Biddle could free the world from having to make new plastic. Forever.
Cody Pickens

In December 2001, American environmental activist Jim Puckett traveled to the town of Guiyu in southeast China to look for old computers. He’d learned that electronic waste from the West was finding its way to Guiyu, and the place apparently wasn’t what it used to be. For centuries, residents of Guiyu’s four villages had scratched out a living farming rice along the Lianjiang River. When Puckett arrived, one of the first things he saw was a man riding a bicycle stacked 15-feet high with computer keyboards. Puckett followed him to a village and, like Alice tailing the white rabbit through Wonderland, he discovered an upside-down world almost cartoonish in its horrors. Towering piles of monitors, printers, and fax machines lined streets and occupied front yards. In a neighboring village, women cooked circuit boards curbside in woks, and children played atop ash heaps. There were piles of burning wires, clouds of noxious fumes, and fields of gooey sludge. Puckett met people blackened head-to-toe with printer toner.

Villagers explained that Guiyu now specialized in recycling electronics, or e-waste, and that truckloads arrived around the clock from the port city of Nanhai five hours away. Thousands of ex-farmers were streaming in from the countryside to earn $1.50 a day. It was all mom-and-pop-level stuff, with each village and neighborhood concentrating on a particular kind of recycling. Some burned electrical wires in open pits to recover the copper. Others acid-stripped circuit boards in caustic baths near the river to salvage bits of gold. No one wore protective clothing. In a village dedicated to plastics recycling, Puckett found young women sitting on a concrete floor, bashing computer housing to pieces with hatchets. Primitive grinders reduced those bits to lentil-size fragments, which children then sifted through and sorted by color. Those were fed into extruding machines that slowly melted the plastic. After watching for five minutes, Puckett felt sick. “There was zero ventilation in that room,” he says. “Those women were breathing hydrocarbons all day long. Plastics have nasty things in them like brominated flame retardants, and when you burn them, you get a whole cocktail of cancer-causing stuff.”

Puckett estimated that just more than half of the material processed in Guiyu actually got recycled, judging from the tons of plastic, leaded glass, and burned circuit boards discarded near waterways and in open fields. He took water samples and found evidence of heavy metals 190 times higher than the World Health Organization’s guidelines for safe drinking water. In the soil, the level of chromium was 1,338 times higher than the EPA’s environmental risk standard.

Puckett works for Basel Action Network (BAN), a group that monitors the export of hazardous waste. In 2002, BAN produced a film about his trip called Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia. It provided the first substantial documentation of American e-waste dumping in the developing world. Shortly after its release, a man named Mike Biddle sat down to watch it. Biddle had been suspicious about the fate of American e-waste for some time. A chemical engineer, he had spent years making plastics for all kinds of products, but in 1992, he reversed course and started focusing on how to unmake them. In the world of recycling, “mixed plastics” (everything beyond water bottles, milk jugs, and plastic bags) were considered a dead end. While a small percentage of mixed plastics were “down-cycled” from high-end products like computers to low-end goods like flowerpots and drainage tiles, most ended up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean.

But by the time he saw Puckett’s film, Biddle had quietly achieved what most thought impossible: He had discovered how to separate certain mixed plastics completely. This was no mere down-cycling. Biddle could take the plastic from, say, a laptop, reduce it to its purest form, and sell it back to a computer company to make another laptop. What’s more, at his facility in Richmond, California, Biddle could produce recycled plastic with as little as 10 percent of the energy required to make virgin. In a world where people use 240,000 plastic bags every 10 seconds, where passengers on U.S. airlines consume one million plastic cups every six hours, where consumers in total discard more than 100 million tons of plastic annually, closing the loop on production and recycling could reduce global dependence on oil, the source material for virgin plastic. It could conceivably influence not only the price of oil, but global flows of trade as well. And it could dramatically reduce the wholesale smothering of communities across Asia and Africa with hazardous e-waste. If Biddle could convince people to give him waste rather than dump it around the globe, he could conceivably change the world.

Biddle could take the plastic from, say, a laptop, reduce it to its purest form, and sell it back to a company to make another laptop.

You want to see a car get shredded in 20 seconds?” Biddle asks me as we gear up in hard hats and steel-toed boots and prepare to troop out into a scrapyard in an industrial suburb of London. I do, absolutely. But the February morning is cold and damp and very English, and when I’d first contacted Biddle, I’d anticipated something a bit balmier, maybe a Plastics 101 lesson at his Richmond plant in the Bay Area. That’s when I learned that Biddle’s firm, MBA Polymers, doesn’t recycle plastic in the U.S. anymore. The company’s inability to secure a steady stream of source material had forced Biddle to turn the Richmond plant into a research facility and open three commercial plants abroad, including one in England. It’s not that Europe consumes more plastic than the U.S. In 2011, Europe and the U.S. each disposed of roughly 30 million tons of plastic, but Europe recycled more than 25 percent of that, while the U.S. recycled less than 10 percent. Among industrialized nations, the U.S. remains the only country without federal laws that mandate the domestic recycling of electronics and cars. As a result, much of that plastic flows offshore to the developing world.

Europe and parts of Asia, on the other hand, offer all kinds of opportunities for someone like Biddle. Directives from the European Union require manufacturers to meet specific recycling goals, and Biddle has formed partnerships with various companies to guarantee him a steady supply of plastic. In England, he gets most of his material from the country’s largest metals recycler, a company called European Metal Recyclers (EMR), which explains why we’re standing before a mountain of scrap at one of EMR’s London facilities. Biddle’s plant is actually 150 miles north, but the first step in his recycling process happens here, with a bone-shaking piece of equipment: the Metso Lindemann EtaShred Zerdirator.

Out in the yard, we watch as three yellow cranes snatch and fling old BMWs and Audis onto a conveyor belt that rises three stories toward the eight-foot-wide maw of the shredder. Steam billows from the opening. There’s a tremendous roar, and two corrugated rollers grab the cars, pancake them, and suck them into a 5,000-horsepower hammer mill, where 16 free-swinging, 400-pound steel hammers spin 500 rpms around a rotor, unleashing hell. “It beats them to smithereens, basically,” says Graeme Carus, the EMR representative showing us around. The Zerdirator can shred cars, appliances, and pretty much anything else. It can process 220 tons of material per hour. It takes no prisoners.

Giving the beast a wide berth, we approach three distinct piles, each growing taller as the conveyor drops pieces onto them. The first pile consists of fist-size chunks of steel, uniformly gray, all smoking-hot from the recent violence. The second contains a mix of nonferrous metals such as aluminum and copper. The third pile, known as “shredder residue,” includes everything else—plastic, foam, rubber, glass, leather, carpet, even wood and rock (people haul everything in their cars). Carus explains that within the hammer mill, car parts ricochet and collide until they are reduced to small chunks, which drop through a sorting screen onto a conveyor belt. The lighter items are vacuumed off while the heavy stuff moves past magnetic separators that pull out the steel. And then all three material streams land in these three piles. Carus nods toward the mound of shredder residue. “We used to landfill that,” he says. “Now we send it to Mike.”

Standing next to the smoldering shredder residue, with the Zerdirator howling in the background, Biddle seems out of place. An outdoorsman, he’s small and fit and looks a decade younger than his 58 years. For his honeymoon 15 years ago, he and his wife climbed 18,000-foot Kala Patthar in Nepal, affording them a spectacular view of Mt. Everest from base camp to summit. He takes extended backpacking trips in the Sierras with his family, and he tells his two kids: Get by on what you’ve got. Use and reuse. Take personal responsibility. He views plastics similarly. They are a resource that can be used over and over, theoretically forever. To not hold that view would be to condone the trashing of something he loves: nature. Now, as we gaze at the heap of shredder residue, he says, “Most people would look at this pile and see garbage. I see an above-ground mine.”

Three hours north of London, in the former boom-bust coal-mining town of Worksop, MBA’s 200,000-square-foot recycling facility rises like a giant blue barn. The building itself was recycled from a rundown glass-bottle factory. Biddle and I arrive and stop briefly in the lobby, where he shows me some sleek black desk lamps. He then ushers me to the plant’s cavernous intake bay to show me what those lamps looked like in a previous life. There’s a mountain of shredder residue from EMR piled in the corner. Biddle looks it over. As in mining, the major challenge in plastics recycling is separating the target material from the many nontarget ones. Biddle’s targets are the five major plastics used in manufacturing durable goods: ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), HIPS (high-impact polystyrene), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), and Filled PP. Biddle points out the wood, the foam, the copper wire. “Sometimes we get dead animals,” he says. “We get everything.” He plucks out a black fragment that looks like plastic. “This is rubber tubing,” he says. “I can’t have this in my plastic. If I want to put plastic in those desk lamps, I have to get things like this 99 percent out, or it will show up as a defect.” He drops the rubber and shows me his now-filthy hands. “I also can’t have any dirt.”

Once the nonplastics have been eliminated, the five target materials must be sorted from the other types of plastic. Unlike metals, which are easily separated from one another based on different densities, colors, and electrical and magnetic properties, plastics have overlapping densities and nearly identical electrical and magnetic properties. And any type of plastic can come in any color. In addition to type, the plastics must be separated by property. Some plastics are flame-retardant, others aren’t. Some are reinforced, others aren’t. All of this is further complicated by the many coatings and dyes manufacturers apply to plastics. “It’s hard to do,” Biddle says. “That’s why no one else is doing it. No one is processing this to the extent we are.”

We walk out of the intake bay and up two flights of stairs to a catwalk, from which we peer down on a maze of conveyor belts and humming machines. “I like to call this a Willy Wonka factory, because we’re using processes from so many other industries,” says Biddle, who has poached separation techniques from mining, metal recycling, and food processing, among others. “We’ve also invented a number of processes ourselves.” He explains that the source material in the intake bay will be fed into shredders and reduced to the size of quarters. The material will be scrubbed clean—without chemicals—and granulators will break it down further to something approximating confetti. After several dozen separation procedures isolate the five target plastics, each will go into a specific stainless steel silo for blending before being melted and extruded into spaghetti-like strands. Those are sliced into mustard seed–size pellets, the product MBA sells to its customers.

That’s all Biddle will tell me. He won’t explain how the separation processes work. He won’t say what order they come in or even how many there are. Only a handful of MBA employees know the entire process, he insists, and the most sensitive plastic-to-plastic separations occur in a secret “advanced separations area.”

Biddle’s reluctance to get specific isn’t surprising. MBA is one of the only companies in the world doing more than down-cycling mixed plastics. With down-cycling, the recycled plastic doesn’t have to be as pure. “It’s better than nothing,” Biddle says, “but it’s not closing the loop.” He still sells some of his residue to down-cyclers, but as more manufacturers have embraced his near-virgin product, his plastics are appearing in more high-end applications, like Nespresso coffee machines and Electrolux vacuum cleaners. He’s also selling plastic to the world’s largest electronics companies. Along the way, Biddle’s company has acquired more than 60 patents, and more are pending. “My investors would kill me if I told you,” he says. “I’ve invested $150 million and spent 20 years figuring this out.”

When Biddle was a teenager growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, he had to lend money to his parents to pay the bills. As they struggled at different jobs, Biddle worked from an early age, delivering newspapers, collecting aluminum cans, bussing tables. Still, the family lost its house, and the experience seared him. Driven by a desire for financial stability, he excelled academically and was voted most likely to succeed in high school. When someone suggested he parlay his interest in math and science into engineering, he researched it and learned that chemical engineers earn the highest salaries. The University of Louisville charged only $265 a semester and had a good engineering program, so he decided to go there. After graduation, he landed in General Electric’s plastics lab.

“Most people would look at this pile and see garbage. I see an above-ground mine.”

“Everyone mentions that line from The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman receives one word of advice: ‘Plastics,’ ” Biddle says. “But that’s where the country was back then. Everyone considered it the cool, space-age material. I caught the plastics bug.” Biddle later got a Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering at Case Western Reserve University. He then moved to the Bay Area to work for Dow Chemical on plastic composites, including ones for the new stealth bomber.

In the late 1980s, a couple of high-profile news events began shifting Biddle’s thinking on plastics. One involved a barge named Mobro 4000, which spent five months traveling between New York and Belize looking for a place to dispose of 3,168 tons of garbage. No one would take it, and after multiple investigations, a pitched legal battle, a temporary restraining order, and a standoff with the Mexican Navy, the garbage was finally incinerated back in New York. The other event involved Berkeley, California, which became the first community in the country to ban Styrofoam containers.

Dow made the polystyrene foam that went into those containers, and that bothered Biddle. More generally, he knew that the plastics he was making would ultimately be discarded in what had increasingly become a culture of disposability. He wanted Dow to begin exploring how to deal with end-of-life plastics. In 1988, he discussed this with the company’s research and development director, Vern May. “We didn’t hire a Ph.D. in plastics to work in garbage,” May told him. But after some convincing, he yielded and allowed Biddle to do the research.

After a few years, Biddle struck out on his own. He knew plastics held great value, but that value would remain inaccessible unless he learned how to isolate them completely and in large volumes. In 1992, the American Plastics Council funded him to research the recycling of computer plastics. He was soon winning grants and loans from the State of California, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Energy and Commerce. Between 1993 and 1999 he was awarded $7 million, which he used to begin researching a variety of critical questions. Was it more efficient to separate bulky computer components from one another, or was it better to shred everything first? Which existing separation technologies could he employ?

During this period, Biddle befriended an Englishman named Ray Mann, Europe’s leading electronics recycler at the time. Mann’s methods were inefficient, but he’d succeeded in selling some recycled plastics back to IBM. “We could look at a molded section and know it was one kind of plastic,” he says. “But this was a long, laborious process, and we couldn’t handle real volume.” In contrast, Biddle learned that if you shredded everything before separation, you could deal with volume through automation. “I said, ‘You’re joking,’ ” Mann recalls. “Smash it to bits and start from scratch? Mike’s treating the material abominably, but it’s the only way to handle mass amounts.”

Slowly, Biddle learned how to sort stuff. His team would solve one level of separations and then move on to the next, producing a string of satisfying aha moments. By the late 1990s, they were confident enough in their lab work to scale up. They found investors and built a small pilot plant in Berkeley, then a larger one in Richmond. By 2000, the Richmond plant had become a full-blown production facility and was running three shifts. But Biddle struggled with securing enough raw material, and he realized he finally faced a challenge he couldn’t solve. With no federal laws requiring the recycling of end-of-life vehicles or electronics, or a law banning the offshore dumping of e-waste, Biddle’s source material was moving overseas.

Biddle initially looked to Japan for answers. Even before the European Union passed its directives in the early 2000s that required manufacturers to take back end-of-life electronics and vehicles and recycle them responsibly, Japan had laws mandating the large-scale collection and recycling of appliances. But Biddle ran into financing and logistical problems trying to open a plant there, so he began exploring China. The country didn’t have the recycling laws Japan did—or that Europe was developing—but it did have companies interested in Biddle’s vision. He built a plant in Guangzhou in 2006 after contracting for a steady stream of e-waste. That same year, taking advantage of Europe’s new legislation, he built a plant in Austria that primarily recycles plastic from e-waste. In 2010, he built the plant in England, which targets mostly automotive plastics.

Today, MBA processes a million pounds of material a day, more than 125,000 tons a year. “Mike has taken things to a different level,” says Wayne Rifer, director of research for EPEAT, a global registry for greener electronics where Biddle sits on the board. “He’s providing a worldwide market for plastics to be recycled into high-grade plastic, not just low-grade. He has built the beginning of a capability to have closed-loop plastics recycling.”

Still, considering the frantic rate at which humanity consumes plastic, Biddle’s recycling amounts to a blip. The majority of e-waste and plastics continue to be processed improperly in the developing world. That constitutes a very real threat to Biddle and what he’s trying to accomplish. “Every day, about 100 containers of toxic e-waste arrive in Hong Kong alone,” says Jim Puckett, the activist with BAN. “Mike’s problem is that these other countries get all the plastic. They can do it cheaper. Mike’s doing it properly and internalizing all the costs. He can’t compete.”

“We get so concerned with how our products are made, but we don’t seem to care how we are unmaking our stuff.”

Biddle’s education on the dumping of e-waste in the developing world began in 2000, before Puckett had even traveled to Guiyu and made his film. Curious about why he couldn’t get source material for his plant in Richmond, Biddle traveled to China himself. There he saw bits and pieces of what Puckett would later document, but these few disturbing scenes didn’t strike him as an overwhelming problem. “I didn’t understand the scale of it at the time,” he says. “It took a while to sink in that this would impact the growing of my business.”

But the vagaries of sourcing material continued to haunt Biddle even after he opened plants in Europe and China. For example, despite Europe’s firm recycling laws, lax enforcement allows traders and brokers to continue dumping e-waste in the developing world. To learn more, Biddle began traveling to places like Mumbai and Mexico City. There he spent time in some of the world’s biggest dumps, where hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest people deal crudely with the rest of the world’s waste—sometimes recycling it, sometimes down-cycling it, typically handling it in unsafe ways. He coined the use of the term “environmental arbitrage” to describe this shifting of waste from rich nations to poor ones, and he began speaking out about it.

Biddle has presented on the topic and the need to recycle responsibly at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in New Delhi, and has testified before Congress on behalf of the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, a bill that would ban the dumping of e-waste abroad. He was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum and is in talks with the Clinton Global Initiative on how to help people living and scavenging in landfills. In 2011, he gave a TED talk in Edinburgh, Scotland, which subsequently received nearly a million views.

All of this has upped both his profile and the topic of environmental arbitrage. In 2007, Biddle was named an Earthkeeper Hero, a tribute previously given to Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, and Rachel Carson. In 2010, The Economist honored him with one of its awards for energy and the environment (along with Steve Jobs and Harald zur Housen, a Nobel-winning cancer researcher). In 2012, Biddle received the Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development—a prize previously won by Al Gore and Kofi Annan.

It’s hard to say whether the high-profile awards and appearances have changed hearts and minds on plastics, especially in the U.S. Biddle admits it’s been a frustrating slog. In 2011 and again in 2013, Congress failed to bring the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act to the floor for a vote, despite bipartisan support. But victories do come. Last April, the EPA interpreted an obscure rule to explicitly allow, for the first time, the recycling of plastic from auto-shredder residue in the U.S., something Biddle has been doing in England since 2011. Meanwhile, ever since MBA began its operations in Worksop, the collection of plastics by community recycling programs has increased in the U.K., and Biddle is making inroads in convincing these aggregators to send him their plastic. He points to other signs that suggest a groundswell of popular support for dealing with environmental arbitrage. His TED talk has garnered hundreds of comments. “Almost all the comments are from people asking how to help,” he says. “I find that level of enthusiasm really hopeful.”

Biddle continues pushing, and during my three days with him in England, we hurry from one speaking engagement to the next. He’s giving a presentation at Westminster before members from both houses of Parliament. He has a talk as part of a distinguished lecture series at Cambridge University. He’s attending a dinner hosted by the Climate Change Forum—with guest ministers of trade and environment from several countries—and he’s having lunch with Britain’s head of green economy in the department for economic growth. He’s also meeting with Polly Courtice, director of the Programme for Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge, who’s trying to arrange an appointment with the program’s sponsor, Prince Charles.

Biddle begins his Westminster presentation with a photo of his young son playing with toys and asks the MPs and Lords to recall the rules that toddlers live by. “It’s my stuff if I saw it first,” he says. “The entire pile is my stuff if I’m building something. The more stuff that’s mine, the better. And, of course, it’s your stuff—if it’s broken.” The room chuckles, and Biddle continues: “After spending 20 years in the recycling industry, it’s become clear to me that we don’t necessarily leave these toddler rules behind as we become adults.” He explains where our broken stuff ends up, showing a photo of the biggest slum in Mumbai and the men there who taught him the “burn-and-sniff” method of sorting plastics. They set fire to a fragment, inhale the toxic fumes, and toss it into the appropriate bin based on odor. Another photo depicts a dead albatross on Midway Island in the Pacific, its open stomach revealing hundreds of brightly colored plastic bits. “We get so concerned with how our products are made, in terms of sweatshop conditions, but we don’t seem to care how we are unmaking our stuff,” Biddle says. “What I’m showing you in these photos—it’s not safe, it’s not fair, and it’s certainly not sustainable.”

Biddle apologizes for the U.S. being the only industrialized nation without decent recycling laws, and then he notes to the parliamentarians that Britain’s laws often go unenforced. E-waste gets sold and resold through domestic and foreign brokers, and there’s little downstream auditing to determine where it ends up. He concludes the presentation with two requests, the first for beefed-up law enforcement, the second for a tax break on the sale of recycled plastics, to encourage more recycling.

Afterward, the chatter in the room is positive, with people saying all the right things. “The wider public wants more green solutions,” says Russell Brown, an MP from Scotland. “We have to have a more level playing field for people like Mike.” Biddle leaves the event hopeful but cautious. He’s heard all of this before. These are politicians, after all.

Several weeks later we chat on the phone, and Biddle talks about a development that makes him more optimistic than the promises of British politicians. In February 2013, China announced a new policy crackdown called Operation Green Fence. The upshot is that shipments of recyclables into the country must truly be recyclables, not contaminants or waste. The policy has apparently cramped the style of American scrap brokers, and Biddle’s phone has been ringing off the hook. “They think in a year or so China will change its tune and return to business as usual, but in the meantime, they’re looking to me for a short-term fix,” he says. “But I’m pushing these guys for long-term sourcing agreements. I don’t think China will go back to business as usual. China wants resources, not waste.” Biddle pauses and then laughs at himself. “Here I’ve been talking to everyone for years—Europe, Congress, everyone—and it hasn’t made much difference. It took China and the Green Fence to make a difference. It’s fantastic. I hope it stays in place.”

_Want to find out where plastic ends up? Check out our infographic _Where Plastic Goes.

How Mike Biddle Makes New Plastic from Trash

The details of MBA Polymers’s closed-loop recycling process are secret, but the broad strokes are pretty widely known. The goal is to separate undifferentiated garbage into five high-grade plastics that can be sold back to manufacturers. After shredding the raw materials, Biddle employs dozens of separation techniques, in a particular order. Here are some of the techniques he might use.

Remove Ferrous Metals

Overhead Magnet Belt – This device consists of a strong magnet with a conveyor belt moving around it. Suspended above and perpendicular to the conveyor belt that carries mixed materials, it plucks ferrous metals from the stream and drops them in a separate chute.

Remove Nonferrous Metals

Eddy Current Separator – An electromagnet inside a rotating drum creates a force field at the end of a conveyor belt. Nonferrous items, like aluminum and copper, leap off the belt and into a chute, repelled by the magnetic field. Everything else falls into a different chute.

Sort Material By Weight

Gravity Table – Mixed material moves onto an inclined grading deck. A fan blows pressurized air across the deck surface and lifts the lighter items, while heavier items stay put. The vibrating deck sends heavier pieces to one side of the incline and lighter pieces to the other.

Sort Plastics By Chemistry

Froth Flotation – A polymer-specific surfactant is added to a mix of plastic fragments, and the slurry is placed in an aerated bath. Air bubbles attach to the target plastic and float it away from the other materials.

Sort Plastics By Color

Color Particle Sorter – Plastic bits pour past a photoelectric detector, which identifies those of a particular color, say, blue. The detector signals an air gun, which blasts any non-blue particles with air, knocking them out of the waste stream.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Popular Science.