Eleonore Eisath: Using the Power of Nature to Recycle the World’s Most-Used Plastics – EP. 153

About This Episode:

Can we get rid of all the plastic in the oceans?

Like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 1.6 million square kilometers of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. Some see this never-decomposing trash as one of the biggest problems facing our species, others like Eleonore Eisath see that plastic as a “locked resource” that can be tapped into.

Her company Beworm is developing a biocatalytic recycling process that decomposes plastic waste into natural raw materials—it’s about as cool as it gets!

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2:54 – “Obviously plastics are pretty resilient. The problem is that the chemical structure of plastics is pretty strong, so it’s hard for natural organisms to degrade the plastics. But there are a few, and that’s what we do at BeWorm actually, we’re hunting down these microorganisms, these little creatures that can split up the plastic molecules into shorter fragments. And basically what comes out there are raw materials that can be reused to produce new plastics. So we’re not only taking care of the waste, but we’re also trying to make something out of it that is usable.”

4:01 – “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the pyramids of how to solve the waste problem, but it’s reduce, reuse, recycle. So before we recycle, each and every one of us should avoid as much as possible.”

5:51 – “The plastic itself is not the problem. It’s actually a pretty good material. And when it was invented in the 1940–50s, people were super hyped about it because they thought like, ‘Wow, all our problems are solved now. It’s so light, it’s so easy to make, it’s so cheap, it’s going to solve everything,” and people were super hyped about it. The only problem or the biggest problem is that it’s too stable for its use. A single plastic, for example. I don’t know, like a fork made out of plastics can resist for 400 years in the environment if the right organisms aren’t around. But it’s used for like five seconds. And that’s the problem here. So the use and the material don’t fit to each other. And we have to come up with a bunch of solutions in order to like even this out. So we have to come up with other materials for single use things, first of all, and then for all the plastics, chemical plastics that we use in our product, we need to come up with solutions, how to take them back to the circle and to make something useful out of it. But technically that’s all possible. Technically, it wouldn’t be so hard to make a fully recyclable plastic. The problem is we don’t do it because we like cheap and easy things, right? So it’s also a mentality problem.”

8:52 – (Ross) “Like Apple, many of us, clued us into what design can be, right? And I’ve been an Apple fan for years. I know it’s cliche, but you get used to a certain standard of how things should look and how they should function and why they function in a certain way. And I think Steve Jobs was really good at pushing that forward for all of us and helping us all better understand how design fits into our lives and professionally, I’m at this moment in my career a marketer and I have a digital agency, so design and how things look and aesthetic and function and form and all of that, it plays a big role in my own life. And also I have a deep, deep, deep hatred of things that don’t function as intended, that are ugly or that break before their time. You know, I love a computer that’s like, ‘Oh, this computer, I used it for ten years’ or a knife that you can use for 30 years. You buy it once. Nothing infuriates me more than when I buy something off of Amazon for $29 and it breaks three weeks later and then it instantly becomes garbage and it goes straight to the great Pacific Garbage patch.”

16:39 – “I started with a paper from an Italian researcher and she found out that this wax form could actually eat plastic. So that was all that was known by then. And then I started looking into it with my team and we found some gut bacteria that could actually attack the plastics. So right now we have 55 different bacteria strains that can attack polyethylene. But in the meantime, also the research and other like other researchers got further and the worm was actually discovered as being one of the best sources for this bacteria and microorganisms and also enzymes that can split up plastics. But when we started, nobody really believed in it. And actually, this researcher, she had, I think she had quite a tough time at the beginning because a lot of people were doubting her work. And now it’s actually state of the art that there is something in the worm. But we usually we focus on the microorganisms that we got from the worm’s gut.”

24:21 – “Basically nothing is recycled on a raw material level yet because the processes are not ready yet. I mean, I think in the US maybe 1% or 2% is recycled on a chemical level, but also these chemical processes, as you just said, they are not super scalable. Either they are not super scalable yet or they are not super energy efficient yet, or they require certain conditions that are not super economically viable yet. So all this raw material processes they are still in development. And the thing is with mechanical recycling is, that’s what we use now, right? It’s happening in a physical level. So you have to imagine it’s basically just like ripping off the plastics, melting them down again and making new plastics out of it. And with every cycle you use quality so no matter what mechanical recycling you do, you will always use quality and usually you use a lot of quality. So the whole cosmetics and food sector in Europe is not even allowed to use recycled plastics because the quality is not food grade.”

30:05 – “You can teach yourself a lot of things. And if you want something and you aim for something, you can make it happen. Maybe it’s not the easiest way, and maybe you have a limit. But I’m always interested in seeing how far it can go. And this is actually the thought that I started with. I never thought, ‘Oh, I want to do a startup that is super successful.’ I don’t care about money at all. So what I thought is ‘I think this is interesting. I think somebody should try to take it to the next level. I’m sitting here, I’m reading this, so probably I’m supposed to be the one to try to take this to the next level. And that’s what I did. And I still don’t know where my limit is. Maybe it’s going to be in a few years. Maybe it’s going to be in a few days.”

35:47 – “We live in a capitalistic world, right? So money is the driver of everything. And the reason why I turned this into a startup was this: I wanted to show people that this is something that they could make money out of in order to force them into this direction. And I personally think when big multinationals try to be more sustainable and put money into sustainable technologies that is a major driver of change. So that’s, I just wanted to say that because it’s not that I don’t think about money, but I see money and business and everything in our world as it is, as a major enabler for technologies like ours. If it would be just a research project, nobody would care, that’s for sure.”

40:26 – (Ross) “I have a four year old daughter. And one of the things that I have nightmares about is that when people see a kid, the immediate thing – there’s a gift, it’s a birthday, there’s Christmas, there’s a holiday – it’s here’s a piece of plastic. A plastic toy. But so much of this accumulates. And I’m thinking like, ‘please stop. Like, no more toys.’ Anything, like get a membership to a zoo or a botanical gardens. Just not any more of these toys. And it’s hard because it’s so ingrained in our life, and Amazon makes it so easy. It’s ‘Oh, I can’t be there but I can order you a toy. I can order you a gift from Amazon.’ It’ll be there tomorrow even though you’re thousands of miles away.”

43:04 – “I did a post recently about Greta Thunberg and why does she get so much hate? And there were so many negative comments. And one of them was that she was from a privileged background and therefore everything that she said or did didn’t matter because she’s from a rich background – and I don’t even know if this is true, by the way, I don’t know enough about her personal life to know whether this is true. I just know that somebody said that. So the idea that if somebody is from a privileged background and they dedicate their life towards trying to improve the climate or science or whatever, that that is somehow discounted or discredited by virtue of their upbringing. Whereas in my mind, it seems to me to be the exact opposite. I wish that more people of privilege recognize that they had privilege and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to try to do something good with my position of privilege versus just trying to grease the ladder and further increase the gap between the wealthy and the not wealthy so that nobody else can ever become rich like me.’ I have a lot more belief in somebody who comes from a privileged background and chooses to do that with their time and their money and their life, versus somebody who spends their whole life just trying to build the next billion-dollar business and further distance themselves from the rest of humanity.”

46:57 – (Ross) “The American way of life or this dream as it’s been sold to people for generations like my great grandmother who immigrated from Italy, the dream of coming to America, the American dream of the white picket fence, and the house, and the two-car garage, and that’s a way of life. It sort of suggests to people that the ideal life is just maintaining that status quo. Say, ‘Don’t bother me with your talk of garbage patches. Don’t bother me with your talk of plastic or environmental crisis. I don’t want to hear about it. All I want to do is have my two-car garage, my house, my white picket fence. I want to eat hamburgers and barbecue, and I want to do all of these things. And I don’t ever want to think about anything else ever in my life because it’s an inconvenience.

47:51 – “There’s this belief that, hey, you know what, Eleonore? You do you, let me do me, okay? Don’t tell me what I should do. You do your thing. But it’s like, ‘Folks. These problems affect all of us. Whether you believe in them or not does not change the fact that they affect all of us and will only affect all of us more in the coming years. The great garbage patch is not going to get smaller if you just keep doing what you’re going to do.’

48:58 – “What I see from all these big multinationals that we’re talking to. It’s not like they want to be good people or whatever, but they see, ‘Okay, we’re going to get forced to pay for all the plastics that we’re putting out there by law. So we just have to come up with a solution in order to not pay a lot of money. This could be something that is a business opportunity for us. We could make money out of that.’ And that’s why I’m kind of trying to sell them that in order to put them into this path.”

50:40 – (Ross) “For somebody such as myself, the secret Holy Grail, or maybe not so secret is, yes, I would like to be able to take care of myself and my family. I would like to be able to have a good standard of living while making the world a better place. I want both of those things. And I think that there is a growing number of people who do want both of those things, who don’t want to live, for example, in total poverty, but they also want to make a difference. And I think you’re very smart in the way that you have identified that and you’re thinking about it, because I do agree that that’s probably our best chance to get some of the things that we want done, actually done. And we know what doesn’t work. We know that just yelling at people or appealing to people’s better natures, we know that doesn’t work. We know trying to convince people doesn’t work. But at the end of the day, there are other ways of sort of sneaking this change in there. And I think you’re very smart to have identified those, honestly.”

53:59 – (Ross) “Because my attention span is so short right now, in under one minute, if the commercialization of your idea comes to pass, in under one minute, describe the process from start to finish, ideally. What’s the input? What’s the output?”

(Eleonore) “The input are waste fractions that are not feasible for any kind of existing recycling. So contaminated, colored, and layered plastics they will be put into a bioreactor. The bio agents are going to break them down into oligomers. These oligomers could be something like ethylene glycol or ethanol. And these are basic chemicals that can be reused to produce new plastics or to produce other stuff in the petrochemical industry. So you have a fully closed loop, sustainable resource-saving recycling process. That was under one minute.”

(Ross) “All right, great. You passed. Shark Tank, Dragon’s Den – we all say yes. You got the investment.”

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