PROVO — Two and a half years ago, two BYU roommates had an idea after they read about a strain of bacteria in the Amazon with an appetite for plastic. What if they mass-produced that bacteria and sold it to landfills?
To make a long story short, it didn't work.
Regardless, those same BYU students continued meeting with industry experts and landfill managers to discuss what would work. Over the next two years, these discussions would lead Inviroment — the student startup's official name as of January — to develop a chemical spray that can degrade plastics in one to three years to substantially increase landfill capacity. So far, their product has garnered interest to the tune of more than $100,000 in contest winnings.
"I never pictured myself as an industry expert in waste, but it's actually quite fun," said Devan Bennion, one of the Inviroment partners. "That's the part you have to love to do — to go out and get that feedback."
Inviroment calls its plastic-eating chemical spray PlasTek. It comes with two potential benefits for landfills — the chemical not only biodegrades plastics in a matter of years, instead of hundreds or even thousands of years, but the end product can be digested by bacteria that produce methane. That methane, in turn, can be collected and used as a clean source of energy.
Unlike the sorting lines that require manual labor to intercept discarded, recyclable plastics on their way to the landfill, PlasTek can be sprayed over an incoming load of trash. The treated plastics can then be buried and left to degrade like many other forms of waste.
"For years, actually decades, landfills have tried several different physical methods, sorting out the plastics to save space," Bennion said. "We're going to revolutionize the waste industry by treating it with chemicals, not with physical labor."
Bennion, the youngest company partner, just finished his first year of study at BYU. He plans to study accounting, but this summer plans to work full-time on the Inviroment project, for which he typically oversees customer relations. His older brother, Brock Bennion, who will graduate from BYU with a degree in physical and developmental biology in August, handles the science side of things. A third student partner — the brothers' roommate, Nathan Parkin — will graduate in June in management. He oversees company organization.
The company also consists of two other partners and a small team of scientists who helped develop PlasTek.
Inviroment's genesis is less the story of brilliant, sudden invention and more the result of asking the right questions and listening to the needs of an unpopular industry, Parkin said.
"Garbage really isn't glamorous," he said. "You throw your garbage in the trash, and you never want to see it again."
Because Inviroment was willing to take a second look, the company recently took first place in the regional Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, for which the team was awarded a $100,000 prize and advanced to the national competition in Washington, D.C., on June 11. The company has also scored several local wins.
It also plans to launch a Kickstarter initiative, which the students hope will help them raise the $100,000 to $300,000 Inviroment needs to fund continued research and development.
The students plan to run a pilot program this summer. They are considering several possible locations, but tentatively planning a test at the South Utah Valley Solid Waste District.