SALT LAKE CITY — You know that seemingly “crazy” idea of making energy fuel from garbage? Well, it is actually not that far-fetched.
In fact, a Salt Lake City-based entrepreneur and her partner have developed a proprietary process that turns recycled waste plastic into crude oil that is so advanced that it can be made into gasoline, kerosene and diesel easier than the oil that comes straight out of the ground.
When Priyanka Bakaya, CEO of PK Clean, was a young girl growing up in Australia, she became fascinated with science, chemistry and the environment through her interactions with a family friend and “grandfather figure” named Percy Keen.
“He spent his whole life working on clean energy solutions,” Bakaya explained. “He converted his whole house into this giant laboratory.”
Over many years, Keen developed complex formulas for converting waste into viable fuels, but he never made them public. Upon his death in 2007, Bakaya, 31, felt compelled to do something with those formulas and bring her friend’s innovative ideas to fruition.
A graduate of MIT and Stanford, she had a vision to end plastic waste forever by converting landfill-bound plastics into high-value fuels. In 2009, she launched the company that was named in honor of her dear friend, using his initials.
But though she had considerable knowledge in science and chemistry through her academic studies, Bakaya acknowledged that she didn’t possess the technical expertise to get the project up and running. So she enlisted the help of a engineering student whom she met during her time at Stanford, Ben Coates. The two forged a partnership that to this point has been rather successful.
The company’s commercial-scale facility was moved to Salt Lake City in 2012 and now has enough capacity to convert 20,000 pounds of non-recycled plastic to 60 barrels of oil per day — all with zero emissions. The startup is achieving enviable profit margins, producing a barrel of oil for $25 to $30 that is sold to local refineries for about $100.
Only about 7 percent of all plastics are recycled, with the majority going into landfills as garbage. Recyclable plastic comes in a few categories. According to Good Housekeeping, the No. 1 plastic includes soft drink, water and beer bottles, along with mouthwash bottles, peanut butter containers, salad dressing and vegetable oil containers, and oven-safe food trays.
The No. 2 plastic includes milk jugs, juice bottles, as well as bleach, detergent and household cleaner bottles, shampoo bottles, some trash and shopping bags, motor oil bottles butter, yogurt tubs and cereal box liners. The remaining No. 3 through No. 7 plastics include all other petroleum-based materials from medical equipment, siding, piping, shopping bags, straws, medicine bottles, carry-out containers, compact discs, to bulletproof materials and sunglasses.
In recent years, plastic waste has increased significantly, according to Bayaka. Being able to make a useful product from what would otherwise become garbage in a landfill seems like a very worthwhile endeavor, she said.
The featured speaker Tuesday at the Zions Premier Wealth Management Center Speaker Series luncheon in downtown Salt Lake City, Bakaya told the audience of about 80 people that plastics are derived from petroleum to begin with, so PK Clean “is just reversing the process.”
“About 70 to 80 percent comes out as oil, while about 10 to 20 percent comes out as natural gas that is recycled to keep the system heated so you don’t use any additional outside energy,” she said. The remaining small percentage is “char” waste — dirt and residue on the plastic.
She said the company, which employs 10 full- and part-time workers, hopes to expand domestically and abroad in the coming years to help produce more oil and reduce the environmental impact of millions of tons of plastic waste around the world.
In addition, being of Indian descent, Bakaya said she has seen firsthand on family trips to India the struggles of “waste-pickers” who rummage through discarded piles of garbage to find recyclable plastic in order to claim the deposit — which may be their only source of income in some cases. It’s an issue that is prevalent in many countries, she said.
“There is a huge global opportunity specifically in the developing world,” Bakaya said. “I would really like to see this company transform to have more a social impact in addition to the environmental impact in these developing countries where we can help lift (poor people) up by giving them more revenue from the plastic waste they are collecting.”
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