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One of World’s Largest McDonald’s Franchisees Buys Biobased Products Made from Trash

Israeli tech company UBQ Materials has developed a plastic substitute made from hard-to-impossible-to-recycle municipal solid waste (MSW) ranging from banana peels to chicken bones, diapers, fiber, and mixed plastics. UBQ is a biobased composite with thermoplastic characteristics that is used in thousands of applications across multiple industries.

Arlene Karidis

September 26, 2023

4 Min Read
UBQ
UBQ

Israeli tech company UBQ Materials has developed a plastic substitute made from hard-to-impossible-to-recycle municipal solid waste (MSW) ranging from banana peels to chicken bones, diapers, fiber, and mixed plastics. UBQ is a biobased composite with thermoplastic characteristics that is used in thousands of applications across multiple industries.

Customers include operators in automotive, retail, consumer durables, supply chain and logistics, and building and construction sectors. They use it in both durable and semi-durable applications –  footwear, pallets, display stands, panels, and planters to name a few – all carrying the U.S. Department of Agriculture certified biobased label.

The ability to work with diverse MSW streams and to create a homogenous product from them is key to UBQ’s widespread adoption.

The composite integrates with a range of standard manufacturing processes and materials, allowing not only for partial substitution of traditional plastics but serving as a replacement for wood and concrete to make carbon-neutral products, says Jack Bigio, co-founder and co-CEO of UBQ Materials.

“UBQ’s biobased thermoplastic material is solving for two issues: landfill waste and the associated methane emissions, as well as industries’ need for sustainable materials that reduce the environmental impact associated with all manufactured goods,” Bigio says.

One kilogram (kg) (2.2046 pounds) of product replaces 1 kg of oil-based plastic, and a third-party lifecycle analysis shows it prevents up to 11.7 kg (25.8 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) over 20 years.

The conversion process bypasses the need to support waste/recycling into specific streams. Only metals and minerals are pulled out, which are sent on for recycling; the rest is converted into UBQ.

The first step is drying and shredding the material into what Bigio likes to call ‘garbage confetti.’ Then, using physical and chemical processes, organic waste is broken down into its cellular components and reassembled into a matrix, with plastics melted and mixed in, to create a consistent composite thermoplastic.

Sustainability is embedded across all production stages to conserve resources, Bigio says. UBQ’s patented conversion process reaches a maximum temperature of 200 degrees Celsius, rendering it more energy efficient than conventional chemical recycling systems requiring substantially higher temperatures to break apart polymer bonds to make new products.

Heat left from the manufacturing process is used to dry waste. The facilities run on renewable energy; use no water in the process; and produce no effluents.

Going back to the company’s beginnings Bigio says, “Poetically, recycling bins were the first product we piloted.”

That project was for the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority.

As far as how UBQ has gone from working on a couple thousand bins to a gamut of applications, including for majors such as Mercedes-Benz, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s, Bigio says, “It’s entailed taking an approach that involves a step-by-step process. It’s been about honesty in sharing both successes and failures; fostering open-mindedness; and enabling controlled processes with engineers and manufacturers.”

Arcos Dorados, the world’s largest independent McDonald’s franchisee, purchased more than 112 thousand reusable UBQ trays in 2022 alone. Made from 80% polypropylene and 20% UBQ, they can be recycled five or more times without breaking down.

The company, with over 2,300 quick-service restaurants in Latin America and the Caribbean, continues replacing traditional trays with these reusable alternatives.

Now a restaurant in Brazil is investing in other UBQ-made applications:  electrical conduits and connection boxes, as well as bench structures built with modular wood boards containing the biobased composite. These two newest additions will be showcased in the São Paulo restaurant, bringing Arcos Dorados’ sustainability work to the public’s attention.

“By using UBQ, we expand the scope of the material's benefits with the potential of our scale, increasing the amount of reused waste and reducing emissions in our supply chain, contributing to the company's greenhouse gas reduction goals,” says Gabriel Serber, vice president Social Impact and Sustainable Development Arcos Dorados.

Those company goals include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 36% in the franchisee’s own restaurants and offices, and by 31% throughout the supply chain by 2030. An earlier aim is for 100% of the restaurant chain’s packaging to be from renewable or recycled material or material certified as sustainably sourced by 2025.

Arcos Dorados is working to cut its dependency on plastic in multiple ways, having eliminated more than 1,700 tons of single-use plastics through approaches such as switching to lids made mostly from paper, buying only paper straws and plastic-free stirrers.

The UBQ trays, to be used in 30 Brazilian cities, are a meaningful addition. They have so far diverted 1,180 kg (2,600 pounds) of waste and offset 3,713 kg of CO2eq.

“As a large company, we are able to give visibility to sustainable solutions that can scale to influence other organizations,”
Serber says.

“Furthermore, as a retail company, which has direct contact with the consumer and a large chain to supply it, we are committed to encouraging suppliers to adopt these good social and environmental practices, in addition to sharing environmental education with the consumer.”

UBQ recently secured $70 million in funding to scale. Plans are to  launch a facility in the Netherlands with an 80,000-ton annual capacity late in 2023, and the company is looking for additional sites in Europe and North America.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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