From the start, Priyanka Bakaya knew she wanted to do something impactful with her life. In 2011, she started the company Renewlogy, which is dedicated to renewing all waste, and she pioneered a technology for converting non-recycled plastic streams into new products, such as fuel, through a proprietary chemical recycling process.
Benjamin Coates, co-founder at Renewlogy, has been working with Bakaya since 2011.
“Multitudes of young professionals and students already look up to Priyanka, and she is an exceptionally generous person who gives her time to mentoring young innovators in the industry,” says Coates. “Beyond her innovative work with plastics, she has also started the Waste Zero Challenge to promote better waste recovery in schools and companies. She takes time out of her busy schedule to talk to these groups about how to live a less wasteful life and how to be more conscious of reducing landfill-bound waste. She has served as an inspiration to the community through all these initiatives and no doubt will continue to.”
The Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient sat down with us to discuss the inspiration behind Renewlogy, her company’s vision for the future and the importance of mentoring young innovators into the industry.
Waste360: As a graduate of Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), you could have had a career in any other field. Why did you choose to focus on waste and recycling?
Priyanka Bakaya: I wanted to do something impactful with my life, and I have always been passionate about technology and the environment. Waste is a huge problem that doesn’t receive enough attention from innovators. Schools like Stanford and MIT tend to overlook waste as a career, and that’s a huge pity because there is so much innovation required. If more of us focused our efforts on innovating around waste, we would make a lot more progress into bettering our planet. The waste industry has offered a great way for me to combine my passion and my technical background to make an impact.
Waste360: What was the inspiration behind Renewlogy, and how were you able to get the company off the ground?
Priyanka Bakaya: Renewlogy was inspired by a summer I spent in India when I was a student at MIT working in electronic waste. When I was there, I realized the biggest problem was actually the plastics that were being openly dumped and openly burned in the environment. As I did more research on plastics, I realized that this was a global issue, as less than 10 percent of our plastics get recycled.
When I went back to MIT, I started exploring what more could be done about the issue. I realized that mechanical recycling is very limited, and that in order to really shift the needle, we have to look at other technologies. That drove me to look at chemical recycling—by chemically recycling plastics, you can take them back to their basic molecular form and make new products out of them. That concept is how we got started.
Waste360: Tell me about the Renewlogy’s main efforts.
Priyanka Bakaya: We have four main initiatives at Renewlogy: Renewlogy Energy, Renewlogy Oceans, Renewlogy Waste Zero and Renewlogy Labs.
Renewlogy Energy targets low-value plastics such as 3-7s and film plastics. We are setting up processing facilities around the country to accept this material and then convert it into fuels and chemical feedstocks.
Renewlogy Oceans is targeting island and river communities that struggle with plastic pollution—here, we set up mobile processing facilities for conversion into fuel.
Renewlogy Waste Zero is our effort to encourage innovation in collection and reduction of plastics. We sponsor Waste Zero challenges in the community and are part of innovative collection efforts like Dow’s Hefty EnergyBag program.
Renewlogy Labs is focused on chemical innovations around how else we can create building blocks that can then be created into new plastics.
All these initiatives are focused on fixing specific parts of the plastic circular economy supply chain, which is currently very broken.
Waste360: What is your vision for the future, and what are your next major projects?
Priyanka Bakaya: We are excited about our upcoming projects. We are launching Renewlogy Oceans in January, targeting ocean-bound plastics in Asia around rivers. This has enormous potential to scale and reverse the tide on plastics currently entering oceans from these countries. We continue to receive immense interest in rolling out Renewlogy Energy projects—we have one in Salt Lake City and one in Nova Scotia, Canada, and are rolling out more across North America. Renewlogy Labs is another exciting area for us: our focus is on taking mixed plastics chemically back to monomers that can then be made into new plastics. Our ultimate goal is to get closer to the idea of infinite recycling—where there is no downgrading of plastic and instead a circular economy that you can continuously replenish by keeping the molecules in motion.
Waste360: Tell me about some of the other awards you've received and what those have meant to you.
Priyanka Bakaya: We’ve been recognized both within the industry, such as through this 40 Under 40 award, and more globally through publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Inc., Business Insider, Conscious Company and others. To be recognized means a lot to our team. These are challenging problems to solve, and being recognized and appreciated for our efforts helps motivate the team and keeps us pushing harder.
Waste360: What advice do you have for other young innovators looking to move this industry forward?
Priyanka Bakaya: I encourage young innovators to enter this industry. There is a huge blue-sky opportunity within waste. Within our lifetimes, there will be parts of the country that run out of landfill space. Plastic is a key challenge. Plastic’s recycling rate is only 9 percent, and because of the recent import restrictions, forecasts anticipate that this number will fall to 4.4 percent in 2018 and 2.9 percent in 2019. This is unacceptable.
We are doing our best, but it’s not enough. We need more young minds coming into the space and innovating. Whenever I see young people who are interested in the industry, I try to mentor them and help them navigate the industry because we need more smart people and dollars helping us solve these issues.