Sustainable development: Al Gore, meet the garbage man

The Gothenburg Award is awarded each year by the city of Gothenberg, Sweden.

The award goes to an international figure making significant progress to achieve that Holy Grail of civilization in the age of climate change, sustainable development. 

This year, that prize — which has been bestowed on Kofi Annan and Al Gore in the past — has gone to Dr. Mike Biddle, the garbage man.

Biddle isn’t the guy who comes to pick up your undesirables at the curb — he’s the guy who has figured out how to get the stuff we do want out of the stuff we don’t, via a process known as garbage mining. 

Garbage mining has been noted as a significant economic opportunity in the years to come [PDF], especially as the metals currently found in cell phones and other communications technology becomes harder to obtain.

But recycling the metals found in e-waste is just the tip of the iceberg. Unlike metals, the kind of plastics found in coffee makers and vacuum cleaners can’t be separated from garbage via magnets, and unlike metals, they don’t always have telltale colors or densities — a key reason most recycling operations won’t even touch them, despite the fact that such plastics are generally quite valuable. 

Biddle took on that environmental and economic challenge, and two decades ago, he founded MBA Polymers, a company dedicated to taking one man’s trash, so to speak, and turning it into another man’s treasure.

By taking the waste from “shredders” that have already separated out metals, the company isolates up to 40 plastic types in a multi-stage process. This allows MBA Polymers to go after the recyclables others don’t want, or don’t know how to deal with: plastics from toasters, TVs and cell phones, fittings from cars and trucks — you name it. 

According to Biddle,  these materials are actually more valuable, and more plentiful, than steel, but they don’t get recycled in high volumes, because they’re so hard to separate from all those coffee grounds, dirty diapers and other messy items that find their way into the human waste stream (not to mention metals and wires).

The company is currently the world leader in producing post-consumer recycled plastics derived from end-of-life durable goods. Billed as “pure, consistent, and reliably available,” MBA Polymers’ materials are sourced from 100 percent post-consumer feedstock diverted from landfills or incineration plants. 

According to the company, it saves over 80 percent of the energy and 1-3 tons of the CO₂ used in producing each ton of the virgin plastics it replaces.

MBA has three plants so far–in China, Austria, and the U.K. — but it’s only scratching the surface of the potential for what Biddle calls “above-ground mining.” Building facilities like these is expensive, but economical once they’re up and running. 

Biddle sees the real impediment as the sorting of all that trash, and great potential for enterprises that can find a way to utilize the services of those individuals in the developing world known as “pickers,” who regularly sort through trash in search of potentially valuable items.

The theme for this year’s Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development, appropriately enough, is “closing the loop.” More on the award, and Dr. Biddle’s work, is available online.

Susan DeFreitas, EarthTechling