The idea to develop a plastic-eating spray to decrease landfill capacity began as a roundabout convergence of ideas by a couple of Brigham Young University students - neither of whom had focused on waste management before.
While spending time in Sweden on a mission trip, Brock Bennion and Nate Parkin noticed how clean the country was compared to the U.S. and became curious as to how they disposed of their waste. At the same time, they realized how much better care Scandinavians took of their environment.
Bennion had also read an article about how they used bacteria to eat the oil on the Louisiana coast after the BP oil spill. The idea for what would become PlasTek was born once the two returned to the U.S. more waste-conscious and compared notes. A few more friends and relatives got on board and they were off to change the [waste management] world.
Each founder brought a different perspective and expertise to the endeavor. Brock Bennion graduated in spring 2013 with a degree in Physiology and Developmental Biology, while Devan Bennion, Brock's younger brother who is still a BYU student, is studying finance, and Parkin graduated in spring 2013 in Business Management with an emphasis in Marketing.
But where could they find the chemical/scientific expertise they needed to begin inventing? Get Mentoring, a BYU program, brought them together with Nate Alder, founder of a line of outdoor clothing called Klymit. After hearing their idea, Alder connected the group with some chemists at Aufbau Labs in New York.
When the chemists heard the group's idea, they were enthusiastic about the concept, but informed them that their bacteria idea was not viable. "They said our idea had a lot of holes in it." Parkin said. So began the experimentation process that took more than two years.
Parkin explained that they "pivoted" several times during the process, but declined to give details so as to keep the exact makeup of their product a closely-held secret. Clearly, though, they departed from the organic bacteria idea and explored an environmentally benign chemical spray (PlasTek) that will break down seven classes of plastics in landfills. Along the way, a final teammate joined the team: Dr. Steven Boyd, one of the chemists at Aufbau. In January 2013, the group of five became Inviroment.
Does PlasTek really work? Have they seen the results?
"Yes," says Devan Bennion. "What hasn't been done before," he explained, "is applying it in a large setting." So, unlike their most of their classmates, the student founders set out to spend their summer at a landfill.
"We are in the middle of finishing up some tests that will give us the hard data and the proof, but what we're trying to do is something that hasn't been heard of in the scientific community before. The chemicals we're using have been proven to break down plastics, but we have a little different approach and have developed a secret sauce, if you want to think of it that way. No one has ever thought of trying to chemically change waste at a landfill. We are looking to make a change at the landfill (end of product lifecycle), rather than on the production line or at the consumer/household level."
They are looking especially to connect with landfills that have a methane collection system in place. "Of the more than 1700 landfills in the U.S.," Devan Bennion said, "about 594 are currently collecting methane to use as clean energy and we'll be focusing on those landfills for PlasTek."
Why? Because PlasTek, while non-toxic to the environment, does degrade plastics more quickly, and the degraded plastic is then consumed by bacteria in greater amounts than untreated plastic, generating more methane.
"Those landfills will be able to immediately take advantage of the additional space capacity and collect the accelerated methane output," Bennion said. "Methane is a natural process, we'll just be accelerating it, not creating more of it." The landfills will be able to capitalize on the additional methane and convert it to use for clean energy.
"We believe we are supplying landfills with a solid triple bottom line product. Not only are there huge environmental benefits, we could potentially be removing hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide per landfill per year, we could also increase jobs and all under a profitable business model. So landfills that use our product (and collect methane) could actually make money. This isn't a recycling program that could actually be a net loss, this is a very large net gain," Parkin said.
They estimate that if all 594 landfills capable of collecting methane in the United States used PlasTek, they could generate about 4,289 MW of power, and power 2,530,510 homes. "This would reduce CO2 emissions by 20.2 million tons – the equivalent of CO2 emissions from 20.3 billion gallons of gasoline every year."
As the formula for PlasTek neared its final stage in the spring of 2013, Inviroment's profile began to rise. The five won a $100,000 grant at the Department of Energy's National Clean Energy Business Plan competition held in April, in Boulder, CO, then they went on to the finals in Washington, DC in June. Inviroment didn't win, but some valuable networking was worth the experience, not the least of which was getting to know several members of the DOE.
"We took advantage of our time in D.C. and visited several senators' offices and promoted PlasTek, and the benefits that would come along with it. We had a really good time, we got a lot accomplished and I feel like we gained some momentum. Now we are approaching state governments to get our product approved by the Department of Environmental Quality," Bennion said.
Through the summer of 2013, Inviroment has been running full-tilt. Several of its founders have been working full-time on testing and they are moving toward a pilot, having gained written permission from a local landfill. The landfill test is crucial. Having the hard data that their product works is key to convincing landfill managers to try their product. As things move along, Inviroment is aiming to have their product in use by mid-2014. They are gathering their final round of funding through an Indiegogo campaign that kicked off on September 10.
[landfill image credit: Justin Ritchie: Flickr cc, team image: Devan Bennion]
Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at email@example.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.