UP065: Renewlogy // Turning plastic waste into fuel through chemical recycling

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Priyanka Bakaya 0:00
When I went back to MIT, I really sort of thought it’d make sense to focus on the plastics because, as I read up more on plastics, it occurred to me that you know, plastics are really the challenge. You know, we recycle like less than 10% of these plastics. And it was just sort of a surprise to me at that point, because no one was talking about plastics back then. And I had always assumed that you know, we recycled plastics, I didn’t realize like how little actually gets recycled.

Jay Clouse 0:28
The startup investment landscape is changing, and world class companies are being built outside of Silicon Valley. We find them, talk with them, and discuss the upside of investing in them. Welcome to Upside.

Eric Hornung 0:55
Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to the Upside podcast first podcast by upside outside of Silicon Valley. I’m Eric Hornung, and I’m accompanied by my co-host, Mr. Talking To The Camera himself, Jay Clouse. Jay, how’s it going, man?

Jay Clouse 1:11
Which camera are we talking about?

Eric Hornung 1:12
I’m talking about the camera that you seem to be talking to in a lot of your recent social media posts. You’re telling some stories, you’re talking to a camera, it’s just you and your apartment, in a scene that I am very familiar with. But I’m sure that other people are not.

Jay Clouse 1:26
I am running an experiment. I am doubling down on content marketing, which is a lot of writing behind the scenes and a lot of social media in front of the scenes. But I have a client right now who focuses on social and content, and he kind of gave me a checklist or a guideline of some things to try out and see if it works and see how it does on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, some of this video content, which I don’t love doing, but pro tip, the app VlogEasy is awesome.

Eric Hornung 2:00
Wow, look at do we get paid for this?

Jay Clouse 2:02
We should, we should send it over to him. Actually, when I first came across the blog easy, the first thing I did was email their support line and say whatever technology you’re using for this, you should deploy that for podcasters because it cuts out like all the dead space. And as much as it’s great for video, like it’s also good for audio, I would think.

Eric Hornung 2:19
Is that how you get the like, choppy video look?

Jay Clouse 2:23
It does automatic jump cuts.

Eric Hornung 2:25
Wow, I was wondering how you did that.

Jay Clouse 2:26
It looks pretty good, right?

Eric Hornung 2:28
Yeah, it looks like you hired someone to do like the classic YouTube vlogger style.

Jay Clouse 2:33
I literally hit a record button. I talked to the camera, and it identifies and creates the jump cuts all on its own. And it’s very accurate. Sometimes I have to fix it a little bit, but it does a really good job of it. So it makes it really easy to do more stuff on camera because even when I have long pauses or am unsure of myself, it cuts it right out.

Eric Hornung 2:53
You know, it’s kind of messed up.

Jay Clouse 2:54
What’s that?

Eric Hornung 2:55
You focus so much on the background of where you record for those videos, but when you and I are recording here, I get open curtains, clothes piled up, uncleaned whiteboard. It’s just, you know, I don’t get the same level of respect as the general populace.

Jay Clouse 3:12
You’re right. You’re right, and I apologize.

Eric Hornung 3:14
It just feels like you could, you know, freshen up the place a little bit for me. It’s all I’m saying.

Jay Clouse 3:19
Just do a little bit of cleaning up my environment here.

Eric Hornung 3:22
Yeah, you could clean up your environment, you know. Maybe throw that bottle behind you in the recycling. I don’t know.

Jay Clouse 3:27
Well, what a perfect segue into our guest today, who is Priyanka Bakaya, the founder and CEO of Renewlogy. Renewlogy was founded at MIT in 2011 with the vision of being the technology leader in developing solutions to plastic waste. Through their proprietary chemical recycling process, which allows them to reverse plastic back into its basic molecular structure, they convert non-recycled plastic into new valuable products such as high value fuels. Priyanka has been recognized by Forbes 30 under 30, Fortune 40 under 40, Wants To Watch and several other awards. She’s a Stanford and MIT graduate. And Holy crap, Eric, what an accomplished guest. How are we going to talk to this person?

Eric Hornung 4:10
I don’t know. I can barely talk to you and you’re like, not even half as smart as she is.

Jay Clouse 4:15
Like I said, Renewlogy, founded in 2011, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, our first Salt Lake guest. Eric, that was mean.

Eric Hornung 4:22
it was such a clever back hand. I’m like, very proud of myself.

Jay Clouse 4:26
Man. You’re right.

Eric Hornung 4:28
Recycling is one of those areas that I don’t really know too much about. I know that there is a large problem in recycling in that, at least I’ve heard rumors and that if you throw the wrong thing in one bin, it can spoil an entire like truckload of recycling because the cost to segment it and sort it is so high that I think something like 75% of all recycling just goes into a landfill anyway. So it’s a broken process, and especially in United States where the Chinese aren’t buying our recyclables anymore. It’s kind of running up against a macroeconomic problem.

Jay Clouse 5:04
It’s so hard for me to know how to recycle, and the process and the infrastructure is just not very good. My girlfriend’s been reading up a lot on it lately, and I’m taking rings off of Gatorade bottles, but throwing the Gatorade bottle itself in the recycling. I’m learning a little bit, but man, it seems pretty opaque. So I think we’ll probably dig into quite a bit of that in this conversation with Priyanka, just to lay a baseline of understanding of how does the recycling practice actually work here in the United States? What’s broken, what’s working and how does Renewlogy fit in.

Eric Hornung 5:36
So if you have any thoughts on recycling or this interview, we’d love to hear them. You can tweet at us @upsidefm or if you have something a little longer send us an email at hello@upside.fm.

Jay Clouse 5:51
Eric, can you imagine being a founder working with Drive Capital, Hyde Park Venture Partners, Draper Triangle, Excel, Chicago Ventures, Refinery Ventures, Hyde Park Angels. Can you imagine being a founder and working with all of those VCs and more?

Eric Hornung 6:03
Man, if you got investment from or worked with all of those VCs and they were giving you advice and on your board, you just have to be probably one of the best companies in the Midwest or in between the coast, I’d say.

Jay Clouse 6:14
And that’s exactly what Integrity Power Search is. Integrity Power Search works with all of those VC partners and more as the number one full stack, high growth startup recruiting firm between the coasts. They partner with venture capitalists, private equity groups, and CEOs to build amazing teams for the world’s most disrupting companies. Eric, they are working with 84 plus companies in those different venture portfolios, helping full roles related to SaaS companies, autonomous vehicle companies, big data, computer vision, blockchain. If you’re looking to higher Integrity Power Search can help.

Eric Hornung 6:45
And if you want to learn more about Integrity Power Search and what they’re doing in between the coasts, you can go to upside.fm/integrity.

Jay Clouse 7:00
Priyanka, welcome to the show.

Priyanka Bakaya 7:01
Thanks so much for having me on, guys.

Eric Hornung 7:03
On Upside we like to start with a background of the guest. So can you tell us about the history of Priyanka?

Priyanka Bakaya 7:09
Sure, so my name is Priyanka Bakaya. I was I grew up in Australia and moved to the US for college. And I was always really excited about the idea of social entrepreneurship right from the time I started college, and really my career path since graduation has really always been about how to be an entrepreneur, working towards social impact in some way.

Eric Hornung 7:37
When was the first time that you heard the term social entrepreneurship?

Priyanka Bakaya 7:41
That’s a great question. I was actually my first year when I was an undergrad at Stanford. It was sort of this new term, I think, that had been coined. And it just really resonated with me because I was really drawn into the reason I chosen tech because I was drawn to entrepreneurship. But you know, more importantly, I wanted to do something really meaningful with my life, and social entrepreneurship seemed to be a way to, like, bring those two passions together.

Jay Clouse 8:09
How did you become aware of even Stanford as an institution growing up in Australia? Why come here? And why come to Stanford?

Priyanka Bakaya 8:16
Yeah, I just remember as a child growing up in Australia and just sort of hearing stories of teenagers starting companies. You know, back then there was the.com boom and you sort of heard about these people, and they went to Stanford, and somehow, they were able to start these companies. So in my head, it was just like this magical place where you become an entrepreneur at a young age, which didn’t seem to be the case in Australia.

Eric Hornung 8:42
Did you start any side hustles or companies when you were in high school or earlier?

Priyanka Bakaya 8:47
I did. Yeah, I did try a few different things. You know, nothing major. But I had, you know, started like this school magazine. And it was like, I was always trying to like start up new things, you know, where I saw opportunities when I was in school.

Jay Clouse 9:02
Did you have sort of entrepreneurial heroes, these people that maybe went to Stanford or otherwise, that you looked up to and said, like, that’s the type of entrepreneur that I want to be?

Priyanka Bakaya 9:13
Yeah, well, my main entrepreneurial hero is my father, he’s an entrepreneur, and he had left India and really started from scratch in Australia and sort of built himself up from nothing as an entrepreneur. And he sort of still today, to this day is my entrepreneurial hero, because, you know, he really started with like nothing and was able to build something with zero support. So it’s just always been sort of an inspiration to see his journey and what he was able to do, starting with nothing just because of hiss sort of passion and determination to create things.

Jay Clouse 9:51
Can you talk a little bit more about that and why he moved from India to Australia and what type of thing that he was building?

Priyanka Bakaya 9:57
Sure, he was very much a serial entrepreneur. And so, you know, throughout my childhood, he was always just trying lots of different things that probably don’t seem very related. But his main business has been around financial research, but he really sort of dabbled in, in many different things over the years, and was just always, you know, coming home with new ideas. And you know, we’d discuss them at the dinner table, he’d always asked for my input, you know, from a young age. So I think that got me thinking about entrepreneurship really early. And yeah, the reason my parents left was really just, you know, to move to a place where they, they would have better opportunities for their children. But, you know, they really moved with, like, zero support network in place and, you know, had to really build themselves from, you know, coming out of like immigrant housing in Australia to, you know, establish themselves in the society at that time.

Jay Clouse 10:56
What is Australian society like? It’s one of those places that every time I hear about Australia, I’m reminded that I want to visit, but also that I know next to nothing about. So what does growing up in Australia look like? What’s the culture like? What are you taught?

Priyanka Bakaya 11:10
It’s drastically changed since I was growing up. So when my parents moved back in the early 80s, they were entering Australia right after the White Australia Policy had been removed . Australia actually had a policy around sort of immigrants only from white countries. And so we were sort of the first wave of immigrants. Now, if you are in Australia, it’s much more diverse. But back then growing up, it was, you know, not very diverse at all. You know, that I think had a sort of important role in my childhood as well. But my parents always sort of made sure that I knew where I came from, we would go and travel pretty much every year either to India, we also had a lot of family in the US, so I got exposed to the US pretty early. Other than that, you know, it’s just it’s a great place to grow up. The society is definitely less of the rat race, I guess, than the US. So, you know, in terms of quality of life, it was and still is just sort of well balanced society in that way.

Eric Hornung 12:15
How do you decide where to live now? You’ve had these experiences in three different continents, how do you pick somewhere to live?

Priyanka Bakaya 12:22
You know, it’s really has to be a place that, you know, resonates with where you are at the current moment. And for me as an entrepreneur, I mean, the US is definitely the only place I could be. You know, when I look at the entrepreneurial ecosystem that the US has, there’s just no country on the planet that comes even close to the US in terms of that. And people talk about where in the US etc, but you know, just overall the US, starting a company is just by far the best place and, you know, I’ve now tried…Jay and I was sort of speaking briefly about the nonprofit that we’ve set up Renew Oceans, and we have our first project in India and just, you know, the amount of like paperwork, etc., to establish even a company. I mean, in the US, you can just like establish a company overnight, like that just doesn’t exist in any other part of the world. So I think we’re very, very blessed in the US in terms of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. So yeah, sort of coming back to your question in terms of where to choose it. It does have to be somewhere that sort of resonates with where you are in life. And for me, as an entrepreneur, it sort of has to fit in well with what I’m trying to achieve.

Jay Clouse 13:30
Last question about Australia, maybe. How much do Australians talk and think about the Great Barrier Reef versus how Americans perceive that as a part of your culture?

Priyanka Bakaya 13:43
I guess it depends how close you are to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, because probably some Australians don’t talk about it at all. But I imagine if you live right there, you might be speaking about it quite a bit.

Eric Hornung 13:55
Jay, how often do you talk and think about the Grand Canyon?

Jay Clouse 14:00
Few times a year? Yeah, good question.

Eric Hornung 14:03
Take me back to Stanford. You learn about this thing called social entrepreneurship. What’s your first time dabbling in either social entrepreneurship or entrepreneurship? I’m assuming it’s in college.

Priyanka Bakaya 14:17
Yes, I was a part of a two, actually, social entrepreneurship ventures in college. And you know, one of them was focused on India and creating systems that worked for like the agricultural sector. And I did, while I was in college, make a few trips to India, you know, to conduct research, etc. And because I’d grown up like always visiting India, there was definitely a part of me that always felt that I needed to give back to the country in some way. I could see that, you know, I’d been given all this opportunity in life, and I felt like part of, you know, my responsibility to the world was to use all that opportunity that I had received to give back in some way. And you know, when you visit India, you see just how many people just sort of need these opportunities and have so much potential. So that’s something that really sort of stuck with me from my experience at Stanford and working in social entrepreneurship and spending some time on the field in India. When I was graduating from college, you know, I just didn’t feel at that point in time that I knew enough to start my own venture coming out of college, which is why I worked for a few years. But you know, looking back on it now and knowing sort of what it is to be an entrepreneur, I just, I wish I had just jumped into it because the truth is, you’re never really actually ready. You just sort of learn while you’re doing it. So while it took me like a little bit longer, because I started the company coming out of grad school, I, in hindsight, I would have actually just sort of jumped right into it coming out of college.

Jay Clouse 15:57
And so I’m assuming reading between the lines, but it sounds like you’re saying the company you wanted to start you were already aware of it as you graduated undergrad, but just didn’t feel confident enough to dive in first.

Priyanka Bakaya 16:09
Yeah. And you know, sometimes I speak with young entrepreneurs who have that sort of same feeling that I did that, oh, I need to like learn how it all works first before jumping in and, you know, usually my advice is to really encourage them to jump right in, and you know, you’ll probably fail a lot, but that’s fine. That’s sort of part of the journey. And we just have to become comfortable with that failure.

Jay Clouse 16:33
So is that idea that you’re interested in, did that become Renewlogy?

Priyanka Bakaya 16:36
Um, it’s sort of become in, its in different ways. I had many different interests. So the environment’s always been like a strong interest of mine. Women’s empowerment issues have always been sort of an interest of mine. And then doing something for India was also an interest. And in my journey of Renewlogy and the new nonprofit Renew Oceans, I’ve sort of tried to bring all of those out in some way through this journey.

Eric Hornung 17:05
So what is Renewlogy today in your own words?

Priyanka Bakaya 17:09
Sure. So our focus at Renewlogy is to really focus on creating circular economies for plastics. So currently, the challenge with plastics is that we recycle less than 10% of all plastic in the US. And that’s because of sort of various challenges and the collection and end of market for most plastics. And so what we’ve developed at Renewlogy is the technology that’s goes beyond what can be done through mechanical recycling, where we actually chemically recycle the plastics back to their basic building blocks to be able to make new products out of them. And that’s really our mission at Renewlogy is to increase the recycling rates and be able to convert more of these plastics that are out there into new product so that they don’t end up in the environment in landfills.

Jay Clouse 18:04
I want to come back to the soon, but it seems like to fully grasp what Renewlogy is doing, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page of how recycling works today or worked before Renewlogy. Because recently, my girlfriend’s taken a strong interest in recycling. And I’ve learned a lot that I had no idea that I was doing wrong that apparently just like could be ruining whole batches of things that are trying to be recycled. Can you give us a brief history or explanation of how recycling works in the US today?

Priyanka Bakaya 18:35
Sure. So basically, if you live in a big city, you probably have access to recycling and that might be you have a blue bin, which is filled with mixed recyclables, and then your regular trash can, which is sort of everything that goes to the landfill. If you’re in certain communities, you might have some special other bins, whether that be something for composting, the glass recycling, etc. But primarily there’s two bins. In that mixed recycling bin, the blue bin, you are meant to be putting in anything like paper, cardboard, metals, plastics. And that is taken to a material recovery facility. It’s sort of known as a MRF, M-R-F, for short. And at that facility they basically separate all those materials into different grades. So the cardboard is sold, the aluminum cans are sold, and it goes through a lot of soldering equipment. There is some, you know, manual pulling out that happens. With the plastics, what tends to happen is they are trying to pull out the high value plastic. So it’s things like water bottles, milk bottles, in terms of the plastic numbers, in case you sort of ever look at the bottom of plastics, it’s things like number one plastics, number two plastics, those are very commonly recycled. And then what tends to happen is there’s this pile of low value plastics that are known as these numbers three through seven, and it can be various numbers that are in there, but it’s sort of these lower grade plastics which are mixed and those used to be sent to China very commonly until China stopped accepting our low value plastics. And so now, the end markets for those plastics have become a little bit more challenging in this country for these things like the three through sevens.

Jay Clouse 20:26
Man, so many questions here. So I have these blue bins behind my apartment. What happens if I throw non recyclable stuff in those blue bins?

Priyanka Bakaya 20:35
Yeah, so that becomes very challenging for recyclers to handle because, you know, they, in order to make the economics work, they really want to keep contamination low. And so the more contamination they have, the less economic this process is and then you know, the less sustainable that business model is for them. So, you know, some of these recyclers might experience anywhere from like 20% contamination to 30%. Sometimes we’ve been seen recyclists at however more, and you can imagine just, you know, how challenging it is when so much of your stream is contaminated in that way.

Jay Clouse 21:10
And what, to what degree does something have to be wrong be considered contamination, because I’ve even been told that sometimes rings on a Gatorade bottle that are part of the cap are not recyclable, you know, but the rest of the bottle is, like how how much do I need to really know about recycling to be a helpful recycler as, you know, an end customer of some of these products?

Priyanka Bakaya 21:31
Yeah, I mean, in the case of the rings, you know, that’s not like really like contamination contamination. I think for them, the contamination is definitely anything that’s organic, you know, sometimes people putting food there or things might be still covered in food or like filled with liquid for instance, like that’s sort of like a very sort of clear example of contamination, something that they wouldn’t want to see in that stream. Even like diapers like people for some reason think like diapers can be recycled, which is pretty much every recyclist sees diapers. So things like that.

Jay Clouse 22:08
That sounds like textbook contamination.

Priyanka Bakaya 22:10
Yeah. Definitely.

Eric Hornung 22:12
I am so sorry. I’m in the middle of kind of a fire drill.

Priyanka Bakaya 22:17
I think we can hear it.

Eric Hornung 22:19
So every lawyer on our team is calling me right now. So I have to run and I am I’m so apologetic. I’m the worst possible podcast host there’s ever been, I think.

Priyanka Bakaya 22:27
That’s okay. We’ll let Jay handle it.

Eric Hornung 22:30
I’m sorry, guys.

Jay Clouse 22:33
Alright, so that scratches a lot of my edge of understanding how recycling works today. Talk to me about the the impetus of Renewlogy. Because you said you’ve always had a little bit of an interest in clean tech or circular economies. How did you come to the solution of Renewlogy?

Priyanka Bakaya 22:53
It was definitely like a few different things that led me there. So one initial inspiration was growing up, we had a family friend, his name was Percy Cain. And he was an elderly Australian man who had fought in the wars, he had sort of stayed aachelor his whole life. And so we’d sort of adopted him as kind of this honorary grandfather figure in our family. And he was a chemist and basically had sort of converted his home into this giant chemistry lab. And I was always just very fascinated by all the strange things he was developing. One of those things was actually plastics which he had converted into fuels. And so he, I still remember him showing me some fuel which he had made and holding up the match to it and it lighting and I thought it was really cool. Obviously, at that age, I didn’t really understand anything about the process of what he was doing, but it definitely sort of intrigued me. And, you know, I was always really interested in science and innovation. So later on when, you know, I was in college and grad school, I sort of, you know, thought back to what he had developed. Unfortunately, by that point he had passed away in his 90s. But it really sort of got me thinking about, you know, what if he had opportunities to take things beyond just like his little lab, you know, what could have been there. So that sort of spurred my interest in this sort of idea of like clean energy and what might be possible. And then when I was at MIT, I did start working on a business plan around electronic waste at that time. I saw sort of a huge challenge around, you know, the amount of electronics, so everyone was consuming and they’re not really being like a good end of life. And I went and spent a summer actually in India, while I was at MIT, working at an electronic waste startup there that was trying to solve these issues. And it really opened my eyes to all this happening on the ground. I had an opportunity to actually see some waste pickers like sorting through this material. And that experience really stuck with me, because what I saw was, it wasn’t so much electronic waste. That was the issue was actually plastic because they were pulling out the metals, which had a lot of value. And then the plastics were sort of being left and either being dumped in the environment or openly burned. It was just sort of a really eye opening experience. And when I went back to MIT, I really sort of thought it makes sense to focus on the plastics, because as I read up more in plastics, it occurred to me that, you know, plastics are really the challenge. You know, we recycle like less than 10% of these plastics. And it was just sort of a surprise to me at that point, because no one was talking about plastics back then. And I had always assumed that you know, we recycle plastics. I didn’t realize like how little actually gets recycled.

Jay Clouse 25:56
What is it about plastics that makes it so problematic for recycling?

Priyanka Bakaya 26:01
So basically, in order to mechanically recycle something, you have to have just a segregated type of plastic. So it needs to be just one type of plastic. And because there are so many different types of plastics, that’s what becomes challenging, you know, just having like that one segregated pile of that plastic because obviously, there’s a cost at the end of the plastic’s life to collect the material and then actually segregate it back into the right plastic type, which makes it a bit more challenging than some of the materials such as cardboard and paper, aluminum cans, etc, which are just a little bit more straightforward to collect and segregate into piles.

Jay Clouse 26:46
Why do we have seven different types of plastics?

Priyanka Bakaya 26:49
So they all have specific material qualities that the others don’t. And you know, part of why, you know, we’ve advanced so much on different technologies over the past few decades has been because of these properties that plastics have. So, you know, I was at an Air and Space Museum exhibit over the weekend, and it’s just like all of that just like space exploration would not have been possible without plastic. You know, it’s just everywhere, we just simply would not have been able to go to space without plastic. Similarly, in the, you know, medical sphere, you know, so much of what we developed there just wouldn’t have been possible without plastic. Similarly with like transporting food, you know, the spoilage there would have been an issue with that plastic. So it has given us, you know, I asked myself the same question, can’t we just, like, make it more simple? But the truth is, like so much of what we now enjoy as a society and like the progress we’ve had technologically has been because of these different materials, you know, that have come into our society. So, you know, really, sort of as I looked at it, it wasn’t so much that, okay, we just need to get rid of these materials; like, we just really have to design these materials thinking about the end of life and figuring out, you know, what does that end of life look like? And, you know, perhaps, if there is no end of life for some materials, maybe then focus on those. But you know, let’s try to use technology to really create an end of life for as many tools as we can.

Jay Clouse 28:25
So one last kind of background context question. As you’ve really studied this and you ask yourself, why so many types of plastics, and you see like, okay, well, it’s been necessary for our progress at this point, is there any, like, sector or industry or bad actor that puts us in this, you know, crisis situation we hear all about with the oceans, which I’m sure we’ll talk about Renew Oceans here shortly? Is there any one party that is really driving a problem or is it just one of these wicked problems that you can’t have the good that we have without the bad?

Priyanka Bakaya 28:58
Yeah, no I don’t think you can point finger at one specific person. I think at the end of the day, you know, as consumers, we also demand these products. At the end of the day, a lot of responsibility falls on us as well. Plastic has given us a far more convenient lifestyle. And we would definitely have to do away with a lot of conveniences if we would, you know, move back to a society pre-plastic. And people like to sort of finger point like one industry or, you know, one sector, etc. But I think this is just sort of a collective issue. I think, you know, one thing that I’ve tried to focus on is, you know, maybe there are specific plastics that even with all the advances in various chemical recycling technologies that even these technologies can’t solve, and maybe those are, you know, where we need to kind of focus on some of the redesign questions. But just sort of these sort of overarching bans to just sort of overnight ban all plastics I don’t think is very sensible because the alternatives are probably less sustainable anyway. Like moving to glass or other materials like just wouldn’t be a very sustainable outcome.

Jay Clouse 30:14
So how does the Renewlogy product or process work?

Priyanka Bakaya 30:19
Sure, so what we’re doing is basically reversing the process from which plastic was created. So, plastic essentially comes from hydrocarbons from, you know, non-condensable gas and light fuels to begin with. And so what we do is, we are reversing that process that made the plastic and basically taking it back to its building blocks, which is basically down to that small molecule, whether it’s like the light fuels, all those non condensable gases. And from there, that material can either be sent back into a petrochemical facility to be made into new plastics or sold as some kind energy product.

Jay Clouse 31:02
At what point do you receive plastics? How does the plastic get from its previously, like, bad end state of a landfill to Renewlogy?

Priyanka Bakaya 31:11
Yeah. So what we do is we co-locate at either one of these material recovery facilities I was speaking to you about or someone else who may have a lot of plastic waste on site. And so what that does is, it makes sure that we don’t have to transport the plastic long distances. You know, it makes sense for us to co-locate right there, where that large quantity of plastic waste is to begin with.

Jay Clouse 31:38
What does this manifest or look like? Like I kind of just see this magical, big cylindrical room that you shove the plastics into, and out comes like a gas or something. But I’m sure that’s not it. How does this actually manifest?

Priyanka Bakaya 31:50
It’s kinda like that. But, yeah, basically, it’s about the process about the size of a tennis court. So it really is kind of like a room about the size of a tennis court. And there’s obviously like a lot of outdoor space needed for the storage of the various products. But it’s a modular system, it can be co located easily. It doesn’t really take up that much space. And it’s an automated process. So you have, you know, a separate control room where you’re monitoring all of the various temperatures and pressures that this process goes through in order to make these end products.

Jay Clouse 32:27
Why isn’t this everywhere right now?

Priyanka Bakaya 32:30
There’s been a number of challenges with the scale up. I guess one of the biggest has been just around like permitting. So every time we set up a facility, it’s very challenging because it’s a new technology, there’s not really any good existing regulatory framework that we fit under. And so, we often will get mischaracterized as something we’re not, like incineration for instance, which is a very different process where you’re burning plastics, it’s a much larger process, and has, you know, a large emissions associated with it. So either we might be put into that bucket, or we might actually be put into like a waste processing bucket. So they tried to make us waste processor, which we’re not. And so it ends up being very challenging. Every time we need to get a permit takes, you know, a little bit of time. We’re now working, you know, with groups to try to push the regulation on a state by state basis across the US. But that has been something that has been challenging just on the regulatory side. And then you know, when you have those regulatory challenges, then other things become challenging, like financing the project, because, you know, people don’t like to finance things where there’s regulatory risk. So there’s, you know, continues to be a number of challenges just of getting these facilities up and running. So it’s not as easy as just sort of saying, hey, like, we have this great technology, let’s build 100. It is very much we have to do so one facility at a time and get the approvals. And so it ends up taking longer than, you know, we wish it would take.

Jay Clouse 34:07
I have so many questions because now like, there’s just so many systemic issues here that I’m like, Well, why? Like this is such a problem and if it’s this works…so how indisputable are the results here? Can you take everything that’s going into some of these facilities that’s previously not recycled and say, like, wush, in our machine out of our process, and now, like, we don’t have that problem. Like in a theoretical world where regulatory wasn’t an issue, what does that mean for our country, our planet, if the Renewlogy process is all over?

Priyanka Bakaya 34:37
Yeah, I mean, there’s there’s just huge potential in terms of, you know, the amount of plastic and then just the end product. And you know, now the great thing is that petrochemical companies really are very interested in telling this story of closing the loop and you know, taking our end products and making new plastics out of that. So there’s really a robust supply chain there that is available. And so I think there will be a lot of growth in this area in the coming years. And I think it’s just really a matter of getting through some of these regulatory challenges. There is, there definitely needs to be an improvement in the collection infrastructure in the US as well. So, you know, we’re only collecting just a small fraction of the plastic that’s being generated as a country. And that’s because a lot of the country doesn’t necessarily have access to recycling or even if they have access to recycling, they might not recycle. So there’s a huge untapped market there to really capture more plastics out of the stream because we only get the plastics that people have put into that, you know, recycling stream. Whatever people put into the regular landfill downstream we never see. And there is huge quantities there as well, which, you know, we need to capture over time as well.

Jay Clouse 35:53
How big of an issue, at these material recovery facilities, how big of an issue is contamination in your guys’s process?

Priyanka Bakaya 36:00
Fortunately for us, we are able to handle higher level contaminations than a regular recycler. Basically whatever doesn’t become like some kind of petrochemical product from our process comes out as a byproduct. And so that allows us to really, you know, be able to handle the contamination at a higher level than sort of a traditional mechanical recycler can. I mean, obviously, nobody likes contamination, but at least sort of our process can handle that without it sort of destroying the process in any way.

Jay Clouse 36:38
What types of inputs…you mentioned, like, pressure at one point. What types of inputs go into this Renewlogy system to create these petrochemical outputs?

Priyanka Bakaya 36:47
You know, at a high level, it’s really just the plastic that is going into the process. The energy to heat the process initially comes from natural gas. But once the process is going, it actually just comes from the plastic itself because the plastic generates non-condensable gas. So the plastic is actually, you know, a certain amount of the plastic, like 10 to 15% of that plastic is actually driving the energy that’s required for the process. So, in that way, it’s just, it’s a very self sufficient process where you’re not really adding or removing anything, you’re just sort of changing the state of the plastic, which is really neat.

Jay Clouse 37:27
Who’s the, like, what’s the model here, who’s the customer of this?

Priyanka Bakaya 37:31
There’s a few different ways when we set up the facility on how we do it. So either we might sell it to the waste company and just do a sales and licensing agreement. Or we might do some kind of joint venture where we’re also part of the owner. So, so those are sort of like some of the different ways that business model works. And the customer might be that waste company or it might be, you know, someone else who’s interested in being like a joint venture partner.

Jay Clouse 38:01
So if I’m the waste management company, or, you know, I’m in this joint venture with you, are you saying that the proceeds from the petrochemical output is worth more than the cost to actually operate the system?

Priyanka Bakaya 38:15
Definitely. Yeah, that’s right.

Jay Clouse 38:16
So you guys are really at this just scaling phase. And the challenge is cash flow, it sounds like? And regulatory. But like, even even getting through the regulatory time probably just takes assuming, you know, like, cash to keep operating.

Priyanka Bakaya 38:32
Yeah, no, I mean, exactly. Basically, you know, we’re at a point where the technology is, you know, ready to be scaled and deployed in different places. And, you know, there’s a lot of interest to set up lots of facilities like overnight. And it’s just sort of more of getting through all of, you know, each state by state or you know, some of these will be international projects, like just getting through the various regulatory hurdles in each of those places, you know, before these facilities can come online.

Jay Clouse 39:06
I saw you have a Salt Lake City facility that is in partnership with government and private sector through grants, awards, etc. That was on your website. How many facilities in total do you guys have up and running now?

Priyanka Bakaya 39:17
Yeah, so we have the Salt Lake City facility. And then we have another one that we deployed in Nova Scotia, Canada. And we’re working on a third one right now with the City of Phoenix in Arizona, where that’ll be located at their material recovery facility there in Phoenix. So that’s our next one. And then we have a few more in the pipeline, but sort of, like I said, sort of it’s a matter of getting through sort of all the regulatory and paperwork in each of those locations.

Jay Clouse 39:49
I’m guessing this is probably an issue that, at least at a federal level, there’s probably like cross the aisle collaboration here, right? I think everyone would agree that we need some more sustainability. Or maybe I’m wrong. Have you have you guys experienced that this is a bipartisan issue?

Priyanka Bakaya 40:04
Definitely the ocean plastics seems to be, which is really great to see that. You know, in terms of the regulation I’m speaking about that, yeah, very much like a state level, falls under the state level jurisdictions. But yeah, it’s been great to see, in terms of this ocean plastic issue, that it is very much bipartisan topic.

Jay Clouse 40:26
Can you talk about Renew Oceans and where that came from?

Priyanka Bakaya 40:29
Sure. Yeah. So renew oceans is just under a year old. And basically, I wanted to see how our Renewlogy technology could address this challenge of plastic pollution in the oceans. You know, as I was thinking about this last year, there had been a great paper that had just come out sort of detailing that over 90% of the plastic waste entering the ocean from rivers came from these 10 key rivers. So in my head, I thought, you know, what if we just really focused on, instead of going into the ocean and, you know, taking the plastics out of the ocean, what if we really focused on these 10 key rivers since they seem to be like a big source of these plastics, which are entering the ocean. And we decided to launch on one of those 10 Rivers, the Ganges, which is the most populous and the number two most polluting in terms of plastics. And so, basically, the idea there is to set up these kind of fence like structures in the rivers to prevent the plastics from going downstream and capture the plastics, there were they still might have some value and be able to be either recycled or converted into fuels using the Renewlogy process. And over time, the hope is that as these communities see the value in plastics that less of them would sort of enter the river to begin with.

Jay Clouse 41:54
So what is the state of that experiment at this point?

Priyanka Bakaya 41:57
The pilot is underway right now in India in Varanasi, which is right there along the Ganges. And we are on target this year for diverting 100,000 pounds of material from–it’s one of the major tributaries that goes into the Ganges. So it is very exciting to see that project kind of come to life and to get some really good data in our first pilot year of that project as we look to sort of also scale that in other parts of India and the region. Basically over 80% of this plastic waste that’s entering the oceans comes from Asia. So that’s really our focus through Renew Oceans.

Jay Clouse 42:39
So you have these fence structure setup capturing this waste. Where does it have to go from there? Are you co-locating with, is the pilot co-locating with another set of materials recovery facility there?

Priyanka Bakaya 42:51
Yeah. So the challenge in places like India is there is real lack of waste management infrastructure in place. And so what we find is we to set up some of that infrastructure ourselves. So we’ve been setting up what we call the Renew Shed. It’s basically a place to take these plastics and sort them into a stream that can either be recycled or converted to fuel while sort of engaging with that local community of it’s primarily waste pickers who engage in this work there.

Jay Clouse 43:24
Is that in partnership with any other type of government or private entity, I’m sure that comes with its own big set of costs as well to create these centers and create the infrastructure.

Priyanka Bakaya 43:33
Yeah, so we’ve definitely had to get, you know, a lot of approvals at the government level. We’ve decided not to partner with a specific entity because it can get a little bit complicated working in India sort of knowing who that other party is. So we’ve been acting as an independent organization but obviously working to get all those approvals in place on the ground.

Jay Clouse 43:55
What am I not asking here that I should be asking or that I’m missing?

Priyanka Bakaya 43:59
I guess really what excites me is just sort of like, the big picture and potential of these technologies as we look out 5, 10 years. And, you know, I think right now, there is some debate in the industry where you have some people on one side saying, ban all plastics, and then, you know, others saying, no, you know, plastics in and of themselves and evil, we just need to create circular economies around plastics. So that is something that is an interesting conversation. And you know, now even sort of as I speak to like regular people, there is some of the sentiment that I hear that you just plastics are evil and should be banned. And so it’s, you know, it’s an interesting conversation I find myself having, which I wasn’t having definitely up until this year. So it’s an interesting one.

Jay Clouse 44:51
As an individual like, what is the best thing that I can do to be a good steward, because, like you said, even even the infrastructure here in the United States just doesn’t seem great, like it’s not easy for me to recycle as an individual by any means. So what would you say is like your shortlist of recommendations that regular, everyday Joe’s like me can do to make a difference?

Priyanka Bakaya 45:14
Yeah, it really goes back to the three R’s. So reduce, reuse, recycle. And so, you know, for me when I purchase something, the firstquestion is, do you need this product? And that’s where reducing comes in. Then there’s reusing,so you know, wherever possible, you know, try to reuse that item so that it doesn’t just have sort of one short life. And then when you do buy items, you know, what I try to check is is it actually something that can be recycled. Now this is a tricky one because nobody understands recycling infrastructure as well as I do. So it’s probably hard for like a regular person to know when they buy a product that something can be recycled. But definitely look for those ones and twos under the container. Those tend to get recycled the most. And so, you know, if you are going to buy a product that you know, you can’t avoid, for whatever reason, try to look for something that can be recycled and that you can recycle and put it into the right place so that it does have sort of a circular economy associated with it. So those would be the main things we can do as consumers of plastics.

Jay Clouse 46:26
Awesome. Well, Priyanka, thanks for joining us on the show. If people want to learn more about you or Renewlogy or Renew Oceans, where should they go?

Priyanka Bakaya 46:33
Yeah, so you can follow both Renewlogy and Renew Oceans online. The websites are renewlogy.com and renewoceans.com respectively. And all of the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram handles are also @Renewlogy and @RenewOceans, respectively. So we’re very easy to find online, and we definitely welcome you to follow us and oin our journey and story.

Jay Clouse 47:02
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Jay Clouse 47:41
All right, Eric, we just spoke with Priyanka or Renewlogy. You had to step out a little bit early, but I know you listened back through the recording. So what were your key takeaways to start this deal memo.

Eric Hornung 47:54
Well, my first takeaway was, it took me right back to our conversation with Eric from Plus One Robotics, which probably isn’t where you thought this deal memo would start.

Jay Clouse 48:06
It wasn’t.

Eric Hornung 48:07
But Eric was talking about this idea of the sorted pile problem. And I had brought up on that interview the idea of this tech, of his technology being applicable to sorting different types of plastics. And the reason that kind of popped up in my brain as we were talking through Renewlogy was the fact that this is a process that still relies on some semblance of kind of sorting your recycling, but does it in a chemical way. So I did a little bit of research, Jay, and I wanted to learn about chemical plastics recycling.

Jay Clouse 48:47
I love when you do that.

Eric Hornung 48:48
And what I found is that it seems to be taking off. And there’s a business called Agilyx, which breaks down something like 10 metric tons per day of some plastic waste that I’m not going to pretend that I can pronounce. There’s a few others. And they’re really, kind of, there’s so much demand for this recycling in a cost effective way that doesn’t compromise the end product that I think this kind of movement of chemical recycling seems to be starting to hit its stride. And it seems like it’s the early innings. I guess my biggest question when it comes to Renewlogy is, if there are other companies doing this and doing this at larger scale–and again, I don’t know if 10 tons is a large scale, it could be very small–but if there are other companies doing this, what is Renewlogy’s secret sauce?

Jay Clouse 49:46
I’m glad you did that research. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time asking questions about the state of recycling and how this works and didn’t prioritize or save enough time to ask more questions about the business model of Renewlogy specifically. There was a lot about this interview that frustrated me. And it wasn’t the way that Priyanka was answering things or the business itself. It’s the systemic issue of, we have reasonably, this is working, we’ve been doing this since 2011, we can show some pretty awesome results, and we’re getting held up by a lot of regulation and being able to fit within certain codes to create these facilities. Assuming that’s all true, I hate when that happens, you know, where like, we have a system and we have to check some boxes, and we have to categorize things and your innovation doesn’t fit within that. So this whole thing slows down. And meanwhile, this is an actual planetary existential problem that your technology is trying to combat. Very frustrating to me in that way. So you asked about the secret sauce of Renewlogy versus some of these other chemical recycling businesses. The humanitarian in me is like, who cares? Get as many of these things going and like taking care of the problem as possible. But I don’t have an answer for you for how their chemical process is different. But it did sound like they have the potential to make some good money on the actual outputs of the process that they’re selling.

Eric Hornung 51:12
Well, I’m thinking about the secret sauce, it doesn’t have to be a better chemical process. It can be a good chemical process that does what it needs to do and does what it says it’s going to do and outlays a good product that they can sell back to market. But I think that there is kind of something interesting happening in the venture space in general. And we’re supposed to be, as we sit here in the deal memo, thinking as investors. So while you and I both think that the recycling problems specifically around plastics is real–I mean, I’m wearing for ocean bracelet right now, I donate to them like, I think that plastics in the oceans, plastics everywhere are getting really bad and only getting worse. The business side of this, I think that regulatory hurdles offer,if you can only your business in a way that they can get into those spaces, actually offer investors a lot of protection and a lot of potential growth opportunities. So right now, I think that you see, in the venture space, people getting into things like FinTech, which is one of the most highly regulated industries. Or healthcare tech, those are areas where venture capital probably would have stayed away from in the last call it decade or so. But now there’s this turn to saying, okay, we can take the expertise and connections we’ve made across industries and with high ranking people and use regulation and our understanding of regulatory hurdles to actually create a really good investment where others can’t. So if I’m thinking about Renewlogy as an investor, with my investor hat on, I’m thinking okay, there are regulatory hurdles, and those are annoying, but if they can find a way to get through those regulatory hurdles with this product, then the upside is enormous.

Jay Clouse 52:59
Back to the titular line, I love it. She mentioned that financing the project is one of the constraints to scaling this as is the constraint to so many businesses trying to scale. What I couldn’t quite grasp is how Renew Oceans got off the ground. And they created a facility that’s testing that effort. Because to me, you know, that’s some money that can be used towards Renewlogy and scaling that. So there are a lot of questions that I still had coming out of this interview of, where will the financing come from? Why can’t we throw money at financing this and at legislation to get this permitted and regulated and, to your point, protected as sort of the incumbent technology to do this? So I have a hard time talking about this as an opportunity as we typically do in the deal memo. But a couple key stats that stuck out to me, just in general from this interview, 90% of plastic waste in the ocean coming from 10 key rivers is something I didn’t know. She had a note about how much of that came from Asia that I seem to have misplaced, but it was far more responsibility on the US than I thought. But overall, yeah, I learned a lot about how the current recycling process works here nationally and globally. I didn’t know there were seven different types of plastics and that five of them were low value. So yeah, I learned a lot. Didn’t get enough information here to do a proper deal memo unfortunately.

Eric Hornung 54:22
No, but I don’t think that means we can’t think about the opportunity size and drivers globally. If we think about the US as the largest plastics polluter in the world, which is true, up until the beginning of 2019, China was buying a large majority of our plastics and just recycling in general. They’ve since stopped that since they want to have more original materials and not recycled materials, which means that there is now going to be a glut of plastics, non-recycled plastics that are not going to be subsidized by a foreign entity or foreign country buying the US’s plastics, which means that there’s going to be a need to turn these plastics into something productive, or there’s going to be a boom in landfill.

Jay Clouse 55:10
A real WALL-E situation, which I watched for the first time on a plane recently.

Eric Hornung 55:13
Phenomenal, phenomenal movie. Eva!

Jay Clouse 55:16
Eva! So let me understand this. You said, United States, the biggest plastic polluter in the world. Is that because we are manufacturing and disseminating the most plastic? Because she did say something about Asia being where most of this comes from. But maybe that’s because that’s just like the end, the landing place of that plastic. Help me understand.

Eric Hornung 55:39
It’s just something I read that the United States produces the most plastic pollution. I guess it could, it’s up for debate. But as I understand it, we’re the biggest consumer culture in in the world, and a lot of our consumption revolves around plastics, and that plastics goes into recycling bins, and that gets shipped to Asia, and then they recycle it and use it in their building materials or whatever. But that kind of value chain has stopped in 2019. And the value of plastics actually, or the price of plastics hit a cliff after we had this China scrap band. And I just did a little quick google search to make sure I have the dates right. It turns out, it’s actually 2018, not 2019. So the years are moving faster and faster, Jay, and I’m forgetting when headlines are happening. But nonetheless, there is a global shift in the way plastics are being dealt with in the United States. And I think that if you went through a week, and every plastic article you touched or we’re going to throw away you put into a pile, you would be amazed at how much plastic you yourself use.

Jay Clouse 56:48
Shots fired. Do we want to shift our focus now to Priyanka as a founder?

Eric Hornung 56:52
Let’s do it. I think this is the easiest one, right? I think we have a large opportunity that’s changing that may be provide a lot of opportunity for the business itself. We have some questions around the business model because we didn’t ask the right questions. But then when you look at Priyanka as a founder, this is easy. She’s brilliant, she’s motivated, and she’s passionate. And she obviously understands the space. So to me, checked a lot of boxes. What about for you?

Jay Clouse 57:18
I would agree with all that. She’s running into the difficulty of regulation as a lot of founders do. So I think Priyanka as a founder is currently being and going to be tested by this challenge of, okay, I’ve run into a problem that is sort of outside of my control and outside of myself. What do I do to get through that? I think that’s going to be like a real measure on her success as a founder of how can I problem solve this, both the permitting challenges, but also the financing challenges. Now running this for-profit company and the nonprofit, Renew Oceans, it seems like a place where there’s a lot of probably shared political goodwill of finding solutions to this. So can she pull all that together and keep the lights on and keep things moving forward? But obviously brilliant, obviously very passionate about this. And you know, we’re all in Priyanka’s corner on this, I think.

Eric Hornung 58:11
So I think you alluded to it there. But what do you want to see from Priyanka and Renewlogy in the next 6 to 18 months?

Jay Clouse 58:20
Not only do we need to see a breakthrough in this permitting and regulation space, but you want to see it in such a way that it creates a playbook or a guidepost that you can continue to hand off to other cities, municipalities, and basically say, here’s how we’ve done it in these places and here’s how it can be implemented, and make that process easier and shorter each time you go in and do this. That’s what I’m looking for. Can we do that? And also at the same time, this is cost intensive, and financing was a struggle. So how are things going on the financing front?

Eric Hornung 58:53
I think you took both of the things I wanted to say, so I will add a third. I want to hear more about those conversations with additional municipalities. I want to hear about the business development and the perceived need. Because I think this narrative in the US culture is only growing. But I want to see how that is translating to need from communities.

Jay Clouse 59:16
All right, dear listener, we’d love to hear what you think about Renewlogy and this interview with Priyanka. You can tweet at us @upsidefm or email us hello@upside.fm. And we’ll talk to you next week.

Interview begins: 7:00
Debrief begins: 47:40

Priyanka Bakaya is the founder and CEO of Renewlogy. Founded in 2011, Renewlogy has the technology to break down plastics into its basic molecular form, where it can then be reused for other products or as fuel. In the last year, Priyanka has used the Renewlogy technology to begin Renew Oceans, a non-profit currently working in India to capture and recycle ocean plastics.

Priyanka has been well recognized and awarded for her efforts in plastics recycling. Still, plenty of hurdles exist in Renewology’s, and she discusses the challenges caused by poor recycling and waste infrastructure and strict regulations.

We discuss:

  • AD: Finding experienced employees for your new business with Integrity Power Search (5:51)
  • Early entrepreneurial experiences (7:09, 14:03)
  • Australian and Indian culture (10:56)
  • Renewology’s focus (17:05)
  • Recycling and contamination in the US (18:04)
  • Why are plastics hard to recycle? (25:06)
  • Chemical process of breaking down plastics (30:14, 35:53)
  • Challenges in scaling (32:27)
  • Business model (37:27)
  • Reusing Renewlogy technology for Renew Oceans (40:26)
  • Big picture potential of renewable plastics (43:55)

Learn more about Renewlogy: http://renewlogy.com/
Learn more about Renew Oceans: https://www.renewoceans.org/
Follow upside on Twitter: https://twitter.com/upsidefm
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This episode is sponsored by Integrity Power Search, the #1 full stack high growth startup recruiting firm between the coasts. They partner with venture capitalists, private equity groups and CEOs to build amazing teams for the world’s most disrupting companies.

Learn more about or get in touch with Integrity Power Search: https://upside.fm/integrity