“It is very important to know that we have invented a material that is new and novel. A sustainable material that has never previously existed.”
Waste generation is increasing at an alarming rate due to rapid urbanisation, population growth and economic development, according to the World Bank. One of the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals specifically calls on governments to “substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse”.
Israel-headquartered company UBQ Materials has come up with an innovative robust solution to help meet this target to divert waste from landfill. It has created a circular technology which is able to convert municipal household waste, including food and organic streams, into sustainable materials, which can be used over and over again. UBQ’s material is a bio-based thermoplastic composite made from municipal solid waste.
Here, Liz Gyekye, senior content manager at Bio-Based World News catches up with Christopher Sveen (@Chris_Sveen), chief sustainability officer at UBQ Materials.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With. Can you begin with a description about UBQ and what it is the company does?
CS: The name UBQ stands for ubiquitous. Waste is ubiquitous, but so is the opportunity!
The real essence behind UBQ was trying to find alternative routes to traditional waste management systems. When you look at the current market, especially in relation to recycling, it was always about separating and sorting to the nth degree. Given the complexities of the world, most places do not have proper infrastructure to manage their waste, but some do. In a lot of places across the globe, materials are not getting recycled, but are getting incinerated or landfilled. In fact, the global average assumes that approximately 80% of waste that is collected does not get recycled and ends up in landfills or incinerated. At our company, we questioned ‘how can we go in and develop a robust solution that will allow us to take all this unsorted waste that is going to landfill and turn it into a useful material that can be used to manufacture the kinds of product that people use?’ This was our vision. We also asked ourselves how can we secure a homogeneous, safe and commercially-viable material that can be seemingly adopted by the industry that will incentivise proper collection and disposal (or in our case conversion) so that waste does not pollute our environment and clog our oceans.
Over the years, with a highly passionate and dedicated team, top scientists, material experts and a remarkable international advisory board we developed a holistic solution that enables us to convert unsorted waste into the bio-based composite UBQ material that has immense value for industry. We have created a new natural resource from materials that nobody wants while helping to combat climate change. For every one ton of our material we reduce/avoid more than 12 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions, positioning our material as one of the most climate positive materials available today.
Christopher Sveen (CS): Before working at UBQ, what did you do?
I started my career in real estate but coming from Babson [an entrepreneurial college in Boston] I was keen to be a part of starting something that would make a difference. I have always been curious about waste, whether it was growing up in developing countries, or seeing construction and demolition debris from development sites, I always questioned ‘where does all this waste go?’, or why isn’t it taken care of for that matter. Around 2007, I took the plunge and have been working on what is today, UBQ ever since. To further develop and better understand a systemic approach to sustainability, I took a ‘sabbatical’ and worked in a leading sustainability think tank and completed a post-graduate degree Cambridge’s Institute of Sustainability Leadership. I re-joined UBQ in 2015 and am always in awe to see what we have accomplished as a team.
LG: What’s been the biggest challenge in growing the company?
CS: There have been so many challenges along the road, but we are at a critical point now where we have overcome embryonic development and prototyping – the conventional challenges of a start-up. Our R&D has borne fruit and we have today a commercially-viable material. We have also proven that our technology is robust, scalable and 100% environmentally friendly.
We are a unique company because we could be part of the missing link between two industries that are not necessarily speaking the same language yet. If we really want to develop a holistic and systemic circular economy, the waste management industry has to question how we can work hand in hand with different industries that are manufacturing products and searching for new, renewable materials or competitive materials and really connect the two.
We are working to further develop the potential behind UBQ's material, called "UBQ Material". At this point, we have gone very far but the possibilities behind it are virtually endless. The challenge is to manage and maintain a clear focus while showing the world the enormous advantages that this material brings at a time when traditional materials and linear models are being probed.
It is very important to know that we have invented a material that is novel. It is a material that has never existed before and therefore have been able to patent it worldwide. As we continue our market penetration efforts, new generations of UBQ Material are being developed for the plastics and other industries.
LG: What applications are UBQ’s material used in?
CS: Currently, our value proposition is centred around plastic materials and the manufacturing techniques the plastics industry typically uses like injection, extrusion, rotation and compression moulding. In the future, we are looking to offset wood or concrete-based products as well.
Whether it is a supply chain, retail, or an industrial construction product, the horizon of our company’s material is very broad. Within construction for example, you can offset PVC in sewer and sanitation piping. Within retail, we are developing flower pots, trash bins and pallets, and even how to use our material to produce designer products like table tops or kitchen cabinet doors.
LG: What is coming up next for your company?
CS: Our focus is on the successful product development trials that we have been doing with strategic partners to incorporate UBQ Material in their current product applications. It is also about looking at future partnerships around the world. Particular focus has been on developing sales in significant plastic consumption markets like the US and Europe where consumer demand for sustainable bio-based material is high and also show that our product can operate in strict regulatory environments. In the future we will look at licensing and franchising our technology with the existing waste players or manufactures around the world.
LG: What advice would you give to somebody else working starting out in this field?
CS: You are only as good as the people you work with. It is about finding the right people to work with and having a lot of grit and patience to get your solution implemented. Our company is a team focused company. Many manufacturers might be a bit conservative in their view to using new materials and will want to rely on tried and tested ones. Therefore, you need to have develop a strong offering and working product so that they can feel safe and motivated to try something new.
LG: What is your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?
CS: You are not really recycling if you are not buying recycled - and we urge consumers to use their purchasing power to make difference in market demand. The more people buy and demand – the more the market will supply. I am personally passionate about UBQ and what we have developed. For me, it’s not about the individual product, but it must be more about the material and process used to make it. Our material can be used to make thousands of different products. So, as biased as I may well be, my favourite product is the UBQ Material.
Chris Sveen will be speaking at the World Bio Markets Conference, the leading assembly for the bio-based economy, in April next year in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.