Sabra hummus founder says plastic is the perfect way to upcycle waste

Israeli company UBQ Materials takes unsorted trash and converts it into plastic pellets; it just released recycling bins in Virginia, its first product for the public

UBQ Materials has developed a technology that takes unsorted household waste -- from banana peels to dirty diapers to used yogurt containers and cardboard -- and converts it into a bio-based thermoplastic -- a plastic substitute (Courtesy)
UBQ Materials has developed a technology that takes unsorted household waste -- from banana peels to dirty diapers to used yogurt containers and cardboard -- and converts it into a bio-based thermoplastic -- a plastic substitute (Courtesy)

Rabbi Yehuda Pearl, the businessman who introduced the United States to hummus, is now looking to bring that same business acumen to his newest venture: turning trash into a plastic-like material.

Pearl, the founder of the popular hummus brand Sabra, is the co-founder and honorary chairman of UBQ Materials, a company that has patented a process that breaks down regular household waste, including dirty diapers, cottage cheese containers, Friday’s leftover chicken, paper, plastic, cardboard, and all food scraps and turns it into a bio-based thermoplastic, a plastic substitute.

These small pellets, that look and feel like regular plastic, can be integrated into existing manufacturing processes, so that any factory creating plastic products —  things like buckets, trash cans, plastic pallets, garden planters, or hard plastic bottles for detergents — can use the UBQ material.

This material will now be available to the public for the first time, in a pilot in central Virginia, which is offering 2,000 households the opportunity to recycle their household waste in recycle bins made of repurposed Israeli trash.

On August 28, the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority (CVWMA) launched a partnership with UBQ Materials to provide 2,000 recycling bins made of UBQ material to households in their district. The waste authority provides waste management and recycling for 1.5 million people in 13 municipalities in central Virginia, including Richmond. This is the first time that a product made from UBQ material will be available to the public since the company was founded in 2012. The company has an office in Tel Aviv and a production facility in Kibbutz Tzeelim in the south, which converts waste to the plastic pellets.

Pearl said it was a natural move to make recycling bins the first product the company offered.

Rabbi Yehuda Pearl, left, co-founder and honorary chairman of UBQ, with Kim Hynes, center, executive director of the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority at a press conference in Virginia announcing 2,000 recycling bins made of UBQ material on August 28, 2019. (courtesy Caroline Martin/UBQ)

“When we were able to produce a commercially viable product, we said, there’s nothing more interesting than having waste bins made of waste,” he said.

Pearl has previously worked in Virgina with Sabra, which has a large production plant in the state. The Virginia Israel Advisory Board introduced Pearl to the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority, which purchased the bins.

“Our partnership with UBQ is an extension of our efforts — finding a productive way to deal with waste and improve the community around us,” Kim Hynes, executive director of the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority, said at the press conference announcing the partnership.

Hummus czar to upcycling star

Pearl is best known for introducing the United States to hummus, through the Sabra brand, convincing Americans that hummus should be a refrigerator staple rather than a niche Middle Eastern meal.

Americans spent $800 million on hummus in 2018, up from $200 million in 2008 and just $5 million in the mid-1990s, according to NPR. Sabra expanded its Virginia production plant in 2014 to produce 8,000 tons of hummus per month.

Sabra Hummus (Screenshot/YouTube)

Pearl said he plans to take the same approach with UBQ Materials.

“I see ideas in many areas and if they seem to me to be viable I do my best to bring them to life,” said Pearl. “I did that with hummus when everyone didn’t understand that hummus could be a very interesting and ubiquitous food in America. I did it with the current product I’m working with, and I did it in synagogue as well. Our shul started with seven families and now we have 300 and some-odd today.” Pearl is the rabbi emeritus of Anshei Shalom Synagogue on Long Island, New York.

UBQ stands for “ubiquitous,” and Pearl hopes the product will soon grace as many homes as his hummus containers.

From trash to plastic gold

Pearl signed on to the project after seeing an early version of the process, which he called “mysterious and magical,” but very much real.

While the actual process remains proprietary, the basic idea is that the waste is deconstructed into an almost molecular level, and then reconstituted or rebuilt into a composite material that resembles plastic.

For example, dirty diapers have previously been impossible to recycle, as they are a combination of cloth, plastic, and organic matter. And Israel produces a lot of them. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, 6% of Israel’s waste by weight is made up of dirty diapers.

Dried and shredded garbage is piled in the UBQ factory in Kibbutz Tzeelim, March 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File)

The UBQ process deconstructs the diapers into separate molecules of cotton and fibers and plastic and organic matter and then is able to reassemble them in a way that creates a plastic-like pellet, called a bio-based thermoplastic. Plastics factories can use these pellets to create any type of product they already create.

“We don’t recycle plastic, we convert the residual material that would have gone to a landfill,” said Pearl. The process takes unsorted household waste, such as chicken bones, pineapples, tomatoes, and plastic cartons, which ends up being about 80% organic matter and 20% plastic. Although there are variations in diet and lifestyle, this rate is more or less consistent across industrialized countries, meaning that UBQ’s process will work in many different countries, said Pearl.

UBQ does separate glass and metals from the waste that arrives at their factory. Both products can be easily separated from the waste stream, and most municipalities already do separate glass and metals from the landfill-bound waste. Metals can be resold and recycled and their value encourages many municipalities to separate them from the landfill.

Currently, UBQ is only producing the pellets at the Kibbutz Tzeelim factory, though they are looking to expand to North America. The small Tzeelim plant can process one ton of municipal waste per hour, a relatively small amount that would not be sufficient even for a midsize city.

Aworker holds bio-based thermoplastic composite made from substantially unsorted municipal solid waste material in the UBQ factory in Kibbutz Tzeelim, on March 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File)

Pearl said that the process has been thoroughly vetted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Since the process does not use water, there are no effluents, or liquid waste products.

In need of a miracle

Environmental activists have been desperate for a solution to the overwhelming problem of solid waste for decades. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that every year the world produces about 11.2 billion tons of solid waste.

Decomposing organic material in landfills produce five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Roughly half is methane, which is 21 times as potent for global warming as carbon dioxide, according to the World Bank.

For every ton of material produced, UBQ says, it prevents between three and 30 tons of CO₂ from being created by keeping waste out of landfills.

A tractor works in a landfill near the UBQ factory in Kibbutz Tzeelim, March 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

However, the process still has its doubters, including about long-term viability and whether or not the process will be financially profitable. Israel’s last domestic plastic bottle recycling facility closed in February because the process was not financially lucrative and it did not secure funding from the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Duane Priddy, chief executive of the Plastic Expert Group, said UBQ’s claims were “too good to be true” and likened it to alchemy.

“Chemists have been trying to convert lead to gold for centuries, without success,” Priddy, a former principal scientist at Dow Chemical, said in an email to The Associated Press last year. “Likewise, chemists have been trying to convert garbage to plastic for several decades.”

Pearl claims the process is profitable, though the company is still scaling up in order to be in the black after years of research and development. The company can already offer the UBQ material at a competitive price to other plastics, he said.

A cluster of bins made with the UBQ Material (Courtesy)

The recycle bins going to central Virginia cost the same to make as other recycle bins, which are usually made out of recycled plastic. Plastic recycling requires the waste be sorted, separating just the plastics. UBQ can use the plastics along with anything else that happens to end up the trash can.

Plastic from everything, even hummus

“As a company, we dream of a world in which waste is never truly wasted,” Tato Bigio, the CEO and Co-Founder of UBQ, said at the press conference in Virginia last week. “We’re hopeful that within a few years, every Virginian will be able to dispose of their recycling in a UBQ bin and many more products will be made out of this remarkable material.”

One of the benefits to UBQ’s business model is that their raw material is free. In the future, municipalities might even pay UBQ to dispose of their trash, rather than it going to the landfill, but for now, UBQ is accepting waste without payment.

UBQ Materials CEO and co-founder Tato Bigio (Courtesy)

According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, it costs municipalities NIS 270 ($77) per ton to collect waste and bring it to the landfill. It costs NIS 580 ($165) per ton to collect, sort, and distribute recyclables to the correct places.

Currently, Israel produces 5.3 million tons of waste a year, an average of 1.7 kilograms (3.7 pounds) per person per day. This is higher than the OECD average of 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds) per person per day but lower than the United States average of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of waste produced per person per day.

The recycle bins are a prototype, though Pearl hopes many more plastic products will be made from UBQ materials in the future. For now, however, it remains important to continue to separate as many recyclable materials as possible, and to utilize local composting programs for food scraps.

At the end of their lifecycle, UBQ materials can also be recycled in regular plastic recycling plants. However, they can also go through the UBQ process up to 6 or 7 times without losing structural integrity.

Pearl said he hopes that the recycling bins in Virginia are just the beginning of the story, and that this type of trash-cum-plastic will become as ubiquitous as the hummus now found in approximately 1 in 4 American refrigerators.

“At the end of its lifecycle, we can make UBQ material out of hummus, too,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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