You may feel good when you put your empty soda bottle in the recycling bin, but traditional recycling is a highly inefficient process. Because there isn't much of an infrastructure for recycling plastics other than PET--the plastic found in soda bottles--plastic is a hard thing to get rid of. In 2012, there were 32 million tons of plastic waste generated in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Only 9 percent of that waste was recovered for recycling.
PK Clean thinks it has the answer. The four-year-old startup based in Salt Lake City wants to end landfilled waste by recycling it back into oil, says CEO Priyanka Bakaya. The company's process, known as catalytic depolymerization, converts plastic waste into fuel. This has been tried before with limited success--the process can be expensive and unreliable--but Bakaya is confident her design is a breakthrough and "quantum leap over anything previously attempted in the space," she says. It also "allows us to substantially bring down costs to ensure commercial viability."
In 2010, she set up a pilot plant in Pune, India, in which she ironed out the kinks in the process. Bakaya then met Benjamin Coates, a Chemical Engineering PhD, and the two decided to found PK Clean and build a U.S. plant.
Last summer, using savings and money from contests, including $20,000 from the Cartier Women's Initiative, they built their first commercial-scale plant in Salt Lake City. When operating at capacity, the plant turns 20,000 pounds of waste into 2,500 gallons of fuel that can be sold to refineries. Their goal is to sell plants to other recyclers, with the potential to work directly with industrial companies producing mass waste. "We realize we first have to get started in the U.S., but the long-term vision is a huge market overseas in developing countries," says Bakaya. That's a lot of soda bottles.