UBQ Materials Inc. is a certified B Corp headquartered in Toledo, Ohio, committed to the circular economy, with unique manufacturing technology to convert waste into thermoplastic material that can be used for the manufacturing of thousands of products. Made from materials otherwise landfill or incinerator-bound, it is itself recyclable. This is sustainability in action—emanating from the Great Lakes Region around the world. CGLR Senior Director of Business Engagement Laura Asiala caught up with Derek Schaefer, Vice President of Business Development at UBQ Materials, to learn more about this innovation.
Laura: When was the first time you became aware of the issue with regards to plastic waste? Where were you? What struck you about the situation, and what made you want to make the leap to UBQ?
Derek: In December of 2019 I was traveling for business and in meeting after meeting, I heard a common theme: “What could plastic product manufacturers do to lower the amount of virgin plastic in their products?” The current level of recycled content was not enough to satisfy customers’ expectations. As I boarded my flight home, I received an email from a friend about a new technology from a company called UBQ that had the ability to convert household waste into a Bio-Based Thermoplastic Composite. That just seemed to be too good to be true, but wasn’t. It was real, and despite the uncertainties of the global pandemic which hit us in early 2020, I made the leap to UBQ, because I am passionate about what UBQ is doing for both the circular economy and the environment.
Laura: How does UBQ contribute to the circular economy? How does the process actually work?
Derek: UBQ Materials is a company founded on the principles of the circular economy. We envision a world with zero waste, and our mission is to take the waste streams and transform them into a sustainable material. Everything from food waste and mixed plastics, to cardboard, paper and even diapers can be converted into UBQ™. The only things we don’t recycle are metals and minerals, and we funnel those products into well-established recycling streams for those materials. The result is that 100% of household waste can be repurposed and reused by the plastics industry.
During the conversion process, the organic trash that makes up 70-80% of UBQ’s feedstock is broken down to its most particulate constructs—lignin, cellulose, fibers, and sugars—and then reassembled and bound together into a matrix. Waste plastics constituting the remaining 20-30% are melted and bonded into the matrix to create the novel UBQ™ material.
UBQ™ is essentially a sustainability additive, a sort of “tofu” for the plastics industry. It can be combined with different types of conventional plastics in order to reduce – and even neutralize – their carbon footprint. Because UBQ™ is made from waste that would otherwise get dumped in landfills and emit methane and other toxic gases, the production of UBQ™ is actually beneficial for the environment. For every ton of UBQ™ we produce, we prevent 11.7 tons of CO2-eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) pollution, placing UBQ™ as “The Most Climate Positive Thermoplastic Material on the Market”.
Laura: UBQ manufactures ‘thermoplastics’. What does that mean exactly? What products are made from your material?
Derek: Thermoplastics are essentially plastic polymers that become moldable at a certain high temperature and then solidify when cooling. This family of plastics includes some of the most-used plastics in the world, such as Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene (PE), Polyvinyl chlorine (PVC) and Polystyrene (PS). Products created from these plastics constitute a majority of the plastics people own: Kitchenware, hygiene products and household goods, to name just a few. Beyond consumer goods, car parts, durable products, and construction materials can all be made from plastics.
Plastic is not ‘Public Enemy #1’. Plastics are often essential in producing affordable, light-weight, strong, and durable products. The problem lies in the lack of efficient end-of-life processes of the material—which creates vast waste–exactly the issue UBQ set out to address. The waste is the problem, so if we can use that waste as raw material, we get the benefits of plastic without plastic waste on land or in the water.
Because UBQ™ is a thermoplastic material, it can be used as a climate-positive replacement to other plastics in the manufacturing of everyday products.
Laura: I understand the first plant is in Israel and is now manufacturing product for sale. What are your plans for future manufacturing sites in the U.S. or Canada, and specifically in the Great Lakes Region? What are the critical success factors in selecting a site?
Derek: Until now, UBQ Materials has operated out of a small scale (7,000 ton per year) production and R&D facility in Israel. We are establishing the first full-scale UBQ facility in the Netherlands, with an annual output of 70,000 tons of UBQ™. We know that the greater the number of UBQ facilities around the world, the greater and more localized our intake of landfill-destined waste, which is why we are planning a global expansion plan with our eye on the US and Canada as first adopters.
There are many factors at play when we think about establishing a UBQ facility. First and foremost, we need proximity to our customers who use the UBQ™ material in their product manufacturing. We further reduce UBQ’s carbon footprint by ensuring proximity to major users, so that we don’t need to transport UBQ™ over long distances. For this reason, we need to ensure local market demand for products made with UBQ™, as well as easy transportation across the area. We also need the support of governments and local municipalities that understand the value of UBQ™ toward establishing new UBQ facilities.
Laura: In your experience, what are the biggest barriers to operationalizing a circular economy?
Derek: Waste collection is actually not a barrier. Unfortunately, there is so much waste piled across the globe—with increases every year–that we could establish a UBQ facility virtually anywhere. Ironically, the primary barrier is skepticism that a recycled material can be as effective and economical as materials made from virgin fossil fuel.
Historically, cost has been an issue, but costs of recycled material (through a number of technologies) have come down, but that’s not well understood. At UBQ, we have invested in the technology for both cost reduction and high performance, and we’ve been successful: we are cost-competitive with conventional plastics, without compromising quality and mechanical properties.
In terms of quality, people often think—like I did at first– “This sounds too good to be true.” Our answer has been to demonstrate quality through our partnerships with some of the world’s biggest brands. We are especially proud of our recent collaboration in the automotive industry. In early 2020, we partnered with Daimler AG, manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz, to create climate-positive auto parts made with UBQ™. Later in the year we also joined forces with automotive parts manufacturers Motherson and Cascade Engineering. We are now developing climate-positive trays for McDonald’s in Latin America, as well a line of climate-forward hangers for Mainetti, the world’s largest supplier of clothing hangers.
Laura: Given an audience of leaders across the public, private (business), and social sectors in the Great Lakes Region, what things would you like them to know—that would be helpful to you?
Derek: First, to recognize how ubiquitous plastics are. In fact that’s how UBQ got it’s name. It’s easy to put the focus on plastic water bottles, plastic straws and other visible items. We definitely need to take care of this problem, but we can’t forget the invisible plastics that every city and company have in their supply chains – from crates and bins to flooring and construction materials. Such products require immense amounts of plastics, and the need to replace them with sustainable materials is crucial.
Secondly, I also want people to remember that technology is not the barrier. We have the technology. The real impact is dependent on demand and leadership—from consumers, companies, investors, and policy makers, in which linear consumption models are replaced with circular ones, landfills are considered obsolete, and waste is no longer waste. It is the raw material from which new products are made.
For more information on the commitment to the circular economy in the Great Lakes Region, see Circular Great Lakes Initiative.
About the Author
Derek Schaefer is the VP of Business Development at UBQ Materials.
Experienced in polyolefin compounding and commercializing tailored solutions across industries, Derek was honored as a rising star by Plastics News in 2021.
Derek has a strong track record in commercializing tailored solutions for automotive, consumer, construction, packaging, and appliance markets. He holds a B.S.B.A. in Marketing from Northern Kentucky University and an MBA from University of Phoenix.
UBQ Materials has developed an advanced conversion technology that transforms household waste into the greenest thermoplastic material on the market. The patented biobased material can substitute for oil-based plastics in the production of thousands of everyday products. UBQ™ enables manufacturers to finally create products that positively impact our world without compromising profitability. Emptying landfills, one product at a time.
To learn more, visit www.ubqmaterials.com or contact UBQ Materials at firstname.lastname@example.org.