One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This literally is the case for Startup in Residence participant UPPACT, who are testing a breakthrough technology in the Eemshaven to repurpose plastic and textile waste. How are things going so far? Founders Jan Jaap Folmer and Michel Walstock discuss their innovation, its potential, and their ambitions for the coming years.
Earlier this year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a shocking report. The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, and only 9% is successfully recycled. “Most people think we’re doing pretty well when it comes to recycling”, Michel explains. “But we’re not. The bulk of it ends up in landfills, is incinerated, or leaks into the environment. Or it’s exported to other countries and considered recycled, where in reality the problem is only moved to a different location. UPPACT is focusing especially on these not recycled problem streams of mixed plastics, textile waste.”
From Australia to Groningen Seaports
To tackle this huge problem, UPPACT teamed up with the Australian inventors and set up a test and demo factory in the Netherlands, Jan Jaap explains. “Our machine, which we call the Unwastor, is capable of processing unsorted, unwashed and unshredded plastic and textile waste into robust and recyclable products. The Unwastor processes carpet tiles, fishing nets, multilayer packaging and even sneakers or cigarette butts.”
“Through a challenge for sustainable port asset management of Seaports Groningen, we entered the Startup in Residence Program. We think it’s a very concrete and practical program that helps us to pilot a circular solution for the replacement of the wooden fenders in the ports of Delfzijl and Eemshaven, with fenders made from plastic and textile waste. Replacement by fenders from tropical hardwood was not a sustainable option. Groningen Seaports has been very helpful to turn this into a successful pilot so we can demonstrate how well it works.”
UPPACT’s innovation is called the UnWastor. But how does it work, exactly? “Different types of plastics have different melting points”, Michel explains. “The problem with mixed plastics is that it’s not possible to get an even homogenous mixture with conventional technology. But UPPACT can. That’s the magic of the UnWastor, Jan Jaap smiles. The Unwastor eats all these different types of plastic and textile waste and turns out high-quality, recyclable planks and poles.
For the pilot at Groningen Seaports, UPPACT is using unrecyclable mixed plastic waste streams from the ports, the Waddensea and ships, to create fender boards, which are bumpers used for berthing ships. “They’re normally made from tropical hardwood, so this is a far more sustainable solution”, Jan Jaap continues. “It’s also really our aim to use local waste to create products to be used locally again. It doesn’t get much more circular than that.”
Michel agrees: “And it’s great to see how people’s mindsets are changing because of it. Waste is no longer something you need to get rid of, but a resource to create new products to be used locally. Once people see and realize what’s possible, they get really excited, involved and creative.”
UPPACT also works with the Groningen University Medical Center to help repurpose their non-medical waste. And this summer, the startup worked with the Lowlands Music Festival “People leave really a lot of waste at the camping site, so we’ve collected some of it for a test and turned this into a picnic table. Next year we aim to recycle over 75% of all camping waste from Lowlands and possibly other events and festivals using the Unwastor,” Michel continues.
So what will the next couple of years look like for UPPACT? “The Startup in Residence pilot will be finished on November 18. But actually, it’s just a start of demonstrating our technology and circular concept”, Jan Jaap explains. “The next step is to have an upscaled factory during the first half of next year in the Eemshaven area, where we’ll process 1.5 million kilograms of plastic and textile waste. Initially, we’ll be focusing on producing plastic planks and poles.”
“In the next 2 years we will scale up production to handle hospital waste, plastic waste collected from ports and the Wadden Sea and post-consumer mixed plastic and textile waste, to make even more impact. Working with Groningen Seaports and the Startup in Residence program is a great booster for us. We are able to show what can be done with the unrecycled plastic and textile waste in Northern Netherlands and help strengthen the regional circular ecosystem.”
“Circularity can’t be done on your own so we love working together with all regional stakeholders and partners. Let’s UnWaste together,” Jan Jaap concludes.