UBQ Turns Garbage Into a Composite Thermoplastic

The circular economy gets real.

Mcdonalds tray
Tray for McDonald's.


That plastic tray in the photo above doesn't look like much, but it could be the start of something big. UBQ Materials is a Certified B Corporation in Israel that, according to a press release, has "patented a technology which converts household waste into a climate positive, biobased, thermoplastic."

"Not to be confused with standard recycling that requires highly developed sorting, UBQ’s technology receives landfill-destined waste that includes everything; food leftovers, paper, cardboard, and mixed plastics and can convert it all into a single composite thermoplastic material compatible with industry machinery and manufacturing standards."

They are touting a big deal they have made with the world's largest McDonald's franchisee, Arcos Dorados in Brazil, to manufacture 7,200 new serving trays. In the process, they have already diverted 2600 pounds (1200 kilograms) of waste from landfills, and "every ton of UBQ produced prevents nearly 12 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the environment."

On their website and in this video, the company describes how they are part of the movement from the take-make-waste linear economy to the circular economy, described by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as one that "entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system."

Here on Treehugger, I have been dismissive of claims that plastic waste could be recovered through fancy and expensive chemical recycling, writing in How the Plastics Industry Is Hijacking the Circular Economy that "this sham of a circular economy is just another way to continue the status quo, with some more expensive reprocessing." But the UBQ approach is different. It is not perfectly circular in that they are not producing a plastic as pure as the original; it is a composite that could be called downcycling instead of recycling.

Looks like garbage to me
Looks like garbage to me. UBQ

UBQ's process takes your regular mix of undifferentiated waste stream of food, plastic, paper or whatever, which is "is reduced into its more basic natural components. At a particle level, these natural components reconstitute themselves and bind together into a new composite material – UBQ." It is all proprietary and patented, but I think I found the right one, US8202918B2:

Patent Drawing
US8202918B2. UBQ Materials
"The heterogeneous waste includes a plastic component and a non-plastic component, and the non-plastic component includes a plurality of pieces of waste. The heterogeneous waste is heated to melt at least a portion of said plastic component and reducing a volume of said heterogeneous waste, and then mixed (e.g. by rotating a mixing chamber or by stirring) until at least some said pieces are each encapsulated by the melted plastic component. Upon cooling, the mixture optionally sets into a composite material."

As best I can tell, the waste is cooked at about 400 degrees until it breaks down into its basic components of lignin, cellulose, and sugars. Lignin is a biopolymer that is the stuff between cellulose reinforcing fibers in a tree, so when this is all mixed with the melted plastics and I believe some added thermoplastics, it becomes a strong composite material that UBQ can mold into not only trays for McDonald's, but also plastic pipes, wastebasket, pallets, and industrial products that do not have to be made from food-grade plastics. Almost any kind of waste can go into it, according to the patent, "there is no additional limitation on the type of waste, and no limitation and the source of waste. Appropriate types of waste include but are not limited to household refuse, industrial waste, medical waste, rubber marine sludge, and hazardous material."

climate benefits

According to the Life Cycle Assessment, there are significant environmental benefits compared to conventional thermoplastics like polypropylene, claiming a significant positive carbon footprint. It also reduces the amount of material going to landfill (where organic waste rots and gives off methane) and reduces the need for fossil fuels.

UBQ Pellets
Looks like thermoplastic pellets to me. UBQ

They claim that the resulting product is safe for people and the environment, and "does not present any health or safety concerns. Testing performed by leading independent laboratories, using the most stringent US and European hazardous waste rules, as well as Cradle-to-Cradle standards. It is also compliant under REACH." They note that "the material is competitively priced compared to conventional plastics, while providing a significant environmental added value."

Now compare this to the $670 million project in Quebec that we recently covered, which turns waste and electrolyzed hydrogen and oxygen into ethanol and chemical feedstocks. I did not think it made much sense, but this UBQ concept seems so much more accessible, affordable, and achievable in a reasonable timeframe.

I want to be a bench
I want to be a bench!. Keep America Beautiful

For many years I have complained on Treehugger about recycling, where companies pat us on the head for separating our waste into bins so that maybe if we are lucky, some of the plastic might become a bench or plastic lumber. Then I complained about how the companies were going to save recycling by taking the plastic and going through elaborate chemical processes to turn it back into feedstock.

Sorting garbage

And then here comes a company, Certifed B yet, which means that it "balances purpose and profit" – they are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. It promises to take all our garbage (no more sorting!) and keep it out of the landfill, and instead turn it into useful thermoplastic resins without a lot of energy, water, or emissions, with a negative carbon footprint.


If this works as well as advertised and promised, it won't stop with plastic trays in Brazil; it is going to be a very big deal.

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