Four young professionals behind the Denmark-based startup BlueBenu, which aims to tackle the issue of plastic waste, have been in Budapest as part of the Design Terminal mentoring program.
Unlike other methods on the market, BlueBenu’s solution is able to turn unsorted, unclean plastic waste into new plastic product while also producing eco-fuel along the way. The Budapest Business Journal talked with COO Sarah Lasso and CTO Albert Kravos.
BBJ: Right at the top of the list of recommendations to reduce plastic waste is cutting the use of single-use plastic bags. What role do you think recycling has here?
Albert Kravos: Single-use plastic bags have their downsides but the biggest problem is that people don’t throw them in the trash or separate them appropriately. Consumers are responsible for the first separation and proper sorting before plastic enters the recycling bins. Governments should be responsible for providing local recycling stations instead of shipping waste overseas to places where policies are not applied vigorously, are poorly supervised, or not enforced at all by the authorities. Our plans extend to tackle the waste of poor communities, in order to address the source of plastic pollution and give waste plastics a means for recycling.
Sarah Lasso: Sometimes communities are environmentally aware but have no waste management practices; they have no other choice but burning or throwing it away in improper locations such as the open environment. We want to give them an option to not only recycle, but also to use the potential of the plastic as a resource.
BBJ: In what way does your solution differ from similar ones already on the market?
AK: There are many ways to recycle plastic but they mainly need the waste to be sorted and cleaned. Our method is much more flexible as it can handle plastic that is contaminated or mixed with organic matter. This conversion process itself is not new. We have, however, adapted it from exclusively treating biomass to a more versatile use and to tackle plastic feedstock that cannot be traditionally recycled or is tricky to work with. The technology is called hydrothermal liquefaction, where we basically pressure cook the plastic with water in order to bring the material back to its original petroleum form.
As an output, we have different product streams, one is eco-fuel. The fuel produced depends on the feedstock: in the beginning it would resemble light sweet crude oil, which needs to be refined to be used in cars. It could also be directly used in ships and heavy-fuel oil engines. In the long run, we aim to produce jet fuel, it being difficult to replace otherwise. Our ultimate purpose, however, is not to produce fuel but rather new virgin plastics and high value petrochemicals to close the circular economy of plastics and considerably reduce emissions.
SL: In the beginning, the idea was to fully focus on maritime as ships use very low-quality fuel. Also, there have been many new legislations that they have to comply with. We moved away from the maritime fuel idea to focus on a fully circular economy process of reintegration of waste in the system as high value products. These new propositions have the potential to generate bigger socio-economic value for communities around the globe.
BBJ: Where are you at with development?
SL: Right now we are at the prototype stage, but we are a bit slow due to lack of funding and also because we are trying to develop it together with the market so as to comply with pre-existing standards for specific industrial uses. It is a very complex and expensive project and we want to ensure a perfect product/market fit.
AK: The product is a small container-sized reactor which was designed in the first place to convert biomass into biodiesel. We are redesigning the reactor so that it can also accept mixed plastics and run continually.
BBJ: Are you already in touch with companies?
SL: We have partnered with Spike Renewables, an equipment manufacturer based in Florence. We have established contacts with municipalities and public bodies in Myanmar and Denmark. Municipalities are responsible for implementing waste collection systems and either end up sending the plastic fraction to incineration or landfill. Here we want to open new solutions. And we are still in contact with the Danish maritime industry and associations for treating marine litter brought to shore by vessels and fisherman.
BBJ: Why did you choose to come to Hungary and participate here in a mentoring program?
SL: We are based in Denmark so we are familiar with the Scandinavian market. We wanted to open up a bit; looking for new partnerships, seeing how other markets operate. At Design Terminal’s mentoring program we participate in training, mentoring and meetings with corporate partners. This is also a community of committed startups that will be a promising network for the future. Moreover, we are experiencing personal growth and also sharpen our expertise in many different sectors.
AK: During the power camp, we made contacts with some local refineries, which helps us to better understand their limitations in terms of infrastructure, so we got a clear idea of what fuels they will or will not accept. As a result, we can streamline our product development. We have also learnt more about market analysis in this way. We are looking for funding opportunities, although, we may still be early for angel investment as we are dealing with expensive hardware; we are not sure if dilution would be beneficial at this stage. We are currently applying for soft funds from the [Danish] government and the EU.