UBQ turns household waste into organic plastic

UBQ cofounder and CEO Jack (Tato) Bigio credit: UBQ
UBQ cofounder and CEO Jack (Tato) Bigio credit: UBQ

Listed as one of TIME magazine's "Best inventions of 2023," the Israeli company's customers include Mercedes, McDonald’s, and PepsiCo.

During the last decade in Israel - a country where more than 90% of the garbage goes to landfill, not to recycling - a unique patent has emerged that could revolutionize the sector worldwide. UBQ Materials has found a way to turn household waste into organic plastic (also known as alternative plastic).

All the plastic products we know today are manufactured from oil-based plastic pellets. UBQ also produces plastic pellets, but they are made of garbage, and are environmentally friendly. UBQ therefore has several levels of green benefit: recycling of household waste instead of throwing it out; creating organic plastic instead of conventional plastic, which requires refined petroleum - a highly polluting process; and a far easier recycling process than conventional plastic.

"Everyone told me it was impossible," says co-founder and CEO Jack (Tato) Bigio. "How can garbage be turned into a single material that will also be homogeneous, meet strict quality standards, and be attractively priced for the consumer?".

What’s so terrible about landfill?

"First of all, the trash we create today can’t be recycled at all. In other words, it is mixed garbage, where food scraps, diapers and other components are mixed together [also known as household waste]. Ostensibly, a pizza carton can be recycled, but if the carton has mozzarella stuck to it, then that’s no longer possible. This garbage goes to the landfill or to incineration, and the side effects are terrible. The garbage eventually breaks down into methane gas, which is toxic. It not only creates greenhouse gases, but it’s also harmful to health. The garbage juices seep into our groundwater, and a lot of animals eat the plastic in the garbage and it's harmful to them."

"I don't want an exit at all"

Bigio, who immigrated to Israel from Peru in 1984, began studying for a B.A. in engineering while still in Lima. Upon arriving in Israel, however, he decided to change direction, and completed both a B.A. and M.A. in economics and business administration at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After serving as a senior executive in the business sector for 20 years, including five years as CEO and president at investment and holding company Ampal, he took a "gap year" and advised startups during which time, in 2010, he encountered a company that inspired him. "They were trying to turn food waste into useful products like bricks for construction. That's where I got the idea that it might be possible to produce a thermoplastic material from an organic material."

Bigio met with renowned inventor and professor of biotechnology at the Hebrew University, Oded Shoseyov - now an advisory director at UBQ - who said the idea was possible on a chemical level. In 2012, Bigio founded UBQ with partners, and for four years a small group of chemists and engineers worked on tackling the problem.

A key figure in the company is Albert Douer, a Jewish-Colombian financier (who now lives in Panama). Douer, who had dealings in the plastics industry, was among the company's first investors, and currently serves as chairman and co-CEO. "At our first meeting, he told me: 'What you’re describing sounds impossible to me, but I’m open to listening.'

UBQ, which has raised $250 million to date, has well-known clients both in Israel and globally, such as Keter Plastics, Polyram Group, and even Mercedes, McDonald’s, and PepsiCo. In late December, it was even included in TIME magazine's "Best Inventions of 2023" list. The company is not yet profitable, but is expected to reach profitability within three years, and aims to expand and establish dozens of factories around the world. "We can't be profitable right now, because the company is developing and growing, and that costs a lot of money. Each factory itself is profitable."

Are you aiming for an exit?

"No, I don't want an exit at all. I want UBQ to be a global Israeli company, like Teva or Netafim. What excites me is the action. An IPO, at some point, does come into consideration."

Amidst these successes came October 7and the war, which put everything into perceptive. Most of the workers at the UBQ plant in Ze’elim reside along the Gaza Strip, and two of the senior workers - assistant controller Hadar Rosenfeld-Berdicheskey, and chief engineer Uri Russo - were murdered on October 7 at Kfar Azza. Rosenfeld was murdered with her husband and left behind ten-month-old twins. Russo, a member of a first-response squad, left behind a wife and three daughters.

How did you get through it?

"We went back to work three weeks after that horrible day, and we rallied, like a family, to help each other. We decided this was the best way to live in this difficult time, but of course it took us some time to pick up the pieces. The workers who were evacuated to places like Kibbutz Shefayim and the Dead Sea continued to come to the Ze’elim plant as much as they can. The story of our company is a totally Israeli story, of a breakthrough technology developed in the desert against all odds."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 10, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

UBQ cofounder and CEO Jack (Tato) Bigio credit: UBQ
UBQ cofounder and CEO Jack (Tato) Bigio credit: UBQ
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