In 2017, plastic from containers and packaging made up 14 million tons of the United States’ municipal solid waste. The reason these plastics don’t get recycled is a matter of economics.
“There’s a complex supply chain for waste scraps,” said Miranda Wang, co-founder and CEO of Novoloop. “The issue for plastics is that there’s a shortage of market demand for low-quality post-consumer recycled plastics. Even when we put our plastics into our single-stream recycling bins and it goes to a central facility in the city where it gets sorted, there’s nowhere for that plastic sorter to sell that low-value material. As a result, a lot of the time, the plastics that we put into our recycling bins still go to landfills.”
Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao founded Novoloop (formerly Biocellection) to create high-value, high-performance materials from post-consumer plastics to satisfy growing market demands for sustainable performance materials.
Novoloop is an advanced chemical upcycling technology company with a focus on polyethylene plastic waste. The company’s patented process invention ATOD™ transforms polyethylene waste—food packaging, grocery bags, and mailers—into chemicals with a 68% lower CO2e footprint. They then synthesize these chemicals into quality performance materials that can make shoes, cars, outdoor equipment, and sporting goods. The process gives polyethylene waste a second, longer lifespan while keeping CO2e low. Additionally, upcycling polyethylene waste costs are competitive with the costs of using virgin materials to create these quality performance materials. Their first product is named XIRCTM, the world’s first thermoplastic polyurethane made with up to 50% post-consumer recycled content. Notably, the upcycled product performs as well as new.
“We have not only figured out how to give these plastics a second life, but we’re also turning these plastics into an inherently higher value material that would usually require more manufacturing resources,” Miranda said.
Bringing Product to Market in the Pandemic
Like most companies, Novoloop faced organizational pivots when COVID-19 hit, and the organization focused on accelerating their timeline to get their product to the market. “When COVID hit, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Are we going to let this pandemic stop us from solving the plastic problem after seeing everything that our technology has demonstrated,’” Miranda noted. “We knew that the only way was forward—we had to bring our first product to market.”
“For a social enterprise like ours, impact is generated from how much material we’re able to recycle and how much we’re able to put back into the market through sustainable consumer products,” Miranda said. “If people don’t use our product or we’re not displacing the virgin materials, we’re not making an impact.”
Injustices in the Plastic Space
Novoloop’s mission to find a second life for previously unrecyclable plastics is rooted in social and environmental justice principles. Along with plastic contaminating the food and water chains, the production and existence of plastic predominantly affects lower-income communities and their residents’ air quality, health, and livelihoods.
“Plastics are mainly made of carbon,” Miranda said. “A lot of places that treat plastics by burning are in lower-income communities. In those areas, plastic flakes and toxins end up in waterways and in air pollution. People from low-income communities are getting sick.”
After China stopped taking recycled plastics from around the world, other countries with less infrastructure for recycling took on the plastic imports, magnifying the social injustice around plastics.
“There is a lot of safety concern when it comes to how plastic is recycled,” Miranda said. “If you look at the people who are picking up and trading plastics in Africa, Indonesia, and India, they’re children, women, and people who are really poor.”
Novoloop’s method of upcycling plastics keeps CO2e low, prevents toxins from contaminating the environment, removes the need to produce and manufacture new plastics, and ultimately prevents the need to discard plastic waste onto lower-income communities in other countries.
Leaning on Community and Resources
For Miranda and Jeanny, joining the Echoing Green network in 2018 provided financial and communal leeway at a time when people finally started to pay attention to the plastic problem in the U.S.
“When we founded the company in 2015, few people cared about the plastic problem,” Miranda said. “In 2018, China banned the import of plastics, and that’s when people started really talking about it. What we were doing started to get attention, and we were able to raise our first round of angel funding.”
That spring, Miranda and Jeanny became Echoing Green Fellows, which impacted subsequent grant and loan applications.
As of fall 2020, Novoloop raised more than $5 million in equity investment in addition to $5 million in grants. According to Miranda, the recoverable grants and loans have given Novoloop the time and extended runway needed to test and give the young company confidence in its work product.
In addition to Echoing Green’s seed funding, Novoloop’s fundraising benefitted from Echoing Green’s financial resources and technical support.
“I love that Echoing Green staff are always ready to help,” Jeanny said. “Whether it was the initial setting up of the loan and determining the schedule or when we had questions about the payback, an Echoing Green staff member was ready to support.”
Resources like Echoing Green’s loan-readiness fundraising curriculum, made possible through the support of Moody’s, provide the custom support necessary for entrepreneurs navigating the nuances of loans. Thanks to Moody’s financial experts, the loan curriculum bridges the communication gap between funders and social entrepreneurs.
Along with access to technical resources, Miranda and Jeanny have found value in Echoing Green’s focus on well-being and community connections. According to Miranda, Echoing Green’s focus on the leader, not just the organization, has been instrumental in Jeanny’s and her leadership of Novoloop.
“It’s one of those communities where you aren’t just judged for the organization that you lead—you really get to know people as individuals, and people get to know and see you as your own person,” Miranda said. “That’s pretty rare and valuable for entrepreneurs. A lot of the time, people just see us as part of the startup. But we’re also individuals with our own feelings and our own emotional needs. It’s been really important for Jeanny and me to be able to have a place to go to for that.”