Utah company turns plastic waste into oil
Founder • Australian leaves high-paying job to follow her dream.
Published: March 19, 2014 08:21AM
Updated: March 19, 2014 02:43PM
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Tom Wharton | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah-based PK Clean CEO Priyanka Bakaya speaks at the Zions Bank Founders Room Tuesday.

Sometimes great ideas and inspiration come from unexpected places.

Take, for example, the journey of Australian Priyanka Bakaya, a woman of Kashmiri descent, who has developed a way to turn unwanted plastic waste into oil and diesel fuel.

Bakaya, whose PK Clean company is based in Utah, offered her and company co-founder Ben Coates’ vision of ending plastic waste forever Tuesday at the Zions Premier Wealth Management Speaker Series.

The first part of her story began in Australia where a Bakaya family friend named Percy Kean used his kitchen as a giant laboratory.

“I still remember as a child him showing me oil, which he would light with a match and tell me it came from waste,” she said. “As a child, it sparked my imagination.”

But the product was never commercially valuable and, when Bakaya graduated from Stanford in 2005 and took a high-paying job on Wall Street as an energy analyst, she began spending her spare time looking at the chemistry and patent that Percy had developed.

Apple founder Steve Jobs spoke at her graduation; the speech became one of his most famous. Bakaya kept a written copy of Jobs’ talk on her desk as a constant reminder to make certain she didn’t stay on Wall Street too long.

One passage held particular resonance.

Jobs told the graduates that they should ask themselves every morning ,“If today was the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” He then said that whenever the answer is “no” too many days in a row, it’s time to change something.

“I had reached the point of ‘no’ in my Wall Street job, and I took a year off to work on Percy’s technology and applied to MIT to develop it further,” she said.

Thus, she decided to build the company from scratch, trying to come up with a way to utilize a revolutionary technology that currently has the capacity to convert 20,000 pounds of non-recycled plastic to 60 barrels of oil per day, all with zero emissions. PK Clean’s first plant is producing a barrel of oil for $25 to $30, which it sells to Holly Refinery for $100. Currently, only about 7 percent of plastic waste is recycled in the U.S.

She also began working with Coates, a University of California at Berkeley graduate.

“Ben had roots in Utah, though he spent most of his life in California,” said Bakaya, who had never visited the state. “Utah was the last place that occurred to me. It was beautiful. I started talking to people, and it was so business-friendly. The University [of Utah] was willing to work with us and gave us space to build our first plant. There were refineries here and local recyclers. There were great workers and an educated population. It was a perfect place for us to come.”

The potential for the company seems great.

“In the U.S. alone, if we converted all non-recycled plastic waste into fuel, this would represent over 10 billion gallons of oil each year,” she said. “Imagine if 25 percent of all automobile fuel in the U.S. could be fueled by plastic waste?”

Coates compared turning the waste from Rocky Mountain Recycling in Salt Lake to fuel to the process of making moonshine, where the ground-up plastic is burned until it evaporates and then condenses into a usable product.

The pair designed and built all the machinery for the process themselves, though they did have some local firms build components. The project was privately financed.

Coates said the challenge is to turn a smaller process into one that will work on a large scale.

“Making one batch of cookies is really easy,” he said. “But if you are Mrs. Fields and making a million cookies a day, it’s a challenge. How do you do that?”

Bakaya has visions of using this technology to help developing nations’ waste-pickers, who represent 1 percent of the urban population and live on an average income of $1 per day, below the poverty line.

“The image here is a common sight which I grew seeing during my family’s trips to India,” she recalled. “At the time, I knew there was nothing different from that child and I, other than the parents we were born to. When I started looking at PK Clean’s economics, it dawned on me that with so much revenue to be derived from plastic waste, maybe this could be the key out of poverty for so many waste-pickers worldwide.”

Thus, the company’s first pilot project in Pune, India, a place where her parents had a factory. She called her folks “prime role models” because they created jobs and tripled income in India, while also funding the education of poorer workers’ children and providing families access to credit.

When the technology is used overseas, Bakaya wants to provide a safer work environment, triple the incomes of waste-pickers who bring the company plastic and strive to end child labor in waste picking by making it mandatory that the children of workers attend school, which the company will pay for.

For now, the process is operating on a small scale with six employees, producing mainly diesel fuel. Bakaya and Coates hope to move plants around the U.S. next to big cities and near recycling plants.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton