Two young Canadian scientists have created a process that can break down plastics that would otherwise end up in landfills or oceans.

BioCellection, a California-based environmental start-up founded by 24-year-old Vancouver natives Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, is focusing on recycling plastics that cannot be recycled. According to a study from the University of Santa Barabara, of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic ever produced, 79 per cent end up in landfills or in oceans.

Wang and Yao read about the U.S. Department of Energy experimenting with breaking down polyethylene, the most ubiquitous plastic, into chemicals that were essential to creating synthetic products, such as clothing and mobile phones.

Wang and Yao wanted to see if they could make the process effective on a large scale. Together they founded the company and partnered with the City of San Jose in California, which donated waste samples for them to work with.

“We started working on actual waste samples collected from the city waste stream,” Wang told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday. “Real plastic materials that have food contamination, dirt, all kinds of nasty things on it.”

They worked with plastics that were not easy to recycle, particularly thin, film-like plastics such as those used to make plastic bags. While the most common type of plastic, PET, can be recycled through mechanical processes, other kind of plastics can be more difficult to break down, especially when contaminated.

“[In the U.S.] 97% of plastic film that gets put into a blue bin by a consumer actually ends up in a landfill or oceans,” Wang said.

After extensive research and experimentation, Wang and Yao have created a process that is cheaper and safer than the original research. In three hours, the machine can process 300 grams of contaminated plastic film. By using heat, pressure, and a liquid catalyst, their machine chemically breaks down the plastic into short-chain chemicals that can be harvested. These materials are as high-quality as chemicals directly made from petroleum and can be used in existing production processes for synthetic products like car parts, electronics, and even cosmetics.

“Over 500 experiments in a lab, we’ve now come up with an optimized process that is ready for scale-up,” said Wang.

To date, BioCellection has processed 3,880 plastic bags worth of plastic waste. This fall, it is planning to launch a pilot project 200 times the scale of their current machine. Wang and Yao have already raised over $3 million from investors like Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, a program of the Schmidt Family Foundation.