Over the nearly 50 years since its inception in 1976, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise has created a global family of Laureates working for the betterment of humanity and nature. These men and women come from diverse backgrounds and fields of interest, but they all share a common passion: using science, technology, exploration and education to help make our planet perpetual.
We’d like to introduce you to Miranda Wang, a 2019 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate who is tackling one of our planet’s biggest crises head on.
If prodigies are still a thing in today’s convenience culture, then 28-year-old molecular biologist Miranda Wang is one of them. This Chinese-Canadian tech entrepreneur, together with her business partner and childhood friend Jeanny Yao, is the co-founder of Novoloop (formerly BioCellection), a company transforming and recycling dirty single-use plastic into raw materials for new products.
Wang’s passion for the environment runs deep; a result of an early childhood spent outdoors in nature, where she developed an understanding of how incredibly sensitive the links are between animals, plants and the environments in which they live.
“Life on this planet is very interconnected. Every sector of the food chain is affected by plastic pollution,” she says.
Plastic is notoriously difficult to get rid of. Burning it produces huge amounts of planet-warming CO₂ gases and even recycling it solves only a small part of the problem, while also creating greenhouse gas.
Plastic pollution is engulfing our planet. Every particle of plastic ever made by humans is still around. Depending on the type of plastic, it can break down into smaller pieces but can never totally biodegrade like organic materials do.
The messages we’re getting are very clear. By 2025, if we continue at this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weightMiranda Wang, molecular biologist
This toxic, durable material is everywhere. It’s in our rivers and drinking water. It’s in our food. Deep-ocean explorers have found plastic at the bottom of sea trenches. The problem is real, and it needs urgent attention.
A school excursion led to Wang and Yao learning about unique types of bacteria that actually consume plastic. They both wondered whether the same process could be replicated using chemicals so that it could be scaled up to deal with the almost 340-million tonnes of disposable plastic items that the world discards every single day.
Wang and Yao were aware of how pressing it was to find a workable solution. “The messages we’re getting are very clear. By 2025, if we continue at this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight,” says Wang.
Wang set out to raise $5m to establish Novoloop and harness the power of chemical agents to break down dirty single-use plastics, such as polyethylene, into valuable compounds for use in new products such as shoes and 3D printing material.
An important part of Novoloop’s success in driving recycling this way is that there is now a real financial incentive for companies to use this technology to repurpose their plastic waste. These new compounds have a market value, and the process is a lot more environmentally-friendly than conventional recycling.
Both Forbes and Time magazine have taken note of Wang and Yao’s pioneering solution to plastic pollution. Wang has also been awarded the University of California’s prestigious Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award, and plans are afoot for a new commercial processing plant.