Michael Biddle

What are you most trying to accomplish in your work? 

Like many entrepreneurs, I set out to try to change the world, but I see that is the last question so I’ll touch on my broader objectives there. What I’ve focused on for the last 25 years is literally the last frontier of major material recycling: what I call “above ground mining” of plastics from the largest waste streams in the world.

This is extremely important to all of us for many reasons, but I believe the most important are:

• Plastics are one of the most ubiquitous materials we use today – for example there are more plastics by volume produced each year around the world than steel
• Plastics provide significant performance, environmental, and economic benefits in many applications, which is why it has grown so much more quickly than the materials if has replaced in many applications: glass, metal and wood.
• However plastics are recycled/re-used at much lower rates than these other materials. And it’s not because plastics are a low-value “throw-away” material. Plastics are 3 to 10 times more valuable than steel on a price per weight basis, for example, yet the recycle rate for steel is over 90%, while for plastic it is less than 10% in the US!
• We have to go to more extreme locations and use more extreme technologies to extract the raw materials used to make most plastics – oil and gas. These practices come with ever increasing environmental and economic costs.
• Plastics waste is having a devastating impact on some marine life and the general health of our oceans. Many sea birds, fish and mammals are becoming entangled with or eating plastic debris. A quick web search will reveal heart-wrenching photos. And this 3 minute trailer also helps put it into perspective: www.midwayfilm.com As the legendary ocean researcher, Sylvia Earle, has said: “if the ocean dies, we die”.  

What do you think sets your work apart from the work of others in your field?

In summary:

We have produced the technology and business to deliver two important earth and human wins:

1. We can now use this valuable material in much more sustainable and responsible manner
2. By being able to process some of the most complicated and contaminated waste streams in the world, we have provided a pathway for waste plastics that will help save marine life, our oceans – and ultimately us.

More specifically:

While I’m often called “The Garbage Man” or “Dr. Plastics”, I certainly wasn’t the first plastics recycler. My team and I, via the company I founded about 22 years ago:

• developed a number of breakthrough separation and purification technologies to mine plastics from the largest sources of waste plastics in the world, which weren’t being minded before because they are extremely complicated – composed of many different types of materials and contaminants
• scaled-up the technology and made it to work on an industrial scale
• designed and built world-scale plants
• became the first true multinational plastics recycler
• are now operating the three most advanced plastics recovery plants on the face of the planet, with a processing capacity of about 300 million plastics per year
• 3rd party LCA (life-cycle analysis) has confirmed that our plants, compared to virgin plastics production save enormous amounts of energy (80-90% MORE efficient!) and substantial amounts of CO2 (3-4 tons of CO2 saved per ton of virgin plastics replaced).
• The same LCA confirmed that recycling plastics via our process is also substantially better for the environment than burning waste plastics for fuel.

This 22 year journey involved many sacrifices and MANY near-death experiences (from a company standpoint), but we have “broken the code” and demonstrated that this valuable material can now be recovered at a large industrial scale like other high volume commodities.  

What or who inspired you to get into your field? Do you have any individuals or groups of people that you credit with helping you achieve the goals you set out to accomplish?

As I say in the Big SHFT documentary about my story, we have built on the ideas and technology from many before us. There were MANY inspirations to me personally, but if had to single out a few they would probably be:

• My parents who instilled a very strong sense of personal responsibility in me at a very early age
• Ralph Waldo Emerson – best explained through a few of his quotes:
o “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.”
o “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
o “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
• Thomas Alva Edison – for trying so many times and failing so many times, but still trying – it’s mostly why I won the first Thomas Alva Edison Award for Innovation – failing a lot before finding what worked.
o “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
o “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
• Ayn Rand – a somewhat controversial author. Many entrepreneurs, like me, are inspired by some of the principles heralded in her novels regarding personal responsibility and entrepreneurship, such as:
o “A creative man (person) is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.”
o “Devotion to the truth is the hallmark of morality; there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man (person) who assumes the responsibility of thinking.”
o “The ' pleasure' of being drunk is obviously the pleasure of escaping from the responsibility of Consciousness.”
o “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it's yours.” 

What role has serendipity played in the turning points in your career? 

Quite a bit I must admit. I spent the first part of my career working for large companies and progressing quite well in positions at GE, Cummins Engine and Dow Chemical.

At Dow, I was working at the very high tech end of the plastics industry – on very high performance composites – beyond carbon fibers. In fact, I was working on materials for the stealth bomber at one point. But I had two growing concerns: a) a growing number of people were beginning to look at plastics negatively – largely for plastic waste reasons discussed above, which was quite understandable; and b) it seemed to me that as consumption of “stuff” around the planet was growing even more quickly than the global population, we were running out of resources to make all of “stuff” and that we needed to figure out how to use our precious resources more efficiently.

With the recycling rate for plastics less than 5% at the time, solving this problem was for me a way to make a big impact on both of these issues. So I told Dow that I wanted to figure out how to recycle plastics. They initially told me that they didn’t hire a Ph.D. in plastics to work on garbage. I had to threaten to quit to convince them otherwise and they soon let me start a research group on the subject. As the R&D Director told me at the time: “you’ll either be a hero or a stooge”. Many of my colleagues thought I was crazy to go from the highest tech end of the plastics industry to “garbage”.

I guess I did OK because two years later I was able to convince them to put me through the prestigious Stanford Sloan Executive Management program. To do this, they had to sponsor me as a Sloan Fellow – meaning that they not only paid the expensive tuition, they had to pay my salary while I attended the program full time! I think I remain the only Dow person ever sponsored in this expensive program. Dow also put me on their rather stealth “fast track executive program”, making it attractive to stay with the company.

About a year after I returned to Dow, a corporate decision was made to close the remote Walnut Creek, CA R&D lab where I and the recycled plastics team worked. I made a pitch to them to allow me to start a plastics recycling company inside of Dow. After serious consideration, they ultimately said no and offered me a promotion to move to Midland, MI or Freeport, TX. I said no because I wanted to try to see my dream turn into reality. This was a very scary step because I started off by myself – again – but on my own and without knowing where it might lead.

What have been the greatest challenges that you have encountered in your career?

The first was having the “guts” to go out on my own as I had enjoyed very successful and rapidly progressing careers in large organizations (GE, Cummins Dow) up until then. If it weren’t for the “serendipity” discussed above, I might have stayed in comfy corporate America and perhaps achieved less breakthroughs in technology and business.

The most difficult lesson I had to learn was to hire other highly experienced people to help. There were at least three reasons why it took me a while to learn this lesson:

1. I was afraid of spending too much money as it “cost” a lot to raise funding so I worked 70-90 hours EVERY week trying to do everything myself
2. Like many entrepreneurs, I thought for quite some time that nobody could ever have the passion, work ethic or knowledge that I had
3. The first few people I tried to hire from industry were horrible failures as they were used to a support system

Once I got over 1 and 2 and found people that had worked both for large organizations and start-ups and knew what a start-up was all about, I quickly realized HUGE benefits such as:

• Seeing the company take off much more quickly
• Finding new opportunities that I hadn’t seen because I didn’t have the perspective, the time or both
• Finding new solutions for the same reasons
• Allowing me to focus on the things at which I did best rather than trying to do everything

The company and team members were much better after I realized this and brought in some experienced, motivated and key “partners”

Do you believe leaders and innovators have certain qualities that they all share? If so, what?

Every leader, entrepreneur and innovator crosses the “valley of death” as it is often called in their own ways, but I think there are some important characteristics that help them complete a successful journey, such as:

• Persistence and tenacity, per the Edison quote above: ““Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”
• Thick-skin as leaders are the ones with all of the arrows in their backs and investors and others will offer reams of criticism
• Optimism helps a great deal with the first two
• Thrifty and creative with resources – because you never have enough
• Willingness to bring on others smarter and more experienced – this is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL in both my observations and personal experience per the previous question.

How would you most like to change the world through your work?

Firstly, I am encouraged that we have now demonstrated that the world can make a large amount of the plastics we use every day in a better way. We are already starting to save enormous amounts of energy, CO2 and other pollutants from entering our environment. Additionally, we have provided a pathway to keep plastics from destroying our marine environment as discussed above.

But beyond this, I have the bigger hope that my journey will help give others the confidence to take that first step to “change the world”.
I believe that this award is a big step in that direction in that it shines a light on so many amazing projects and people that are helping to make our world a better place each and every day. I am humbled to be among the finalists.

Finally, I am now trying to leverage my own decades of experiences to help others accelerate their own journeys from ideas to impact! I feel that I can now have a bigger impact helping a wide variety of other companies realize their missions and am starting to work with many CleanTech entrepreneurs around the world.  

Follow us

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google+ icon
LinkedIn icon
instagram icon

Copyright @ The World Technology Network. All Rights Reserved Back to Top

Back to Top