By: Steve Toloken
August 20, 2013
Using recycled plastic in buildings is a focus — some might say an obsession — for Taiwanese architectural firm Miniwiz Sustainable Development Co. Ltd.
The company designed and built what could be the largest structure in the world clad in recycled plastic: a nine-story exhibition hall in Taipei called the EcoArk, with walls made of 1.5 million PET bottles.
It's working on other buildings using recycled plastic, including the headquarters and factory for an electronic waste recycling company in Taiwan, Super Dragon Technology Co. Ltd., being built with waste polymers from discarded computers and other electronic waste.
Now it would like to take its business model global.
Miniwiz founder Arthur Huang is an architect by background, but to call the 30-person company an architectural firm probably misses the point.
As much by accident as by design, it's become a specialist in the underserved niche of using waste plastics to improve the carbon footprint of buildings. There are a lot of opportunities there — a United Nations report said buildings are responsible for 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
"From every architectural project, we've always been looking at how to take the huge problem of polymer waste and combine that or use that as a solution for another huge problem, which is the energy consumption of the built environment," said business development manager Johann Boedecker.
To date, much of its work has been in Taiwan. But in an early August interview at their Taipei offices, Miniwiz managers talked of their plans to expand and find partners in the U.S. and China.
Miniwiz said part of its ability to make products and materials cost-effectively using recycled plastic comes from its network of suppliers in Taiwan, including recyclers, mold makers and processors like molders and extruders. It's now looking for partners to replicate a similar network in China and the U.S.
The company concedes that could be challenging.
Taiwan's sizable manufacturing industry and its well-developed recycling infrastructure create some advantages not often seen in other places, said material innovation director Christopher Yen. During the interview, Yen wore a T-shirt that said "No Virgins," referring to the company's philosophy of not using virgin materials.
For example, Taiwan recycles more than 90 percent of its PET bottles — compared with 29 percent in the U.S. and 52 percent in Europe — to create feedstocks for its large polyester-fiber industry. Smaller programs exist as well: 7-11 convenience stores in Taiwan pay consumers for used CDs and DVDs so they can recycle the polycarbonate.
"One of the luckiest things is, we live in Taiwan and Taiwan has a very large plastics industry that started in the 1950s and '60s, and because of that … the whole ecosystem allows us to recycle a lot better," said Yen. "Taiwan is a manufacturing powerhouse. It's easier for us to find someone to manufacture what we find."
But the company said it needs to push outside of Taiwan.
"We have a lot of plans for mobile factories, mobile recycling factories, local sourcing," said Boedecker. "Given for us that some of our most interesting clients are from America, manufacturing in China, we want to go to those two countries and we want to be able to replicate what we do here."
The company makes several recycled plastic products for the construction industry, including Polli-Bricks, a curtain wall system for buildings made from 100 percent recycled PET; Polli-Ber, a composite made from recycled polymers and agricultural waste; and Natrilon, a fiber made with 100 percent recycled PET and silicon dioxide from rice husks.
It also markets consumer products made from waste materials under its Miniwiz brand, such as iPhone cases, home shelving and sunglasses made from recycled CDs and carbonized waste rice husks.
But it was the Polli-Brick system and the EcoArk that really helped launch the company on its current path.
Miniwiz started in 2006 focused on renewable energy markets, but struggled to find its footing. Then, a 2009 meeting between Huang and senior executives of Taiwanese PET maker Far Eastern Group provided an opportunity.
Far Eastern had committed to building an exhibition center for a 2010 floral expo in Taiwan, and wanted to do something green. Huang pitched the Polli-Bricks, and Miniwiz built the US$4.2 million EcoArk, complete with space for a museum and exhibits and a waterfall for air conditioning.
The resulting building attracted a lot of media attention, including profiles on CNN and National Geographic. It helped cement a partnership between Far Eastern and Miniwiz, with the two companies working together on the Natrilon material, for example.
"We collaborate a lot with Far Eastern and find them to be very innovative, especially for a company of that size," said Boedecker.
Miniwiz said its business is profitable, but company officials said their model depends on a tight relationship with its plastics supply chain. Its staff is a mix of industrial designers, engineers and production specialists, in addition to architects.
"Each one of our projects are profitable but we definitely throw a lot more research and development into every single product," said Yen. "The human resource cost and the development cost is higher. Although we can make a profit off of it, we're not rolling in dough."
The company clearly wants to move forward with recycled plastic. It is part of a team with Nike picking up a gold IDEA award this month at the Industrial Designers Society of America's annual convention in Chicago. Miniwiz supplied the recycled materials and designed a Nike pavilion to promote its new Flyknit shoes.
But many times, outside of high-profile brands or companies committed to recycled materials, Miniwiz said it can still take a lot of convincing for others to see waste plastic as a viable solution.
Skeptics may see plastic as a fossil-fuel product that's not sustainable, or if they accept recycled polymers as eco-friendly, they're leery of potential quality problems from using it in their products.
"There's been at least a decade where what they call recycled materials have had a notorious reputation," said business development manager Eldad Ahrony. "For a long time, recycled materials were used for what they call bottom applications."
But Miniwiz wants to be a part of changing that.
"It comes back to the argument that we're not creating virgin materials," he said. "We're taking post-industrial or post-consumer materials and using them for new purposes. That's what we have to help people wrap their heads around."