By Grant F. Smith

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Making More Waste out of Trash at Project Re-cycle Multi-Site

Virginia has been such a good friend to me personally and the company I work with. I would like to make every effort to have the new company in Virginia… I am sure you will find the proper way to encourage that… Yehuda Pearl, Blue & White Foods[1]

The United States produces so much plastic waste that for a long time it exported large amounts of it to China and Indonesia. China was particularly adept at creating a new industry of plastic recyclers to take in some seven million tons of plastic waste per year. There were synergies. On the West Coast, there were plenty of empty shipping containers that had delivered goods from China. With a growing domestic plastic recycling industry, Chinese brokers were happy to buy plastic trash to ship back across the Pacific Ocean for recycling.

But huge piles of U.S. plastic trash that was too tainted to recycle started piling up in landfills and being illegally dumped near China’s east coast. So, in January of 2018 the Chinese government banned plastic waste imports. Shipments of plastic started going to South East Asian countries that had no ability to recycle it, so much of it is simply burned.[2]

Large amounts of the most valuable and easy to recycle plastic waste goes into the trash. That is because only 50 percent of Americans have an option to recycle that is as easy as simply throwing plastic away. So, the core U.S. problem is too much plastic trash, and too little culture of plastic recycling, which is a learned behavior that can be incentivized. The U.S. could handle more of its own plastic trash if Americans would recycle plastic waste accumulating in their homes. But that requires taking the time to sort out the plastic.

In Virginia, VIAB and its network think the opportunities created by this environmental crisis should go to Israel. Like other VIAB portfolio projects, heavy state subsidies and insider benefits framed the secret project from the beginning.

VIAB announced “Project Re-cycle Multi-site” in the following way in its 2018 annual report:

Multi-site Company recycles 95% of municipal waste and converts it to a new material that can be used for nearly every application plastic is used including building materials. The process eliminates the need for landfills. The company visited Virginia several times and is contemplating establishing its U.S. headquarter here as well as its first U.S. recycling facility. It will require several plants to serve the entire state. Expected jobs for HQ and initial plant 120 – 1-2 years.

There was little need for code-name cloak and dagger. There is only one Israeli company claiming to be able to turn garbage into plastic.

The tiny plastic company is based in Kibbutz Tze’elim in the Negev desert. In 1947 Kibbutz Tze’elim was a tiny isolated, fenced outpost with plenty of flat terrain to host a military airstrip. That airstrip was a tiny bit of takeover infrastructure. Pilots flew out of Kibbutz Tze’elim to fight in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, triggering the Palestinian “Nakba” or “disaster” of displacement and ethnic cleansing.

Today Kibbutz Tze’elim is tiny, with a population of less than 500. The area is the beneficiary of considerable U.S. largesse demanded by Israel’s U.S. lobby. For example, in 2005 the U.S. paid $45 million for Israel to build the Urban Warfare Training Center at the Tze'elim Army Base. The 7.4 square mile center trains U.S. army and UN peacekeepers. It was built because of unfinished business with the Palestinians. In 2005, the IDF wanted to hone its military capabilities against mostly defenseless Palestinians following the Second Intifada. The second Palestinian intifada, or “uprising” against Israel began in September of 2000 after Ariel Sharon toured the Temple Mount accompanied by a contingent of riot police. As expected, it touched off a deadly exchange.

Out of this enclave emerges UBQ, a company with less than 30 employees. It was founded in 2012 by Rabbi Yehuda Pearl and Jack Bigio.  Pearl is the founder of the Sabra hummus brand. Bigio works in renewable energy. Unlike AquaMaof, UBQ does not appear to hold any U.S. patents for its allegedly revolutionary garbage to plastic process. But it does have high expectations for vast amounts of Virginia government support to launch its headquarters and manufacturing operations in Virginia.

In August of 2019 UBQ announced a new partnership with the Central Virginia Waste Management authority (CVWM). CVWM agreed to purchase 2,000 recycling bins, all with UBQ printed in prominent white lettering. CVWM will then distribute the bins for bottle, can and wastepaper recycling across the region. The bins were made, according to UBQ, with its proprietary garbage to plastic industrial process.

The deal follows a VIAB-funded junket to Israel that took state Senate Majority Leader Tom Norment and House Minority Leader Eileen Filler Corn to Israel in Spring of 2018. From Yehuda Pearl’s perspective, it is now Norment’s job to deliver state funding for UBQ to transfer its headquarters and a plant to Virginia. Pearl told Norment:

Virginia has been such a good friend to me personally and the company I work with. I would like to make every effort to have the new company in Virginia… I am sure you will find the proper way to encourage that…

Norment was not randomly selected by VIAB for the junket or announcement. He sits on a special legislative subcommittee that decides the recipient and size of state financial incentives. UBQ CEO Jack “Tato” Bigio is asking for the not insignificant amount of $80 million for a plant he claims could create 250 jobs.

Will the gatekeepers to such capital, private and public, go for it?

A strict look at the market is not promising. Like most American states, Virginia’s issue isn’t creating more plastic. It’s getting rid of and recycling the plastic it already has. That starts with getting more recycling bins (whether metal, wood or composite material) out to Virginians and incentivizing them to sort their recyclable plastic out of the waste stream.

The UBQ distributed bins are commodities. Virginia already has such bins, but what it needs most—like the rest of America, is a culture of recycling. It is also unclear whether UBQ actually possesses a cost-effective, revolutionary process for turning non-plastic waste into plastic. Could it, like other VIAB project with generic industrial processes, merely be attempting to break into Virginia’s already established, but growing, plastic recycling industry? And if UBQ does have a revolutionary non-plastic waste to plastic conversion technology, is it competitive with existing petro-chemical plastic production? If not, will UBQ become reliant on taxpayer subsidies to operate a non-cost competitive plant? Virginians would do well to get clear answers to these questions.

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[1] Martz, Michael, “Va. Showcases new Israeli technology, hope economic investment follows” Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 29, 2019