Arqlite: Turning Plastic Into Gravel

This week on Sea Change Radio, we learn about a small, innovative company that is recycling all sorts of plastics and turning them into gravel. We speak to the founder and CEO, Sebastián Sajoux about the technology and mission of his company, Arqlite. Then, as the sunny days roll on this summer, we thought it worth revisiting our 2018 conversation with Craig Downs of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory about the havoc that far-too-many sunscreens wreak on fragile marine ecosystems.

Narrator  0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Sebastián Sajoux  0:16 And of course this is not easy with it took us five years to develop the technology. But now Yeah, we can tell that we turn trash into into a long lasting sustainable product.

Narrator  0:29  This week on Sea Change Radio, we learn about a small innovative company that’s recycling all sorts of plastics and turning them into gravel. We speak to the founder and CEO Sebastián Sajoux about the technology and mission of his company Arqlite. Then, as the sunny days roll on this summer, we thought it worth revisiting our 2018 conversation with Craig downs of the heretical environmental laboratory, about the havoc that far too many sunscreens wreak on fragile marine ecosystems.

Alex Wise  1:21  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by the founder and CEO of Arqlite. Sebastián Sajoux. Sebastián, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Sebastián Sajoux – Hey, Alex, thank you very much. Thanks for having me here.

Alex Wise – So we’ll get into the technology in a second, Sebastián. But first, what’s the mission of Arc Light?

Sebastián Sajoux 1:38  Well, our mission is to tackle plastic pollution. So we work on developing technologies to to achieve this. And we do it by partnering with bigger organizations, by industry leaders, but also with a society. I don’t know if you’re aware, but every time you drop a piece of plastic on the beam, half of that it’s still going to end up in a landfill or incineration on the worst case, you know, in the water Corps and contaminating the, the environment. So that 50% of plastics that no one wants, that’s our raw material. And our first product that it’s the one we’re producing here in California, it’s a smart gravel that replaces mineral and gravel in a variety of applications, right? We count on everyone, every everyone going out there and buying a bag of artists, smart gravel is automatically deviating all those pounds of plastics from the environment.

Alex Wise  2:45  And you have kind of a multi stage rollout plan for it when he kind of explained right now you’re going to be available for smaller consumer purchases, but it’s going to be ramping up to bigger construction scale soon, right?

Sebastián Sajoux 3:00  Yeah, totally. So when when we started working on this solution, we were aiming for a large scale solution for a large scale problem. That’s why we got to this idea of making gravel right so gravel has a great variety of applications and very different markets. from let’s say, starting from the from the bigger markets, you have concrete companies are interested in making light concrete, so they replace a mirror and gravel in the concrete mix by our gravel to get lighter materials and also the better insulated capacity of plastics in there, while also being able to offer green concrete to their their customers. Then you have like midsize markets, like the for example, hydroponic growers that are using our gravel as a replacement of expanded clay, because it’s a great growth media for for that for those systems. And then we also offer it on smaller bags or retail. It’s already on the big box retailers for small home gardening projects for also small hydroponics projects and also small contractors using the gravel. So you’ll see online on the big retailers and and you can also see that you’d maybe you know on a on a big sandbox concrete practices on the road.

Alex Wise  4:28  Now let’s dive into the process of upcycling that Arqlite has developed, why don’t you kind of walk us through how it might work from somebody using a plastic container that gets rejected by their waste management company and how it might get into your company’s hands and how you utilize it.

Sebastián Sajoux 4:52  Yeah, sure. So we get the plastics from two main we have like two main streams one is both industrial That is manufacturers of different types of plastics that are in the, that there are non recyclable. And for that I could say, potato chips, bags, I don’t know cookies wrappers for, for energy bars, all those films that we see on on the products that we eat, for example every day, because they are they have several layers of different plastics that protect the you know the product for a longer time. So, they were really born on recyclable. So the more that say, even environmentally aware companies manufacturing these materials, they don’t want to send all this crap on the left over to a landfill, so they send it to us. And same thing happens on the post consumer side where we partner with MERS and with other recyclers that are picking the good plastics that have a commodity value, and then they have no other toys and sending those plastics to to the other the remaining plastics to to a landfill, right. So we do offer that as a service. So it’s pretty, pretty special, because we have a double revenue model where we charge for the solution. And we compete again, against a landfill. And we offer a price competitive option and a sustainable option at the end of the day. Once we just have to give you a general idea of what happens with those classes. When we when they get here. we classify them, we grind all the plastic, we clean them, we remove any leftovers of organics or any other contaminants that they may have. And then we heat them keep them really high temperatures to remove any other bacteria. So we sterilize the plastic. And at the end of the day, at the end of the process, you get this growl, which is sterilized and that assures that it will be long lasting, that you won’t Leach anything that it won’t break down into microplastics. And of course it is not easy with it took us five years to develop the technology. But now Yeah, we can tell that we turn trash into a long lasting sustainable product.

Alex Wise  7:17  And in terms of application is it is this gravel different than other gravel like can it not be used on in highways etc?

Sebastián Sajoux  7:27  Well, the main difference is there are two main difference one is weight, right? This is very, very light. So compared to mineral gravel that is really heavy, we can offer that benefit. And that’s of course useful. If you’re looking for that if you want to do for example, like concrete, then you want to replace mineral gravel with our gravel. But if you are looking for, for example compressive strength, then you want to go for mineral gravel standard grow because there’s nothing you know, harder than that. So we offer flexibility, which is very much appreciated in civil engineering applications, lightweight and great insulation. So depending on the use you want to do for it, then for example, there’s fuel, just buying the gravel because as going to the store, grabbing, you know, a 50 liter or a big bag of gravel, it’s very heavy, it’s very difficult to transport to handle anyone to install, it’s dirty. And when you buy our smart gravel, you can carry a couple of bags and BOC three times lighter, it’s clean, and at the end of the day you’re helping the environment. So that’s kind of depending on on what you’re doing, how you will be able to benefit from it. And in terms of procuring the plastics, you mentioned how you can get like these films that might get thrown away otherwise how do you compete with like the landfills for these products?

Alex Wise  9:02  How do you ensure that you can get a steady flow steady supply of these recyclable plastics?

Sebastián Sajoux 9:09  Well, first of all, economics we charge less than a landfill. So that’s one of the main difference between our technologies and other technologies out there were very cost efficient, so doesn’t mean driver and also companies sending those plastics us besides maybe saving a penny they get access to incentives to subsidies or you know tax credits or other benefits that are associated with their with their industry because they are improving their sustainability metrics. So it’s, it’s a win, however you look at it.

Alex Wise  9:48  So the gravel itself can be used for what exactly is this something that people would put into their gardens or their driveways or what?

Sebastián Sajoux  9:58  Well just to mention a couple of applications when, if let’s say you you’re growing hydroponics with a hydroponic system, you use expanded clay as a growth media. So the plants will grab from the expanded clay and they will grow feeding from the water that runs through that expanded clay. If you replace that expanded clay, which is a traditional system with our gravel, then you’ll get a clean system because these gravel hours our gravel won’t break down into smaller parts are wandering and dust keeping all the systems clean. And on top of that, because it’s not porous. If you ever get like some type of pest in the in the water, you just remove it, wash it, and you can reuse it many times compared to expanded clay where you will need to just toss all the expanded clay and buy a new batch and install it again. So that’s for example hydroponics. And then home gardening, the most traditional use is to help avoid root rot, which is something very common among people that love gardening. And so you want if you set a layer of smart gravel at the bottom of your pots, then you will allow the water to drain more efficiently out of the pot and your plants will grow bigger and healthier. So that’s that’s for the most common home applications. reflection is shows with crackpots.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  12:32  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Sebastián Sajoux. He is the founder and CEO of Arqlite, people can go to,to check it out. So Sebastián, you were mentioning how you have different product offerings at a different scale level on the horizon? Are there any plans for your company to expand the range of plastics that can be recycled?

Sebastián Sajoux 13:01  So the crazy thing here is that we are already resizing every type of plastic. So that the the magic of the technologies that we can mix everything together and turn that into a new plastic polymer that we can mold into different things. So maybe the challenge is not adding new plastics, but adding new products to the to the products that we are offering. So because we’re already related in and working a lot with the construction industry, with landscapers in and architects and urban developers, we’re still we’re really working on new product for for those categories, like other fibers to be used for concrete blocks for emergency housing, and ready mix concrete. So you can make a light and eco friendly ready mix at home. So there are other things that we’re working in partnership with, with bigger companies that are leaders in the market.

Alex Wise  14:07  And can you kind of give us a snapshot of the competitive landscape. You have your own technology, but there are other companies that take plastic and use it for industrial purposes. Do you work directly with the waste management company or not?

Sebastián Sajoux 14:24  Well, yes, we work with them. Because we The process begins with a with an analysis of the plastics available, the amount of plastic they have, how contaminated they are. So we do tailor a solution for them, and then work on a long term agreement so we can both get benefited from from the relationship. And I would say that at this point, we are the only ones taking these unrecyclable or let’s say hard to recycle plastics and processing them at a rate of one ton per hour. And turning that into an efficient product for a massive market. So we have covered all the all the angles, because we have a good technology, we have a market that doesn’t generate any bottleneck for the product, which is sometimes something that affects great ideas, because then the market is maybe not ready for for the final product, resulting of a great technology. And the other thing would be the low cost, because all other technologies out there, which are great, like really, really amazing, like the polymer ice and the plastics and, and other things like that, then they are still in a lab scale. And they’re very, very expensive. So it’s still you know, they’re a little bit green yet. And they are where we were five years ago when we started.

Alex Wise  15:48  So if people are interested in this technology, and they want to invest in it somehow or get involved, how can they do that, Sebastián?

Sebastián Sajoux 15:57  Well, we are now offering people willing to have a more active role on this type of solution, the possibility to own a part of the technology by participating on our we funder campaign. We’ve been there for four weeks already. And we’re close to the final goal. And we think it’s a good way of, you know, engaging and building the community we want to build.


Alex Wise  16:19  He’s the CEO and founder of Arqlite, and people can go to to learn more. Sebastián Sajoux – Sebastián, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Sebastián Sajoux – Thanks to you, Alex. My pleasure.


Alex Wise  16:47  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Craig Downs. Craig is the executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. Craig, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Craig Downs – Thank you for having me, Alex, I appreciate it.

Alex Wise – So for our listeners, what is the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, it’s a great name, maybe give us a little bit of the background of that.

Craig Downs 17:08  All right, we are a 501 c three nonprofit science and education organization. We do pretty much pro bono forensic investigations around the world for people and environments that can’t defend themselves. So we’ll look at coral reefs to wetlands that are dying, nobody knows what they’re dying from, and we’ll figure out what they’re dying from. And then we will work with grassroots organizations all the way up to international NGOs and governments to change the condition of that environment or population.

Alex Wise  17:47  And where does the name Haereticus come from?

Craig Downs  17:50  Haereticus comes from the Greek word heresy or heretic. And it originally means to once you know something, you can choose to do something. So an oil executive that we were working with told me that if we were to begin to do pro bono cases, that we would be a heretic to the industry. And I liked that concept so much that that’s what we named our organization.

Alex Wise  18:20  So you’ve been working on research and, and trying to raise awareness of the role that sunscreen is playing certain sunscreens are playing in killing off coral reefs? Why don’t you first explain what types of sunscreens we’re looking at and maybe give us kind of the beginnings of the research, if you will.

Craig Downs  18:42  So we were tasked back in 2005 2006 by the US National Park Service, to begin figuring out why certain coral reefs are dying and not recovering. In one of their national parks, the Virgin Islands National Park and St. John US Virgin Islands. And one of the most famous beaches trunk Bay, we discovered that it was sunscreen pollution as the dominant stressor that was killing the reef and suppressing the restoration of that reef. And when we sample the water, one of the most prominent chemicals out of our assessment was the chemical oxy benzo and at the time, oxybenzone was in almost every sunscreen out there, it was the dominant UV protector in banana bow, Coppertone and everybody was using it. So we found that oxybenzone and sunscreen pollution all over the world in places such as Palau, Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Spain, Israel, Persian Gulf, so it’s, it’s all over the place and it’s, it’s not on every single coral reef in the world, but it’s on coral reefs where people go, it’s on coral reefs. It’s important for tourism. The sunscreen pollution is a symptom of unmanaged or unsustainable tourism. And that’s one of the big take home lessons out of this whole topic is tourism is what starts it, and tourism can fix it. Meaning that sustainable tourism can be implemented. And people can enjoy these coral reefs, they can participate in these reason in these natural resources, if they do certain precautionary measures, such as so there, there are at least three things that we can think of as a precautionary measure, you need to protect yourself from the sun. So public health is critical. You need to protect yourself from UV radiation. But oxy bends on sunscreen, which is one of the most dangerous of the chemicals in in sunscreen pollution doesn’t have to be a part of that solution. It’s I mean, it doesn’t have to be a part of that problem. So the first thing we recommend is to cover up if you’re going to be out on the reef and you’re going to be swimming where a sun shirt, it doesn’t have to be a tight rash guard, there are a whole bunch of companies out there, Mach 50 lands and j crew that sell looser fitting shirts, then surfer rash guards that you can wear in the water, and then go up to the beach with it and go up to the cafe with a cabana and wear it on you and not have to lose the protection against UV radiation as well as being able to reduce your sunscreen pollution load by 50%. If you’re wearing a sun shirt that has sleeves, that means you’re not putting sunscreen, lotion on your body in that area. That 50% reduction or more is a big conservation deal. It’s a major conservation tool. The second thing you can do is to wear sunscreens that don’t contain some of these more toxic chemicals such as oxybenzone a Tennessee or contain preservatives like butyl parabens or propyl paradin or methyl carbon. parabens are actually endocrine disruptors. And many invertebrates use methyl periban as a pheromone. So the presence of these parabens are pretty bad. They’re endocrine disruptors. And they can cause a loss of populations from prohibiting the development of a number of invertebrates in that area. invertebrates like shrimp like sea urchins, Christmas tree worms, there are about 1000 more organisms on any given coral reef, especially invertebrate organisms than just coral. sea urchins are big deal. sea stars are a big deal, feather worms, sea cucumbers, crabs, shrimp, the whole ecosystem there. The whole ecosystem, especially the invertebrates are susceptible to these chemicals. So wearing sunscreen lotions that don’t contain these chemicals, again, is a big conservation tool in mitigating that pollution.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  23:54  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to Craig Downs of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. So Craig, when I first heard about Hawaii banning sunscreens and I want to dive into that in a second. My first reaction was, well, how can just the small amount of lotion that we may slather on to our bodies affect a coral reef which is can be many, many 1000s of square feet and has the ocean tides coming in and out. And when you think of the volume of water versus the amount of even the most pernicious sunscreen, it seems like a small amount. But you and your team have come across some interesting data that shows that even these small, relatively small amounts matter quite a bit, don’t they?

Craig Downs  24:43  Yes. And so there’s it’s a really good question. And there’s a number of perspectives associated with that question. First of all, you don’t put on a little bit of sunscreen to protect yourself. That’s actually a clinic problem called sunscreen abuse, an average person wearing a bikini or normal sized swim trunks, they need to put on about 36 grams of sunscreen every hour and a half, and then reapply. And so if you’re putting 36 grams of sunscreen in your normal size person and you’re getting in the water, and you’re in the water for four hours, you know, you’re looking at about 72 grams of sunscreen. That’s just you. Now multiply that by 500 to 1000 people getting into the water in that day, every single day. It adds up. And oxy Ben zone is a persistent organic pollutant, it will hang around from 90 days to two and a half years. It doesn’t break down and the tides don’t wash it away. Hmm, well, not really. I mean, you got something called retention and especially if you’re in a bay or Lagoon, that water’s kept in that place, that’s where the coral reefs are. And that’s where people want to swim. If it was a offshore coral reef, seeing lots of heavy current and a lot of waves, you’re not going to get a lot of people swimming there in the coral reef at sea. A lot of people are these fringing reefs, fringing reefs or resets surround the coastline that are on the coastline. And they can get up right to the beach,

Alex Wise  26:25  Craig, maybe you can tell our listeners some ways that they might be able to take action to help the cause of banning these harmful sunscreen ingredients.

Craig Downs 26:34  One of the easiest ways they can get involved is they can go to And we have a citizens position a citizens petition to the Food and Drug Administration asking the FDA to re review the safety of oxybenzone and octinoxate. And if we can get 1500 signatures from US citizens, what we’re hoping to do is to provide that petition to a Congresswoman or a senator. And to personally then give that petition over to Commissioner Gottlieb of the US Food and Drug Administration to let the FDA know that we’re serious that the American people don’t want to be poisoned anymore unnecessarily. And it’s not just you know, people are being spoon exposed not just from cosmetic products. It’s in our food and all that sunscreen, all that oxybenzone is getting in the fish that we it’s getting into the plants that we eat. It’s getting into the water we drink. So it’s it’s now a universal environmental contaminant, and we really need to do something about it.

Alex Wise  27:53  Craig Downs is the executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. Craig, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Craig Downs – Thank you very much.

Narrator 28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Temptations, Radiohead and the Ka’Au Crater Boys. Check out our website at Sea Change Radio. to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.