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Startup Stories: Halocycle

Startup Stories: Halocycle Startup Stories

Recycling the unrecyclable: Halocycle vs. the plastic waste problem

Halocycle is leading the charge against the plastic waste problem by developing a technology to recycle Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), a material previously only mechanically recyclable at large scale. I’m speaking to Yorkshire-based Henrietta Boyd, the co-founder and director at Halocycle. We talk about her path into entrepreneurship, the challenges and opportunities in tackling plastic waste, the ups and downs of fundraising, Halocycle's innovative approach to solving the PVC problem, and her advice for aspiring founders.


How did you get into entrepreneurship?

Henrietta: My journey began with a degree in marine biology, and a PhD in zoology which was quite quantitative. All along, I've been very interested in conservation. After first working in finance, I moved into the climate change sphere which was still new and quite unregulated. These were very much startups, and while some people were doing amazing things, other’s approach, I knew, was just never going to work. So, ultimately, I thought, “Let's have a go and do this ourselves!”


How did the idea for Halocycle come about?

Henrietta: My co-founder John and I worked together on another project. One day, he said to me: "If you ever want to start anything, I'm in." John is the world’s foremost microwave process engineer, and we knew we wanted to bring this technology to plastic recycling, but we didn't know how exactly. We thought, either we review all the different technologies out there and then light upon one, or we start with something no one else wants to touch – like PVC. We realised there were lots of advantages for us in dealing with PVC, but there were problems because it couldn't be recycled yet. It feels like we're starting with the difficult bit that no one else is doing.


“I don’t think plastic itself is the enemy. I think it’s an amazing product and has completely changed the way we live. We just need to deal with it more responsibly.”


What is the problem you want to tackle?

Henrietta: Everybody knows about plastic waste and the problem it poses. Everybody's heard about it; everybody's seen it. But I don’t think plastic is the enemy. I think it's an amazing product and has completely changed the way we live. It's cheap to produce, lightweight, strong, doesn't degrade in sunlight, waterproof, resistant to chemicals. All those properties are what make it persist in the environment - the very things that make it useful are the things that cause issues. The problem is the way we treat plastic at its end of life. What people don't tend to know is that what we diligently put in our recycling doesn't necessarily get recycled. Oftentimes, it gets shipped off elsewhere from where it leaks into the environment.

Specifically, PVC is about 20% of all plastic manufactured. When PVC is advanced recycled (i.e., when you break the chains in the polymers), you end up with an acidic byproduct – hydrochloric acid (HCl). HCl and metallic processing equipment don't mix, so you end up ruining your processing equipment.


What does your solution look like?

Henrietta: It’s not difficult to turn plastic back into oil and gas – enterprising people have done it in their garden sheds!  You need to heat the plastic in the absence of oxygen, and this breaks the plastic down. It’s easy to do at a small scale, but once you get to industrial volume, you can’t get the heat in because plastic is a good thermal insulator.  We are using microwave heating, so we are not trying to force heat in, but the feedstock heats up from the inside out.  This gives us much more control over the process, and we undertake the reaction in a cool surrounding environment – so we're not dealing with the hot acid offtake and the processing equipment doesn’t get damaged. 

Everybody else picks PVC out of the waste stream, so it doesn't damage their processing equipment, but it ends up going to landfill at a large cost. For us, that means it's already segregated, ready to be recycled by us.

An example is cable coating, made of PVC. People strip the coating off cables to recover the wires. The remaining cable coating is granulated and has to be disposed of somehow. That means there are mountains of cable granules sitting there, ready to be dealt with – a perfect feedstock for us!


What were the biggest challenges so far?

Henrietta: We founded the company in January 2020, which was spectacularly bad timing. We were about to do some test work in the lab at Nottingham University in the week of the first lockdown. But of course, everything shut down and we couldn't carry on.

We thought, fine, no problem; we'll apply for a grant. So, we applied for government grants, which took a lot of work and months to apply for. We did our first grant application, and since we had no money, I funded it myself. We applied twice and got very close each time. To get it over the line, we ended up employing a professional grant writer but actually scored lower than before.

So, I said: "That's it. No more. We're going to get some investment because this is crazy." Writing the grant applications stops you from actually innovating. That was when we came to SFC and received investment really quickly. We used this first round of funding for the test work at the university and the IP protection. That put us in a better position for grant funding, so in the follow-on round, we did get a grant.


“The gap between expectations and reality has become more manageable.”


What’s your route to market?

Henrietta: All along, we've been building relationships with the problem holders, such as the recyclers, waste handlers, retailers, and brands. After the test work, and with the latest funding round, we're now moving to build the pilot plant. This is a small-scale unit but very similar to a commercial one, in an industrial environment with real waste streams.

We're already partnering with waste handlers who handle blister packs, cable granules, and automotive shredder residue. Before we actively go out to the waste handlers, we want to get our product built and do some testing first. However, potential clients who need to recycle PVC are already approaching us.

People are becoming more aware of the idea of a circular economy for plastics than ever before. So, the gap between expectations and reality has become more manageable.

We're agile and don't really want to become an infrastructure company that moves the waste around itself. The waste already gets moved around, so we can just go to where the problem is. That's the plan.


Are there any plans to grow the team?

Henrietta: We thought about hiring two people on the back of this fundraising round. But we were really lucky to have found Andy, our Senior Process Engineer. He's more senior than what we were initially looking for but had an appetite to come into a startup. So, instead of hiring two more junior people, we just have Andy now.

We're not looking at any more hires yet, but as soon as we've got actual equipment on the ground, we may need another person. At the same time, the waste handlers all have process engineers and are keen to work with us, lending some of their process engineering expertise.


“The waste handlers said they would bite our arm off.”


How will the market change?

Henrietta: At the moment, the waste stream has a negative value, so waste handlers have to pay to get rid of it. With the advance of recycling, though, it’s ultimately a valuable feedstock for the chemical industry. So, I think, the value will eventually go up, like what has happened with MDF, which can now be recycled. That means, instead of being a cost, there will be some value to it.

Already, when we say to waste handlers we will be working towards a zero gate fee, the waste handlers said they would bite our arm off because, at the moment, disposal of the waste is costing them so much.


Where do you see Halocycle in the next five to ten years?

Henrietta: At the moment, we're small and agile. We could either start processing lots of different waste streams for PVC like blister packs, cable granules, automotive shredder waste, etc., or we could shift to other polymers. It’s hard to know but there is certainly plenty of the problem to go around.

I’m just very immersed in the problem of plastic waste. When I first started looking at this, I thought everybody should be working on climate change because it’s the biggest problem right now. I couldn’t believe that other people were working on other things. When I started looking at the plastic problem, I thought: “Well, is this really a big enough problem?” But the more you learn about it, the more you realise it’s a massive problem!

One of our directors recently found herself sounding like me. She is a vet and was talking to someone taking some waste from the surgery and said it would be recycled. She looked at them and said “I bet it isn’t,” and then realised “I’m starting to sound like Ettie.” In the UK, if the waste makes it to the mixed recycling facility, it’s counted in the statistics as recycled – even if it is shipped off somewhere else and goes to landfill! When there are still things like this happening, you know there's still a huge mountain to climb.


What’s your advice to founders who are just starting out?

Henrietta: Everyone says it's hard – and it is hard! So, keep going. And you're not on your own. There's a whole industry that's sprung up around supporting startups, so you can go and find some of those people.

Then, I would probably say, read Brené Brown. She's excellent! Much of her work rings true and is relatable. I watched her TED Talk on the power of vulnerability, which went viral, and was the turning point in her career. She speaks about leadership, and all her findings are research-based, which appeals to me. 

Lastly, you can't know everything. Don't beat yourself up about it. There was so much I didn't know. Even though I've got a finance background, there's so much I didn't know about raising a round, for example. If our chairman wasn't a seasoned angel investor and chairman, we'd have struggled a lot more. So, get good people on your board!

Niklas Föltz Niklas Föltz
Marketing & Communications Manager