On his voyages as a merchant navy officer, Simon Bernard saw the extent of plastic pollution poisoning oceans, ecosystems, and mankind. The visionary is now launching Plastic Odyssey, a three-year expedition on the world’s first vessel to be fueled by plastic waste. “The mission’s ultimate goal is a world without plastic,” Simon said in an interview with Balkan Green Energy News ahead of speaking at this week’s Transition Monaco Forum.
An estimated one million birds, 100,000 marine mammals, sea turtles, and countless fish die each year when they become trapped in plastic or eat it. At sea, plastic microparticles are responsible for the contamination of seafood. At the same time, the production of plastic is continuous, running down the world’s oil reserves.
Simon Bernard used to sail on container and cruise ships around South America, Asia, and Africa, where he saw the extent of plastic pollution. Now his startup, Plastic Odyssey, is going to revisit the three continents, which are most affected by plastic pollution, to promote low-tech reuse and recycling solutions.
“The idea is to set sail at the end of 2020,” Simon says. Like many before us, we ask him if the vessel will collect its fuel – waste plastic – as it sails, but he explains this is not possible – the majority of the plastic waste in the oceans disintegrates into microparticles that sink to the bottom and are impossible to collect.
The solution, therefore, is to stop plastic pollution on the coasts, by reducing, reusing, recycling, and recovering energy from plastic that cannot be recycled.
Crowdsourcing, open-source solutions to meet real needs of people
Plastic Odyssey is developing low-tech and open-source technologies to valorize plastic waste. These solutions are based on existing technologies that have already proven to be successful as far as sorting, recycling, and pyrolysis are concerned.
However, they have to be improved and adapted to be mobile, budget-friendly, easy to produce and to repair. Blueprints will be available online so that everyone can have access to them freely, according to the startup’s website.
“The idea is to disrupt the way of profit-making thinking and focus on solutions that can evolve and meet real needs of people in each country” where the expedition will stop over, Simon says.
The first technology the startup is focusing on concerns plastic sorting, followed by recycling and reuse and finally pyrolysis to obtain diesel and gasoline from plastic waste that cannot be recycled.
Plastic Odyssey is calling for a change in our consumption patterns, stopping the use of packaged products and choosing sustainable alternatives, such as bioplastics and edible packaging.
Meanwhile, it is promoting transitional solutions – reusing plastic for example by creating fabric made of woven plastic bags and recycling plastic into materials such as plastic bricks and roof tiles.
At the bottom of the pyramid is the recovery of energy that plastic contains to replace virgin fossil fuels for example in district heating and transportation.
Pyrolysis produces polluting fuels but is preferable to extracting virgin oil
Pyrolysis is not a polluting process, though its products – diesel and gasoline – are, so the hope is there will be no plastic in the future from which to obtain these fuels. In the meantime, however, obtaining diesel and gasoline from plastic is still preferable to extracting virgin fossil fuels, Simon says.
To test pyrolysis under real operating conditions, gain visibility and credibility, and onboard new partners, Plastic Odyssey has built a 6-meter long demonstration boat. Named Ulysse, it’s the first boat to be equipped with a plastic-to-fuel unit.
Plastic Odyssey will also have an onboard pyrolysis unit, allowing for the production of between 30 and 40 liters of fuel per hour.
The vessel will carry researchers who will study local cultures, needs, and use of plastics and initiate the construction of small local recycling units and waste reduction initiatives, keeping in mind its ultimate mission – a world without plastic.
L’Occitane en Provence is the startup’s main partner and Clarins and Matmut its official sponsors. Plastic Odyssey is in the process of signing up the remaining sponsors to support its cause.