Plastic has been called the miracle product. It’s cheap, versatile and virtually indestructible. Scientists and environmentalists warn we could be overdosing on it, but a Canadian entrepreneur is leading the fight to clean it up.
Michel Berthiaume is the co-founder of OceansUnited, a fledgling not-for-profit company that is focused solely on clearing out the plastics that have become ubiquitous in our oceans. He believes the research in the technology he helped fund will lead to cleaner oceans and a reduction of the amount of waste that gets dumped into them every day.
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“Well, it’s a catastrophe in my opinion,” Berthiaume told Global News. “It’s already into our food system as it is. And you know, how do we prevent it from getting worse?
“Obviously we have to stop the plastic from getting into the water. That’s number one.”
According to the United Nations, more than eight billion tons of plastic have been produced over the last 65 years, a mere nine per cent of which has been recycled. Eight million tons of plastic get dumped into the oceans annually.
The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050 the oceans will hold more plastic than fish.
“The reality is that right now about 40 per cent of all the plastic that is made is made for single-use items,” says Environmental Defence plastics program manager Vito Buonsante. “And that means that every time all this plastic waste produced is disposed of almost immediately.”
OceansUnited’s plan to make a difference is built around a technology called hydrothermal liquefaction, which uses extremely high temperatures to liquefy certain plastics and convert them into biofuel, which can then be turned into diesel fuel.
But the technology needed improving, so they spent millions having Canadian scientists find ways to make it more efficient. What they came up with was a system Berthiaume says can handle all types of plastic.
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“We wanted to be able to take all forms of plastic material and not have to do the traditional sorting, washing and drying of the items before it goes into these techniques or procedures that are out there,” he says. “It’s completely different than the traditional hydrothermal liquefaction.
“What we actually do is a filtration process… an eight-step process that actually comes out with an ISO sulfur-free diesel.”
He says one unit can convert 50 tonnes of plastic a day into what will eventually become over 43,000 litres of diesel fuel. Earlier this week they delivered their first unit to a Lagos, Nigeria environmental company, which has options to buy three more. The hope is that they will help create micro-economies where locals can gather trash and sell it.
The other part of the plan involves buying a giant catamaran car ferry, which will soon be put in drydock in England and get retrofitted with research labs and a giant conveyor belt, which will eat up plastics that in turn get fed into one of Berthiaume’s machines. Everything will be self-contained on the ship so it won’t have to waste time dumping garbage off in ports. And it’s mobile enough that it can go to disaster zones and be used as a means of turning waste into a much-needed resource, like fuel.
“We can sell the fuel, we can donate the fuel, we can use the fuel for disaster recovery areas, such as what’s happened recently in the Caribbean,” Berthiaume says. “One of the biggest problems is going to be delivery of fuel for people to be able to power the equipment to help with the cleanup.”
The goal is to have the first ship operational by April 22 next year – Earth Day. And with donations and proceeds from selling fuel they hope to eventually have five ships working on the open seas.
Not everybody is sold on the potential of hydrothermal liquefaction. Buonsante argues converting recovered plastics into another fossil fuel product doesn’t get us any closer to solving our waste issue.
“It is nothing else but a linear economy,” he says. “We are using plastics that are made from fossil fuels to make fuels. And that means that we will then need more plastics to be made, and to keep these machines to make more of this fuel.”
WATCH: (June 17, 2018) Plastic pollution crisis — How waste ends up in our oceans
Ultimately, the one issue environmentalists all agree on is the need to completely stop dumping garbage in waterways. As big as the garbage patches are, the more pressing problem is when the plastics break down to form microplastics – those tiny bits are often ingested by fish and have been found in large quantities embedded in arctic ice.
The biggest polluting countries are all in Asia, with China by far contributing the most. Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka round out the top five. Population size is the main factor, since none of those countries are listed in the top 10 for per capita waste generation. Topping off that list is Canada, with the U.S. not far behind.
“Unfortunately, plastic pollution is pervasive,” says Dr. Peter Ross of the Vancouver Aquarium. “It’s global in nature and the sources of all of these plastics in the ocean are manyfold. So the solution is never going to be a silver bullet in the form of a single technology or a single waste management or recycling decision.
“The solution is going to be on the part of many people that can step up to the plate and take action. This is not about the blame game.”