While traveling around the world with 5 Gyres Institute, we’ve seen many of the same problems – an abundance of plastic damaging wildlife and hurting quality of life for communities. Seeing these communities overwhelmed with plastic trash, I’ve wondered:

what if we could make something useful out of this waste, while also incentivizing recovery? The two countries below inspired my journey to start to solve this puzzle.

Delhi, India

Driving across this bridge north of Delhi, India in 2013, I was stunned to see whole families living under it.  Children were using piles of plastic trash to build dams to hold back the free-flowing raw sewage. This is extreme poverty. In the foreground of this photo you can see piles of plastic sorted and bagged for factories in the city that will melt, pelletize, and sell it back to manufacturers. The rest of the plastic is worthless and will go on to pollute the river.

Kamillo Beach, Hawaii

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre holds 1/3 of the plastic pollution globally, according to our 2014 study, and Kamillo Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii is the largest plastic accumulation beach on the planet.  This is where the smog of plastic pollution washes ashore- more than 20 tons each year. In one hour we collected more plastic pollution than all of the 5 Gyres Institute’s 16 expeditions combined. It’s all worthless trash. Like other trash beaches, it’s someplace beautiful and difficult to get to, or get trash out of.

The abundance of plastic in poor and remote regions of the world is a result of poor waste management and poor product/packaging design. If you look on the economic model for plastic manufacture, the last stop for plastic is limited to recycling 5-10% of it, burial or incineration for much of it, and too much of it washing out to sea. If there were a circular economy for plastic, the recovery incentive would be built in. There is no recovery incentive for thousands of products and those are the ones we find polluting out world.

But what if we could add value by turning plastic waste into something useful?

That’s how the conversation with Andrew Streett started in St. Petersburg, Florida at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in 2014. Andrew is an engineer from Swift Engineering with a personal background in building solar panels for satellites. “What if we could build a solar-powered kiln that could melt that plastic into a useful shape?” he asked. “Like a giant lego? Or roofing tile?” I replied. That conversation continued over many months until May 22, 2015 in Swift Engineering’s machine shop.

The road to Swift Engineering winds upward from the Pacific coast to a hilltop view of the ocean. Inside, I find this set up: four solar panels hook up to a circuit board that controls heating elements in an oil bath. In this bath is a box full of plastic waste fragments.  “With a couple of hours of bright sun we can get this to nearly 200C and melt polyethylene and polypropylene,” he explains, adding “and here’s our first test.”  He holds up three flat plates, freshly melted from plastic trash he pulled from a garbage can.

There are concerns. Do toxins that absorb into plastic while in the ocean make any product made from that recovered plastic hazardous? That’s what Chelsea Rochman and her co-authors argued in the journal Nature, in an article titled, “Classify Plastic Waste as Hazardous.” Does the process of melting plastic waste make fumes that could be hazardous to workers?  These are real concerns that need to be addressed.

One answer to both could in how this device is applied. These two issues can be avoided if the device is used with plastic waste before it reaches the sea, like that riverbed north of Delhi, India. If the abundant waste in the river became a valuable resource to make a locally useful product, (floor tiles, bricks, roofing materials, and the production costs were low, (other than the costs of the device- the energy costs are low and plastic waste is free) then a local economy could be created to both clean plastic waste and create jobs.

Therefore, we need to test the “Solar Plastic Brick Kiln” in a realistic environment. In a week we’ll do just that. Andrew will bring the kiln to the 5 Gyres Bahamas Youth Summit on the island of Eleuthera, where plastic marine pollution washes ashore daily. On the island there’s an abundance of locally derived plastic waste and no recovery incentive. We’ll collect that and make plastic bricks. Helping us will be 125 international and local students from the Summit who will be learning about how to become leaders in the movement to shift our throw away culture to a circular economy.

Although the idea of melting plastic waste into something useful is not the only solution to the problem, it is one that has the potential to save our synthetic seas.

This article was originally published by the 5 Gyres Institute. It has been reprinted with permission. 

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