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Oct 08th
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Sea Change with Plastic?

cleanoceansFRESH DIRT > GT checks in with local nonprofit The Clean Oceans Project

The oceans are polluted with plastic, and at least one local group is trying to do something about it. The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP) aims to make our plastic-filled waterways a thing of the past by creating a market for the waste. Using technology that seems right out of a science-fiction movie, TCOP hopes to equip ships with the power to convert plastic into petroleum right at sea.

The local organization’s representatives held a demonstration on Wednesday, Oct. 26 at the Ecology Action building in Downtown Santa Cruz. The demonstration was lead by Captain Jim Holm, co-founder of the project and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard since 1979. He began financing the project with his own money three years ago after hearing of the plastic-to-fuel technology created by Japanese-based company Blest Co.

“The more I learned about the technology, the more I liked it,” says Holm.

Holm believes that to encourage people to clean up the oceans, it has to be worth their while. TCOP aims give our trash a monetary value by converting it into fuel, which can then be sold at a premium.

“If we make this trash worth money,” says Holm, “somebody’s going to pick it up.”

Adding to the nonprofit’s eco-friendly chops, the complex technology is able to produce fuel with practically no waste. Eight pounds of plastic processed through the machine will create one gallon of fuel, which weighs almost exactly eight pounds. The gargantuan machines release water vapor, about the same amount of CO2 that one adult breathes out in a day, and a negligible amount of pure carbon that’s safe enough to fertilize your garden.

The demonstration featured a miniature reproduction of the machine that was small enough to fit on a table. At about 18 inches high, the contraption consisted of a gray metal box, a small digital screen, and a clear cylinder filled with water. A plastic bottle was inserted into the machine at the beginning of the presentation; about an hour later the bottle had broken down into a three-fourths of an inch thick layer of yellowish petroleum floating on top of the water visible through the clear cylinder.

TCOP has held a number of demonstrations like this in an attempt to drum up support and recruit investors to the project. But as Holm and the rest of the organization’s members know all too well, their enterprise won’t be enough to completely fix the problem. They strongly believe that in order to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean, people must reduce their consumption. In 2010, the United States alone generated more than 50 million tons of plastic waste, and only about 2 percent of that gets recycled, according to Nick Drobac, TCOP executive director.

Drobac summed up the Project’s goals with his closing statement: “Even if we are wildly successful beyond our dreams, we’re not the silver bullet. It’s going to take everybody.”

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Comments (1)Add Comment
written by Ed Zach, October 28, 2011
So, a ship full of new cars from Japan is going to zig-zag around the Pacific picking up floating beer can carriers, bottle caps, water bottles, plastic bags and such to convert to fuel while it delivers the cars to the Port of Oakland? That doesn't seem like a very economical approach to things.

Also, this sounds almost like a perpetual motion machine. It takes a bunch of energy to quickly decompose plastics into anything like petroleum, and if you get 8 pounds of petro out of 8 pounds of plastic, then you have to be applying external energy of some sort. You could burn some of the plastic, but then you'd get less than 8 pounds of petro, and of course, that would be evil because it burning plastic generates greenhouse gases, smoke, etc. I'm skeptical.

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