My War on
Ocean Plastics

A beautiful isolated atoll in the louisiades in PNG, it is 800 nm from Australia and in a very remote part of the world. Yes there are people living in surrounding islands but they still live a more simple life, they consume lot less plastic than those of us in the west. What will this look like in ten years.

Plastic giving berth to Micro Plastics

Then What

Why give a shit about plastic in the ocean anyway. This was a thought that rattled around in my head as I drive across the Nullarbor Plains in Australia, I was driving from Perth in Western Australia to Hervey Bay in Queensland. I was recovering from some brain condition that nearly had my name on. 

So here I was knowing I needed a greater purpose in life, to leave some legacy. Something bigger than me something that would benefit the next generation and the health of our planet.

My legacy had pasted away several years ago, but before he left this Earth he had made an impact on my subconscious, the ocean was sick.

Here a little disabled boy with a terminal disease could see the reality of the world. We were killing the oceans.

His favorite sea creature the whale shark, was being impacted by micro sea plastics. He was concerned about their health and the health of the ocean. At the time I was only worried about his health. Jack was deteriorating as he entered his teens, he was 10.

So here I was 4 years later, Jack never reached 11. Driving still angry, recovering with chronic headaches without any purpose except getting to my yacht and sailing to PNG. Knowing an expedition to PNG was not enough, it was not big enough, yes it was a story that needed telling but it would not quench my desire to do something that made a difference.

So is ocean plastics a problem as my Jack stated, yes there is, are loads of drama queens  and spin jockeys trying to squeeze a buck to save the planet but they all seem to fail to prove beyond a doubt that plastics are killing our oceans. So here I was driving, wondering if plastics is worthy of whats left of this life. As I drive that long straight road I am left in little doubt that plastic is a problem in the Outback, every square mile of that Nullarbor highways verge is covered in the shit, an eye sore. It was making me angry as I drove and I had another 5000km to drive.

As I drove I slowly developed a plan, I need to prove to myself that the ocean needed help, that plastics was a real issue, it had to be more than whale sharks, yes they are majestic but only in limited areas. Also we don't eat Whale sharks. I wanted to know how plastic was affecting our food chain in the ocean, it had been proven that heavy metals such as mercury was absorbed by fish and concentrated in predatory fish that eat smaller fish, we ultimately ate as a food source from the ocean.

So are micro plastics being absorbed by fish and what or how is this affecting humans. I like fresh ocean fish and I want the next generation to be able to harvest a feed from the ocean.

My quest to prove to myself that the ocean really needed my help had begun, well at least in my head. By the time I reached Port Augusta in South Australia I was formulating a very random plan. I knew as I was recovering from Brain Surgery my thinking was faulted, I was vague, I could not grasp the details so I just told myself to relax and do the best I could, small steps.

I needed to lower my expectations of what “I knew” I was capable of achieving. “It was hard and frustrating”, I coined a term for myself “try easy” don’t be concerned about the outcome, it will come. Don’t be concerned about how all this will happen, it will just happen. As I began to relax and not concern myself about saving the worlds oceans tomorrow I began to think more globally about the problem and to my surprise information just found me, I didn’t search it out it just appeared, little like how you notice the same style of vehicle your driving, my subconscious began collecting ideas from all over the world.

It had started to change how I thought about the problem, really random stuff like TED talks about plastic eating bacteria, stories in news papers from small out of the way towns, discussing how India was buying waste ocean plastic from subsistence fishermen and turning waste plastic into roads. These then created new ideas and research opportunities to pursue as I rested in highway hotels of an evening. Grab a feed and a beer at the local pub then do an hour of research, helped me sleep, there is some very boring research papers out there.

I also decided I would advertise for yacht crew and only accept people who had the same interest, after all they would be picking up plastic at isolated beaches over a month long period from the town of Hervey Bay to the Northern City of Cairns, there was no reward or accolades except a sense of achievement in doing the right thing, that is providing we found any plastic. There was no expectation just adventure.

I was still struggling with my health as I drove and would need to pull over and sleep often as I was tired a lot, I also found my sense of direction had deteriorated and complex problem solving. I was really concerned I would gather a team but not be able to skipper the yacht.

On one occasion I found myself lost in the snowy mountains, google had failed me, possibly because data was limited. I spent hours driving around in circles and finally rang a mate when I could squeeze a signal, Morgan who I was visiting to guide me back on the correct road. That was confronting. Confidence took another hit. But I knew I needed to prove to myself that we had a problem so push forward and another 2000km to Queensland. I had another month before I sailed anywhere.

Life really is a strange beast.

I stopped at Morgans place for a few days, we chatted a lot, drank a little too much and decided fuck it. It is better to die trying than wait for the perfect set of circumstances to provide an easy path.

Next stop Canberra, I was meeting with Paul our expedition leader for PNG. We were going to brief the PNG High COM personnel about our mad plan to retrace the steps of Capt Murray and his personnel during WW2 in the Pacific, most of the fighting was conducted by PNG soldiers. I think many deserved greater acknowledgement of their contribution that helped save Australia from invasion and repelled the Japanese from PNG.

This was a story PNG people should also be proud of, but I was to learn most of these stories had faded into history as the old village warriors had now past on and their bodies and stories were now consumed once again by the bush. Even Gen Y in PNG had mobile phones so stories are becoming less important.

One small challenge, get the boat to Cairns, then Rabaul. So this was after I finished my plastics challenge, small steps and the many steps I needed to help forge a new direction in my life, a healthy strong body that would endure these trials.

I also visited the War Memorial in Canberra to learn from the Coast Watcher exhibit. Whilst I was there it struck me just how much waste and pollution and damage humans had inflicted upon the earth during centuries of unnecessary war. To think about how many ships had been sunk in the Pacific during the period of WW2.

This also highlighted the Earths ability to heal, Most of the sunk and damaged shipping from WW2 has been consumed, the oceans and reefs have been restored to safe accessible places where fish and communities thrive.

It struck me that yes waste plastic is catastrophic in an environment where it provides no value but we can turn this situation around.

Humans have within 100 years poured millions of tonnes of waste plastic into the ocean and this number may in fact be increasing as Asia, Africa and the Pacific islands are embraced by the Chinese selling cheap consumer good.

We are the first generation in history where most of our rubbish does not break down. Archology is really going to suck for the students of 3020. Maybe it will be mining camps sniffing out community waste dumps to mine waste plastic and valuable metals.  

The one thought that has troubled me, “Why is waste plastic not valued”. It is only a petrochemical product, in its simplest form is reverts to a hydrocarbon. Surely it is easier to recycle into another product. Has science failed us, are we simply to lazy or we like digging big holes to put our trash in and those without the capacity to dig big holes dump it in a river or the ocean to hide the problem, letting those down stream deal with it. Guess somebody should mention to them that problem is going to be their children and grand childrens problem.  If fact all future generations.

This though kept me up a night for weeks, recycling something humans have been doing it for centuries, most high value products get recycled, even the stone from one pyramid got scavenged by the next generation for another building project.

Steel was collected melted and reformed over the centuries, even aluminium cans a very discardable product get collected melt and reformed. Just plastic the scourge of the recycling world.

We have failed to value this product whilst the raw material is provided too cheaply. The disposal of plastic into general waste is a major concern. Communities are dealing with millions of tonnes of trash every year, general waste is simple to general, too hard to deal with and therefore expensive to process for local councils because they lack vision, our state and federal governments rarely display long term vision, content to attack the opposing parties for lack of leadership in term. Then when they have opportunities to be risk takers and display leadership they fail to act, we the public are failed. We need to demand more long term vision from elected officials.

So off with another thought, long term vision and the Governments that have the capacity and a plan. I find parts of Scotland using a 5 bin system to sort rubbish. This isolates plastic. In addition to plastic they isolate glass, paper and food or green rubbish that can be composted or used as green fuel in bio digesters, bio-digesters make methane as a by product that can be used as heating gas or to power machinery, the primary product of a bio-digester can be a high quality fertilizer or soil improver.

The 5 bin system has merit, as we need to separate plastic and all commodities that can be recycled.

Now off to South Korea on my research and I find a very organised waste management system where households pay by the weight of rubbish but are compensated for recycled products by weight. Such as alloy cans.

The system I researched was used for high rise housing fairly common in South Korea, it relied on a central waste facility where people could deposit waste or commodities such as soft drink cans on the way to work. It was all automated and operated off a swipe card on their account.

Everything appeared very well sorted and was measured and tracked.

I then started to think about micro processing plants for waste plastic and found several small engineering solutions capable of grinding plastic to a feedstock that could be melted and used in small thermo forming machines.

The intent to enable small community enterprises, building spare parts for bikes or the house hold. Even making cups and bowls.

The ideas that really stuck with me as ingenious were those that manufactured used waste plastic into plastic forms to build structural components to use in low cost building and low cost housing.

Then I was off on another tangent, waste plastic for building materials.

I thought I had hit the mother-load of micro plastic manufacturing.

No hype, no bullshit just people all over the world getting on with making building products from waste plastic. I found a very professional plastic roofing tile being manufactured in Russia, it appeared exactly the same as the clay version but stronger lighter and with better insulation.

I found some very rudimentary floor pavers being manufactured in Africa. A large heating vessel, call it a boiler, heated then add waste plastic and sand, stir the lot together into goup then pour the plastic contents into a mould or form, similar to how a mud brick is made and in a few hours you have simple tuff plastic floor pavers.

I also found one example where children’s schools fee could be payed by a plastics manufacturer if their parents bring in waste plastic as a form of payment. This was then used in another manufacturing process. Creating an renewable economy and educating the next generation of innovators.

South America appeared to produced more creative building solutions such as plastic wall panels and earthen brick moulds. In fact whole houses built from plastic waste in the form of plastic building blocks. These house are modest by Western standards but the are robust, safe, dry and provide a family with a home for as little as $5000US.

I am a big fan of the earthen brick moulds, humans have been building with earth for millions of years, earth is freely available and a fantastic insulator. We can still find Earthen homes in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, some nearly a thousand years old and many stories high as in the Old City of Sana in Yemen.

The idea of encasing hard packed earth in plastic moulds that then protects it and provides a formed waterproof finish or a substrate to attach other building materials can only make a simple effective building method even move robust to environmental factors such as earthquake.

I could see many applications in developing countries where waste plastic would quickly become a commodity to be harvested.

This then left me wondering about my community and country. There are so many applications for waste plastic, the roof tile is really a no brainer, it was not that long ago I replaced 15 roof tiles after a hail storm and the damaged ceiling. Plastic roof tiles would have saved me a fortune.

What about paving tiles tuff and hard wearing, they might last 500 years. There must be hundreds of uses for recycled plastic. Live stock feed and watering troughs, fence posts, plastic 4x4 recovery tracks, garden edging replacing timber sleepers, packing crates, what about pallets, damn we use millions of pallets, plastic does not fall apart like pine timber, but when it does fail just shred it, bag and send it back for a new batch of pallets, its an endless loop and that’s how we need to think about plastic.

What about military and mining camps, small regional towns in fact any remote location install a large plastic shredder and shred all the waste plastic, including pallets, packing, furniture. Shred, bag it and truck what was a huge volume of plastic waste on the back of one truck to a plastic recycling plant to be reformed into plastic feedstock for its next life as a useful plastic product.

Then again if that small regional town uses pathed roads what about mixing the plastic feedstock with asphalt and create a more robust road base as the do in India with ocean plastics recovered by fishermen.  

One million uses.

Plastic Pyrolysis
into Fuel

Is this the solution or just one more element to reducing waste plastic in the worlds ocean. I came across this idea some time ago, a Japanese uni was experimenting with it, but now I find a full scale production plant capable of processing thousands of tonnes of plastic waste into usable fuel, the only bi-product ash that can be turned into  another building product.  

This is the technology we need to see evolving and we need governments supporting large scale developments to help end plastic going to land fill.

100kg of plastic waste produces approx 80/90 Litres of fuel oils. 90 percent recovery rate is impressive.

My rant continues as I do. Yesterday I sampled a beach in Fraser Island, Queensland. I was anchored off this beautiful beach and decided to go for a walk.

It is cleaner now, and yes I feel better for a 30 min walk.

Just South of Moon Point on Fraser Island, 2km of beach one bag of rubbish. 

Why I Sail

Sunrise and sunset

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