Plastic Odyssey: Cleanup the Past, Build the Future
For Plastic Odyssey, ocean plastic pollution results from a lack of infrastructure, incentives and education. Its ambitious goal is to build an international network of recyclers sharing good practices around plastic waste management and alternatives to plastics, and to spread solutions that are low tech and entrepreneur-driven. We met with Jean-Baptiste Grassin, Global Coordinator for Recycling Projects, based in Hong Kong.
By Isabelle Chabrat
When did you start working with Plastic Odyssey ?
I started during my Master in Technology, Leadership, Entrepreneurship at HKUST in June 2020 as I was sharing a similar vision and thought we could benefit from joining forces. Plastic Odyssey starts from strong scientific grounds that it is too late to act when plastics enter the ocean: a large majority sinks and it is then way too costly and too diluted.
Plastic Odyssey is a boat, an expedition, a network ?
Plastic Odyssey project is a world expedition onboard a 131-ft long vessel embarking a full plastic recycling lab, to create an international network of plastic recyclers and innovators, all entrepreneurs driven. The goal is to strengthen this network along the way, document good practices and ideas, analyze and share innovation and support organizations to implement them!
Plastic Odyssey has several legal structures depending on frame of activities, a social enterprise-like structure for the expedition, two non-profits for community and public engagement, as well as entrepreneur incubation for project development.
When will the Odyssey start ?
The boat is expected to start the expedition from Marseille, France end of 2022 for 3 years, and visit several areas of the world : the Mediterranean sea, West Africa, South America, Asia-Pacific, East Africa and back to France.
What’s on board ?
The boat is organized with 2 main sides: the back is dedicated to ‘Clean up the past’ (the onboard recycling unit, showcasing technical solutions and machines to show what can be done with plastic waste, convince leaders, test ideas with innovators etc. The front is driven by the motto ‘Build the future’ (the upstream solutions), offering alternatives to plastics, ways to refuse, reduce, reuse gathered around the world. These 2 sides embody the necessary dual approach of Plastic Odyssey, acting both downstream and upstream as there is a plastic emergency to be solved and yet recycling is not the ultimate solution in the long run, hence the necessity to quickly find alternatives as well.
Do you already have innovative solutions to share ?
What we offer regarding plastic waste management solutions is a new scale of recycling machines adapted to Low & Middle Income Countries (LMIC), lacking waste transformation infrastructure, remote areas and islands. We are offering ‘containerized plastic transformation units’ – low-tech, low CAPEX, semi-industrial scale (significant volumes over 200 tons per year per unit). We are launching this year a batch of 5 projects with various recycled products outcomes (construction materials, furniture such as paving blocks, lumbers, pallets, tiles as well as fuel via pyrolysis).
We are offering technical and economic training and support.
We keep conducting research for new solutions for waste transformation as well as waste reduction and alternatives across the globe. For this, we launched a 1 st platform with our first open source recycling solutions (technology.plasticodyssey.org) and are working on a 2 nd version, integrating much more content. We are providing trainings and education tools for schools and teachers with for instance our ‘Code Ocean’ online platform and on site workshops.
How will you test new solutions ?
We are both experimenting onboard the ship and through pilot projects across the globe with motivated entrepreneurs and organisations. Those recycling labs aim at bearing fruits for future adjustments and replications to enable more sustainable social ventures to startup.
Will you use plastics as fuel for the boat ?
We have a pyrolysis onboard the ship to showcase the concept of plastic pyrolysis: turning low value waste and residue into fuels such as diesel to power the boat. This will be used onboard as well as during stopovers to introduce the solution when adapted to the local context (island nations for instance).
Will the boat come to Hong Kong and China ?
The stopovers around Asia are still flexible and a stop in Hong Kong or China could be arranged depending on opportunities. The aim is to put a spotlight on local activities. The social-economic situation of Hong Kong is way different from The Philippines or Indonesia which are initially more in the scope. However, the archipelago situation of Hong Kong as well as the urgent need to find local ways to cope with waste create a business case for semi-industrial local solutions to be implemented, by adjusting the business model. One big challenge for Hong Kong remains to reduce massively its plastic consumption when more than 2,000
tonnes of plastics are currently thrown away on a daily basis in the 7 million people city, which is enormous.
What are the main challenges ?
The whole challenge of the project initially was to find a way to make plastic recycling accessible both technically and financially for the targeted market of LMIC. As such, projects are more bankable, specifically regarding the CAPEX. They are also turnkey solutions – easier to set up, operate and maintain.
The big next step for Plastic Odyssey is to finish proving the concept with the first batch of recycling projects in different contexts to show that the model works and then scale-up the machines manufacturers capacity (preferably within targeted regions) as well as directly attract funding for batches of projects rather than on a case by case basis.