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Plastic Odyssey's burning ambitions

Ship & Boat International: eNews January/February 2020



On both regional and local levels, there’s no escaping the plastic pollution problem. China recorded approximately 21kg of plastic waste per 1,000m2 of surface seawater in 2016, for example, while, over in London, UK, volunteers with conservation group Thames21 claim to have removed more than 107,000 plastic bottles from the capital’s river between 2016 and 2019.


Hoping to address this issue, a team of volunteers based in France has launched the Plastic Odyssey project. This centres on a three-year sail expedition, spanning some 40,000nm, aboard a repurposed boat that will burn plastic for fuel. Travelling across Africa and Latin America between 2020-2021, the Asia-Pacific in 2022 and Asia and Africa in 2023, the boat and its crew will seek to highlight the necessity of responsible plastic disposal and recycling at more than 30 port stopovers.


The acquired boat, originally named M/V Victor Hensen, is a 1975-built, Malta-flagged, former oceanographic research vessel, featuring a 40m x 9.4m monohull and a 3.05m draught. Due to be renamed Plastic Odyssey, the vessel will accommodate up to 20 crew members comprising engineers, anthropologists, volunteers, photographers/filmmakers and marine professionals. The vessel is currently undergoing installation/refit work at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, with completion expected in spring 2020.


The project team states: “The back of the vessel will consist of a recycling workshop. Machines will be brought onboard and tested, improved and adapted depending on local challenges faced throughout the expedition. The space will act as a floating demonstration of innovative recycling centres that could be installed on land. The aim is to inspire local professional networks throughout the world to create their own plastic recycling centres.”  Interestingly, the vessel’s plastic recycling plant will consist of open-source/crowd-sourced technology, in order to facilitate its take-up within economically disadvantaged communities.


The front section of Plastic Odyssey, meanwhile, will focus on promoting waste reduction. “The crew’s cabins will act as a source of inspiration for the zero-waste hotel rooms of tomorrow, and the kitchen as an inspiration for restaurants,” the spokesperson adds. This area will also showcase alternatives to plastic packaging.


The expedition will be fuelled by pyrolisis: the conversion of plastic waste into energy, entailing a three-step process. Firstly, the collected trash is sorted and all non-plastic waste (as well as toxic plastics such as PVC) is removed. The remaining plastic is sorted into seven categories for further treatment. The recyclable plastics are then shredded into flakes, washed to remove sand, PVC and metals, and run through a centrifuge for further removal of impurities. These are then dried and deemed ready for recycling.


The non-recyclable plastics are earmarked for boat fuel, and heated inside a pyrolitic oven at a temperature exceeding 400°C. This type of oven greatly reduces or removes oxygen to avoid combustion. “The plastic molecules break apart and are converted back to hydrocarbons, in the forms of liquid fuels, volatile gases and solid residues,” the Plastic Odyssey team says. This energy will power both the ship and its onboard recycling technologies.


Following fit-out, the converted Plastic Odyssey will head to Lisbon in early June 2020, to coincide with the UN Ocean Conference, giving interested parties the chance to check out the boat’s onboard gear. The expedition will then commence in August.