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rowsell Dialogue Corner
Keeping Plastic Waste in our Engines, not our Oceans - Read About Jeremy Rowsell's Ground-Breaking Project

"We aim to encourage a widespread change in behaviour" - 'On Wings of Waste' plastic pioneer Jeremy Rowsell



Jeremy Rowsell is the pioneer behind a historic initiative to raise awareness about end of life plastic in our oceans. His 'On Wings of Waste' flight saw him pilot a plane from Sydney to Melbourne using waste plastic from the ocean as part of the fuel mix!

Here, Jeremy tells us what inspired him to go for this remarkable achievement and discusses the roles we all have to play in managing waste plastic better. The interview is part of a new series meeting exceptional people working in the environment field - look out for our next special guest!

More than eight million tonnes of plastic leaks into the oceans each year. UN Environment's #CleanSeas campaign is working with governments, industry and consumers to change this. Once the issues are understood, the steps to take are not so great and they can be made quite easily, Jeremy says - laying out the economic arguments for doing so and the practical steps we can take.


Dear Jeremy, please could you tell us the story of what led you to go for this remarkable achievement. Had you personally witnessed the amount of plastic we have in our oceans?


It all started some years ago. In 2011, I flew across the Pacific to retrace the epic “Southern Cross” flight of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Sir Charles Ulm in a single engine light aircraft. The purpose of this flight was to raise awareness and money for the work of the Royal Flying Doctors pilots.


I witnessed plastic waste on the beaches of small islands and became aware of the giant gyres of plastic particles that exist in the oceans. The flight became a catalyst for ‘On Wings of Waste’ (OWOW) and my desire to do something was reinforced when I met Jo Ruxton, who had been a researcher for the BBC’s Blue Planet series. Jo educated me on the detail and I immediately kick-started the project, mainly because of consequences of an aviation and other industries (mining and agriculture for instance) reliant on toxic and damaging fuels but also, more broadly, because of the global impact of plastic pollution.


My first ambition was to fly from Sydney to London and I went through rigorous training with Tony Loughran, who runs a company called Zero Risk and is now part of the ‘On Wings of Waste’ team, with that in mind. Unfortunately we hit a number of barriers to do with logistics, timing and fuel and it was only when Plastic Energy, a company in the forefront of growing sector involved with converting end-of-plastic to fuel and oil, came on board that I knew we could achieve our aim.


Helped by pilot and aviation expert Chris Clark, also part of the OWOW team, we tested fuel shipped out from Plastic Energy, whose technology team is based in the UK, and then decided to prove it could be used in an aircraft by blending 10 per cent of it with conventional fuel. I’m pleased to say the flight from Sydney to Melbourne went without any hitches and we’d made history.

I’m delighted to say that world renowned Naturalist and Broadcaster Sir David Attenborough backed the project saying: “The Wings of Waste flight, I hope, will bring the attention of the world to this great solution that is there waiting to be taken if only we can get the support of people to do so.” How did it feel when you were taking off in a plane using unconventional fuel? It was an extraordinary feeling. As I said, our ‘On Wings of Waste’ team have been working towards this moment for a number of years. We’ve battled hard against various setbacks but I was always confident that the moment would come when I would take off using fuel that had been transformed from end-of-life plastic by Plastic Energy.

Exhilarated is probably the best way of describing of it, but also a sense that this really means we can something to change the way we treat plastic – particularly single use items like bottles and cartons.


What is the economic argument for using waste plastic as part of a fuel mix? What type of plastic can serve this purpose?


By placing an economic value on end of life plastic, our aim is to encourage a widespread change of behaviour by governments, corporations and individuals. Enabling and showcasing an economic argument provides a viable way for solutions to be funded and legitimised by stakeholders. This was the real achievement of our flight.


Current acceptable plastics are all Polythenes, Polypropylenes, Polystyrenes and they can be mixed, so they don’t need to be fed as single stream. Diesel, for example in Plastic Energy’s process, can be produced at circa 0.23 euros a litre. By calculating the costs of waste management, landfill and the costs of producing new fossil fuels and comparing these to the costs of sourcing a “waste” product that is widely available turned into fuel by the Plastic Energy process (one that produces jobs for the economy as well), it quickly becomes self-evident that there is merit in this economic approach.


This doesn’t even start taking into account, the value of tourism from cleaner beaches, improved fish stock quality and improved health outcomes from managing the waste more effectively.


How exactly did your engine work without creating emissions from the plastic? Can your invention work with more than 10% waste plastic in the fuel mix?


The fuel was a 90/10 per cent mix of conventional fuel and fuel made from end-of-life plastic, so it was a blend and no engine modifications were required. Because of the huge volumes of Aviation Fuel being used it was important not to try and solve the fuel issue by pretending we could supply a fleet of planes. What the OWOW team and Plastic Energy are trying to do is contribute in a positive way to cleaning up the environment and putting the products we produce to a positive useful purpose. It can only be positive to use what was waste plastic to replace a percentage of the fossil fuel typically used. Think of the impact if you multiplied that use? For example, a 747 aircraft on a 10,000 mile flight from London to Sydney burns 36,000 gallons of fuel and if 3,600 (UK) gallons of that fuel was sourced from plastic waste it would be the equivalent of 18 tonnes of waste that might otherwise be dumped in the ocean. What we used was a high quality equivalent fuel (JET A1).


You may well know that a UN Environment Champion of the Earth and founder of The Ocean Clean-up project, Boyan Slat, has developed a way of collecting plastic from the oceans. Can we convert this into fuel on a larger scale, do you think, for all countries?


Most certainly, for the larger pieces of plastic collected via this approach with the correct pre-processing (quality control), it is possible to consider producing a hydrocarbon product but it has to be done extremely carefully.


Microplastics are the other part of the plastic issue in the oceans. When you collect plastic particles from the ocean you are also in danger of picking up plankton. Zoo-plankton consists of tiny animals that form the base of the marine food chain and phyto-plankton are the minute plants that provide us with more than half the oxygen we breathe, helping the oceans keep us alive. We have to be careful when collecting plastic not to disturb the ecology of the ocean.


While supportive of all activity that will help deal with this issue, we feel that the government, corporate and individual actions that stop plastics of all kinds getting into the ocean in the first place will have the most effect.


What do you see the role of the private sector, individuals and governments being to make this a reality?


Placing a financial value on plastic (particularly single use) and understanding the costs of its impact is an important step. Jobs and industry do not have to be at the expense of the environment and animal and human health. Plastic Energy is an example of this. They are also showing the way with their sustainability model for the archipelagic territories – the first of its kind – where, in Tenerife in the first instance, the plastic waste generate on the island will be converted into commodity fuels and products. So, I think the way forward is a combination of education, adoption of the circular economy, because of its economic and environmental advantages but, in particular, recognition by Governments that the environmental damage and potential damage to our health is reaching a critical point. Action is needed.


There are practical solutions which could be introduced very quickly. It doesn’t make sense that the UK, for example, fails to divert the 1.2 million tonnes of plastic it currently sends to landfill to an industrial plant like the ones built by Plastic Energy, where 840 million litres of diesel could be produced.


Having collection points and a rewards system for individuals and corporations to better manage plastic waste gives incentive to manage at source rather clean up after.


I do believe awareness is increasing, through projects like ours but also films like ‘A Plastic Ocean’ recently released, which shows the devastation caused by plastic pollution in the ocean. Also, 40 industry leaders have just endorsed the New Plastics Economy which shows a commitment on behalf of Corporates to take some responsibility. But there’s no room for complacency. We have to keep making it normal for all stakeholders to see the logic and connect emotionally to act positively against plastic pollution.


The steps to make this happen are well within all our reach, economically viable and will benefit the economies of those who adopt these measures. I am optimistic that once the issues are understood, the steps to change are not so great that they can be made quite easily.


UN Environment has just launched a Clean Seas campaign. What can we do as individuals to help? Is it also about reducing our consumption patterns?


This is a great initiative and as you’ll know there are a number of recycling initiatives across the world which are helping to persuade individuals to take responsibility for disposing of plastic waste.


I mentioned education in the previous answer and this is crucial. There are so many small changes that collectively will have big impact - for instance, paper straws not plastic, taking your own coffee cup over disposable, refillable water containers over plastic. Another key initiative is asking your local authority for plastic collection sites and asking shops for alternatives to plastic bags. All of us can make a difference by small steps.


We need to teach children in schools so the next generation is aware of the need to take a different approach to the way we deal with waste. Tony Loughran and I have already made presentation at schools in Australia and the children have a desire to understand the problems but also to embrace the solutions. We should make this subject part of the core curriculum everywhere.


I’m not sure how realistic reducing consumption is. America alone throws away 35 billion plastic water bottles a year so if you multiply that on a global basis you can see how difficult that might be. Raising awareness is the key, along with the recognition that plastic ‘waste’ is a misnomer – it has value.


I also think it is vital we give future generations hope that this issue is within our power to resolve. The jobs of the future will come from addressing the mistakes of the past through the wonders of technology and human ingenuity. Our flight demonstrated how a group of individuals and a corporation can make a significant change and this is a beacon of hope to future generations that they can take this further.


What are your plans for the future – might we see you flying overhead in Europe too?

We are working very closely with Plastic Energy, who have plans to expand their operations in South America, the USA and Europe, and we are looking at operations in Australia and Asia so I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to prove to the world that end-of-life plastic is a precious commodity, rather than disposable waste. If that means taking to the air or any other means of transport to prove the point, then yes, I’m sure there’ll be future flights and activities in Europe and elsewhere









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