_Jim Holm and Nick Drobac, co-founders of The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP), are thinking big. They’re working toward a multi-step plan to locate, harvest and dispose of plastics that have accumulated in the “great Pacific garbage patch,” or the North Pacific Gyre, the convergence zone where research suggests millions of tons of plastics have collected. But just getting out to the North Pacific Gyre will be a time- and cost- intensive process.
Holm explains that it will take two months to get out to the gyre in order to spend three or four months harvesting plastics there. They also hope to stop and spend time at remote islands along the way to organize beach cleanups, because “those islands will never get cleaned up otherwise,” says Holm. “There’s nobody out there.” In order to reduce the time and cost it will take to accomplish all of this, TCOP plans to employ new technology that can convert the plastics they harvest into the fuel that will keep them going. The technology will vaporize the plastic they collect by heating it up in a pressure vessel. When those vapors cool back down, they turn into a liquid that is essentially crude oil. After a second refining process, the Drobac and Holm will end up with about equal parts diesel, gasoline and kerosene, plus a small amount of leftover gunk (not the technical term).
“Eight pounds of plastic will yield about a gallon of fuel,” Drobac says. “We can put the diesel straight into the tanks for the mothership, as it were,” Holm explains. “We can use the gasoline in the outboard motors of the small boats [that will be part of the harvesting process]. We have no specific purpose for the kerosene while we’re at sea, but we’ll save it for when we get back.”
Holm and Drobac, who thus far have almost entirely self-funded TCOP, will demonstrate this “modern alchemy” of turning plastics into fuel on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Cleaning up our oceans is a colossal undertaking, but the pair is undaunted. “We don’t believe anything’s impossible. Difficult, maybe,” Holm says. “All of the components of our process have been tested individually. They’ve never been put together as a system, but there’s no real reason of why they shouldn’t work together.”
In addition to showing off this remarkable process, Drobac and Holm hope to get those who come to the event to think about the role plastics play in their lives. “We’re trying to communicate as much as possible that it’s not the answer to keep consuming the way we consume just because we’ve found better ways to dispose of the waste material,” Drobac says. “First and foremost, we want people to look at their habits and try to change them where they can. Refusing [plastics] first, reusing them next, and recycling them as sort of a last resort.”
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Weekly: