The ocean plastic problem is something that many of us can bear witness to, none more so than surfers, however. Killer waves and killer plastic should not mix, but plastic pollution begs to differ, infiltrating our environment and the joys it gives us. South African surfing magazine Zigzag, sat down with The Dung Beetle Project’s Jeff Barbee to discuss the plastic problem and how our Dung Beetle features in alleviating it. The article below was published in issue 43.7 of Zigzag Magazine.
If you surf, you’ll have noticed all the crap washing up on the beach, most of it plastic. And if you’ve been surfing for a long time, you’ll have noted that it’s getting worse, much worse. Surfers are on the frontline of the plastic pollution problem. It is, fundamentally, our issue. At the heart of this crisis, is the ‘design-flaw’ of single-use plastic. Cheap, disposable packaging that serves a brief purpose and then remains in the environment for several thousand years. So while the race is on to find and implement bio-degradable alternatives and ban single-use plastics, the big question remains what to do with all the plastic currently in the environment? Not to mention all the new plastic that will be produced until single-use plastics are banned and the alternatives become viable. Ripple dissolve to AfrikaBurn. Amongst the doef-doef of bass and the whirl of spandex and leathered middle-aged ravers, in the desert, a group of friends; Pops Pretorius, Jeff Barbee, Simon Davis, Mike Jervis and Dave Terblanche (Simon is the brother of Zigzag’s publisher) got together with the intention of tackling the planet’s plastic pollution problem effectively. And in amongst all the gifting and the back rubs, they came up with something that looks very much like a viable solution. Enter the Dung Beetle! Pierre ‘Pops’ Pretorius is a bit of a wizard; an engineer, set-builder and prop designer who built the mothership for the epic South African sci-fi District 9. He was also running a diesel generator on his farm in Limpopo from a simple pyrolysis prototype he built that turns plastic waste into fuel. Jeff Barbee saw the rig, it blew his mind and set the wheels in motion. Jeff is an environmental journalist who runs Alliance Earth, an NPO that specialises in environmental and scientific reporting. “When I saw it working, I thought wow this would make a really good project to take to AfrikaBurn,” Jeff explains. “The festival generally brings in 13 000 people. So really it was an amazing space for us to showcase the technology. We sat down at the fire and decided to build the machine as a sculpture. An art vehicle, to show people what can happen on a bigger scale. We chose the Dung Beetle as a symbol because, in ancient Egypt, the scarab pushes the sun god, Ra, the ball of fire, across the sky. So it’s a symbol of rebirth, renewable hope if you will. This is something we don’t have in the plastic crisis… hope.” So how does it work? “First, you have to understand that plastic has double the energy density of coal.” Explains Jeff. Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of materials, like plastic at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere. “It changes the plastic through a system like distillation. You essentially boil it off.” What comes out of the Dung Beetle is a variety of fuels ranging from gas to diesel, paraffin and even wax – all of it useful but most importantly, valuable. “What we want to do is remove plastic from the environment and create an economy to do so.”
Dung Beetle pyrolysis machines are small scale, the vision is that every local garbage dump and recycling centre can have one generating fuel that is either used to run a generator that plugs straight back into the grid or sold as diesel, paraffin, etc. Thereby making plastic waste more valuable and supporting informal waste-pickers and recyclers. But if this is such a big innovation, why haven’t we heard about it before? “Well the tech is not new,” says Jeff. “The taxis in Paris during World War Two used pyrolysis to generate gasses that they could put straight back into the carburettor and drive around. One of the reasons why this tech has not become super widespread is that we just didn’t have a big use for it back then. The plastic crisis is relatively new. So now, recycling and the industry around it has created the market gap for pyrolysis to come into its own.” The real innovation is in the size scale of the Dung Beetle as a local solution. As plastic waste generally takes up a lot of space, it’s hard to transport in great volumes. You end up using more fuel getting the shipment to a pyrolysis machine than the shipment would yield. “The exciting thing about this is that our systems are portable so you can take it right to where the plastic is, negating the need to transport it. So the machine runs in the most optimum way closest to the plastic.” Imagine a bunch of these machines at municipal dumps, with people literally mining the dump for waste plastic and getting paid for their efforts. In many ways, the Dung Beetle is the definition of disruptive technology. Historically, the energy space is dominated by big corporations, state-owned utilities like Eskom and the government. “What it does is democratise the value of plastic on the ground in our environments in a way that incentivises local communities suffering from energy poverty to remove plastic from their environment and solve energy poverty at the same time.” And we don’t need to remind you, that plastic is a big, big problem. “There’s 400 million tons of plastic produced each year and only about 8-12% of that is recycled. So recycling, although valuable, is also part of the problem due to the fact that it makes people feel like they are doing something.” Jeff’s on a roll now. “Did you know that recycling in the US gets shipped off to China. And last year China stopped taking it. So what happened was those ships of trash were sent packing to Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Those are the three most significant contributors to the Pacific and Indian Ocean garbage patches in the world. So people in the first world think they are recycling but in actual fact have been contributing to the problem. The people sorting the plastic in those three aforementioned countries are doing so adjacent to major waterways. When monsoon rain events hit those regions, all that plastic waste is sent out to sea via these river systems. This is what happens with the Umgeni River every year. So poor regulation of the recycling industry is a major problem. All they do is pick through the waste, pull out the expensive bits and then let everything else just sit on the ground.
“What’s fascinating about the technology we employ,” Jeff smiles, “is that as people start to value all plastic, it’s much less likely for them to throw that into the environment.” But won’t creating a value chain for waste plastic give the plastic producers a free pass and slow down the uptake of biodegradable alternatives? “Hell no!” Says Jeff. “We imagine that single-use plastics will be outlawed altogether. People who are impacted by plastic, don’t want to live with it. There are 50 billion tons of plastic made since 1955, just sitting out there. None of that has been changed into anything else but more plastic. Even the bits that have been recycled have been turned into more plastic. This is not a problem that is going to go away anytime soon. And we’re also just starting to discover that plastic is cancer-causing, it is an endocrine disruptor. We cannot have it in our environment. The worm is turning on this. There’s a political change in the air.” There’s no future in this business! “50 billion tons of plastic waste is just sitting in the environment, that’s trillions of dollars if you could recycle all of that into fuel. It’s BIG money. If there is gonna be any future at all, it’s gonna have to be a future where fossil fuels are much more highly regulated than they are right now. We want to be in a position where we are removing plastic from the environment, making it safe and not contributing to climate change. The fuel and the gas that we generate are far less polluting than regular fossil fuels. But they also offset the production of that same fuel coming out of the ground. A litre of fuel at the pump represents a whole chain to get it there from crude oil. All of it being burnt and released into the atmosphere. Our system bypasses that and creates an opportunity to drive the revenue of that plastic away from the oil majors and into the hands of local communities dealing with the plastic crisis right now. “Man, you know how bad it is.” Jeff looks up. “The plastic pollution crisis is so profoundly disturbing and the more you know about it, the more disturbing it becomes. The least we can do is focus our energies and try and do something positive about this crisis. Turn the problem on its head and make a difference. We can’t sit back, we can only fix this together.”
We think Jeff could not have stated it any better. Making a difference and working together is what The Dung Beetle Project is all about. If you’d like to make a difference, partner with us in our outreach programme or help donate to our cause. Or simply sign up to our newsletter to keep informed on The Dung Beetle’s journey to saving to the planet!