A Plan to Go Halfway Around the World, Fueled by Plastic Trash

HONG KONG — Sometime in the next few months, a single-engine Cessna will fly from Sydney to London. Converted to be able to carry extra amounts of fuel, the small plane will take 10 days for its journey, making 10 or so stops along the way.

What will make this journey special is not the route or the identity of the pilot — a 41-year-old British insurance industry executive who lives in Australia — but the fuel that the aircraft will be using: diesel processed from discarded plastic trash.

“I’m not some larger-than-life character, I’m just a normal bloke,” the pilot, Jeremy Rowsell, said by phone. “It’s not about me — the story is the fuel.”

The fuel in question will come from Cynar, a British company that has developed a technology that makes diesel out of so-called end-of-life plastics — material that cannot be reused and would otherwise end up in landfills.

Batches of the fuel will be prepositioned along the 17,000-kilometer, or 10,500-mile, route.

“The idea is to fly the whole route on plastic fuel alone and to prove that this technology works,” Mr. Rowsell said. “I’m a kind of carrier pigeon, carrying a message.”

The message of the project is twofold: to highlight the issue of plastic pollution and to publicize the possibility of using plastic trash as a valuable fuel resource.

As Mr. Rowsell put it: “We have a whole bunch of waste kicking about. So instead of sending it to the landfill, let’s use it.”

Durable, cheap and lightweight, plastic erupted onto the world stage in the 1950s. Designers and engineers recognized its usefulness for industries as diverse as bottling, construction, aerospace and retailing. Since then, global output of plastic has ballooned, reaching more than 300 million tons last year, according to the trade association PlasticsEurope.

The problem is that the vast majority of plastic — perhaps 85 percent — is not reused or recycled. Most ends up in landfills or, worse, the oceans, where the swelling mass of disintegrating plastic now poses a serious environmental threat. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls marine debris “one of the most pervasive pollution problems facing the world’s oceans and waterways.”

“Plastic is a convenient, super-interesting material,” said Charles Moore, an American researcher who in 1997 first discovered that a huge patch of fragmented plastic existed in the Pacific Ocean. “The trouble is that recovery and recycling have not kept pace with what we’re producing.”

Several of these “plastic gyres” — where currents cause the material to accumulate — have been found. More recently, the March 2011 tsunami that swept vast amounts of debris from Japan into the Pacific has thrust the topic of marine pollution into the public limelight.

 

 

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