In honor of World Water Week, I want to introduce a spectacular organization – Plastic Odyssey – based in France and co-founded by Simon Bernard, one of Forbes 30 under 30 (what was I doing in my 20s?!).
Simon and the team from Plastic Odyssey are carrying the torch of the great French ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, in a mission to enlighten the world to the importance of preserving the vast and mysterious ocean ecosystem.
Specifically, Plastic Odyssey has set its sights on proliferating technologies to free the oceans of plastic detritus in absolutely the most efficient way possible – stopping it from entering the water in the first place.
Whereas most of the organizations I feature in this column are for-profit ventures that are using cutting-edge technology to adapt to or mitigate the negative effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, Plastic Odyssey is a non-profit organization using open-source and off-patent technology.
Despite the seeming mismatch, I believe the work that Plastic Odyssey is doing manifests the most compelling advantages of capitalism to bring lasting, positive change into the world.
The idea for Plastic Odyssey first germinated with Simon when he was visiting Dakar, Senegal and was amazed at the ubiquity and ingenuity of the plastics reuse. The reuse, though, was limited to cases where an existing object could be repurposed in a new way, rather than what we in the Western world think of as recycling: using mechanical or chemical means to break plastics down into components that could be used in totally new plastic goods.
“I kept telling myself,” Simon told me, “that if plastic recycling technologies, held by only a few specialists today, were to be democratized, not only would this pollution disappear, but thousands of jobs would be created.”
The item that is so numerous it overwhelms the innate recycling creativity of the Senegalese is the discarded drink bottle. As anyone who has traveled to a developing economy is aware, infrastructure to carry and provide clean, potable water is often absent or unreliable. The natural reaction for people living in such conditions is to buy bottled water.
The empty plastic water bottles end up being tossed hither and thither…eventually winding up in the ocean. Simon tells me that an amazing 20 tons of plastic enter the ocean every minute and that 90% of marine pollution comes from the coastal cities of only 32 countries.
In developed countries with a functioning recycling industry (ahem, NOT the US), plastic waste is collected and sold onto recycling plants. These enormous facilities wash, dry, crush, shred, heat, and pelletize the used plastic to make new things – carpet or shopping bags or the like.
This is a good business – the European recycling industry generates something like $200 billion in revenues – but the equipment is expensive, and the collection process requires an established and efficient infrastructure that developing countries simply do not have.
The brilliant insight that the Plastic Odyssey founders had was that, to the extent that plastic recycling is a well-understood technology, there are plenty of off patent and open-source tools that can be cheaply acquired and profitably run by local entrepreneurs. If onshore plastic waste can be turned into a source of profits for local entrepreneurs, that plastic waste will be captured and converted before it can make its way into the ocean.
The Plastic Odyssey team’s plan is to travel the world’s oceans on its ship, the S.S. Plastic Odyssey, teaching local landlubbers how to turn plastic waste into a valuable economic resource and offering them training on the necessary tools to do so.
The S.S. Plastic Odyssey serves not only as a mode of transportation, but also as a research and floating demonstration lab. It carries a pyrolysis machine that can chemically convert certain types of plastics into fuel for the ship as well as a full complement of mechanical recycling devices the team will use to demonstrate to local businesspeople and community organizations.
However, Plastic Odyssey’s goal is not only to educate people in developing worlds about profitable ways to solve the problem of plastic pollution, but also to teach those of us in the developed world real facts regarding the problem of ocean plastic.
Simon tells me there have been so many misleading statements about oceanic plastic waste in the media that he sees part of his mission as correcting the fake news that now threaten to crowd out the truth.
The biggest myth has to be that we can simply drive a boat around and hoover up the plastic that is sitting, island-like, on the surface of the ocean. Yes, such places do exist, but according to academic research 90% of plastic waste that makes it to the ocean simply sinks to the bottom. A large proportion of the remainder is chewed up in the waves, becoming nano particles that we end up eating every time we go out for a nice sushi dinner.
The only real way to solve the problem, he says, is to catch the plastic while it is still on the land. The best way to do this is to provide economic incentive for people to do so. Recycling is the best way to provide this incentive and the fact that so many open source and off-patent tools exist turn the recycling effort into an economic activity that can lift families out of poverty and measurably improve the lives of local communities.
I led off this article saying that even though Plastic Odyssey is a non-profit using old technology, it was a perfect manifestation of capitalistic impulses; the economic incentives laid out in the preceding paragraph should be all the evidence needed as proof. Capitalism is an economic expression of humanity’s ability to adapt and solve problems. Simon, his partners Alexandre Dechelotte, and Bob Vrignaud, and the rest of the Plastic Odyssey team are offering local communities the economic incentives to adapt and solve the very real problem of ocean-based plastic waste.
The Plastic Odyssey team knows, as I know, that we must challenge our assumptions and develop new models for solving problems if our civilization is to survive and thrive in the 21st century.
Intelligent investors take note.