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SANTA CRUZ—The vision of recycling thousands of tons of discarded plastic in Santa Cruz County to fuel local diesel vehicles is one step closer to reality thanks in part to veteran boat captain Jim “Homer” Holm, who has campaigned to bring a small, commercially viable, plastic-to-fuel conversion machine to town next month for research and testing by Cabrillo College students.
If testing validates manufacturer claims, the technology could be a new alternative to shipping tons of plastic overseas for recycling or letting hard-to-recycle materials fill landfills. Instead, local communities would have a new, almost infinite fuel source to run diesel machinery.
“I’m trying to prove that this stuff works and slowly move us forward,” said Holm, a founding director of Clean Oceans International, formerly known as Clean Oceans Project.
Holm says he’s “been talking trash for years.” With a team of about 20 volunteers, he teaches in schools, works on research vessels and tries to collaborate with innovators developing recycling technologies. He calls it a labor of love that comes naturally to a sea captain with nearly 40 years at the helm. “I feel somebody’s got to do something and who is that?”
While plastic recycling technology is not new, bringing the technology to communities in the form of scaled down machines for smaller commercial use would avoid costly transportation costs. The machine that is coming to town is the new PTF100, a plastic-to-fuel converter designed by Michigan-based EcoFuel Technologies. It weighs about 500 pounds and is said to be able to recycle about 10 pounds of plastic into a gallon of clean, useable fuel per hour, 24 hours a day. Holm said he stumbled across the technology during his decade-long quest to clean up the ocean.
The PTF machine can be customized to a particular waste stream and with additives can provide a final product that is very close to diesel fuel, according to Swaminathan Ramesh, chief executive officer of EcoFuel Technologies. Ramesh will be with Holm at Cabrillo College next month presenting the technology to interested parties.
“We can actually go where the plastic is,” Ramesh said, noting that a machine that recycles 10,000 pounds of plastic a day is still small enough to fit on a truck.
Although the machine can recycle most plastics, the best candidates, according to Holm, are low and high density polyethylene (grades 2 and 4), such as milk and detergent jugs, grocery bags and food wrap; polypropylene (5), including yogurt containers and shampoo bottles; and polystyrene (6), such as egg cartons, hot beverage cups and packaging peanuts.
“The city would be directly substituting the fuel for something they would have to pay a premium price for,” Holm said. “If the city produced 100 gallons a day, it would be 100 gallons of diesel they don’t need to buy. You’ve raised the value of that to retail.”
The city of Santa Cruz, which is offering its plastic waste for the project, would welcome an alternative to shipping plastics overseas or filling its landfill, said Craig Pearson, superintendent of Waste Disposal.
“We get more (plastic) than you could imagine,” Pearson said.
In fiscal year 2013, the city of Santa Cruz collected 86 tons of PET plastic, which includes soda bottles and medicine jars, but it also collected 137 tons of mixed plastic—milk jugs, shampoo bottles and motor oil as well as hard to recycle Tupperware, margarine containers, yogurt boxes and syrup bottles and other items characterized as harder to recycle materials such as plumbing pipes. Mixed rigid plastics — 192 tons of it — and 68 tons of film plastic were also collected by the city in that year. Plus there are millions of little pieces and single use items such as straws, razors, to-go cups and dental floss picks that simply fill the dump.
“The city thinks it’s a great idea to turn the plastic into fuel,” Pearson said. “We’re really interested in seeing the demonstration at Cabrillo. It’s a really hard commodity to recycle because of all the different grades.”
People at Cabrillo have also expressed interest.
“Depending on how good this machine is, if we can convert the plastics on our campus to fuel we can use the fuel to power the campus,” said David Schwartz, chair of Geology, Oceanography and Environmental Science at Cabrillo College. Cabrillo marine science students have been working with Holm’s group to monitor plastic pollution in the area. Chemistry students will be involved in testing the PTF machine and its byproduct. “Our hearts are behind it. I think he’s really got something big on the horizon.”
Although Holm isn’t talking about creating a fuel that competes on the open market, Ray Newkirk, owner of The Green Station, an alternative fuel station in Santa Cruz, said he was still looking forward to the prospect of a new, locally created alternative fuel.
“I’m thoroughly stoked about the possibility of helping to clean up the ocean,” Newkirk said. To be viable commercially, it has to have a price competitive with subsidized petroleum products. “Economics dictate people’s thought process more than saving the planet or cleaning up the ocean.”
EcoFuel Technologies’ Ramesh says he’s sold smaller prototype machines and anticipates commercial production of larger machines to begin in 2016 and sell for close to $1 million. “The market is huge. There is so much plastic around. If we put out 1,000 machines, we’ll hardly make a dent.”
From his second floor office looking out at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, Holm said he has raised enough money from private donations to keep the doors open and bring the PTF to Santa Cruz but, last week he was still trying to foot the bill for transportation costs.
“I’m not a businessperson,” he said. “Fundraising in itself is a full-time job.”
Holm said he has recently been approached with a possibly more lucrative way to turn plastic recycling into a viable business venture. He envisions one day sailing to remote Pacific islands with a plastic-to-fuel machine onboard. Coastal communities could bring their own plastic out to the sailing PTF machine and try it out for themselves.
“What’s in it for me? Clean oceans are in it for me,” he said.
CLEAN OCEANS INTERNATIONAL
ABOUT: Clean Oceans International is a nonprofit organization working to clean up marine plastic pollution through new technology, education programs and advocacy projects. The organization is creating partnerships throughout Santa Cruz County to pursue local plastic recycling and beach cleanup and environmental research.
LEADERSHIP: Jim “Homer” Holm, a cofounder and executive director.
BACKGROUND: Incorporated as non-profit organization in 2009.
INFORMATION: 476-8267; http://cleanoceansinternational.org
PTF MANUFACTURER: EcoFuels Technologies was founded by Swaminathan Ramesh in 2011 in Michigan by (http://ecofueltech.net/)
PRODUCT: The PTF10000 should be able to recycle more than 10,000 pounds of plastic a day and all the way to 100,000 pounds or more using the modular design features.
DONATIONS: GoFundMe Plastic to Fuel Conversion Project:
A version of this article appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.