Interview by Viktoria Pashtriku
Today we are interviewing Captain Jim Holms about his organization Clean Oceans International, which helps improve our marine environment by training youth, educating the public, and transforming plastic debris into fuels.
Viktoria Pashtriku: Let’s start off with little about yourself. You have an extensive background with marine environments, can you tell us about that?
Jim Holms: I have been really lucky to be able to work on sailboats since the late 70s and it has taken me a lot of places. In 35 years or so I’ve witnessed a steady degrading of the environment, and it kind of bothered me.
VP: How did this background get you to Clean Oceans International? How did it all start?
JH: It was part of my job. I was fortunate enough to get involved with the marine education world, had a couple of opportunities to build marine educational programs, and that became kind of addicting. After the last job I did for the Monterey Bay Aquarium I came back to my sailing work, where I did a delivery down through the Panama Canal. On the other side of the canal there was a little island so covered in rubbish that it stopped me in my tracks and I decided that I had to do something. That was nearly 10 years ago, and I’m still on track to try to do stuff. It’s been a great little journey so far and I’m very proud of what we have accomplished.
VP: I see that you did an Alaska Coastline Cleanup where you had a lot of student volunteers. Can you tell us a little about that?
JH: One aspect of our program is that we have an educational component that we share with our local community college. Students in the marine science class are able to take an after-class elective. We meet once a month down at the nearby beach and teach a standard method of observing marine debris on the shoreline. At the end of the semester the students have a much better understanding of what the plastic pollution problem is and have their own perspective on how to document it.
“I did a delivery down through the Panama Canal. On the other side of the canal, there was a little island so covered in rubbish that it stopped me in my tracks, and I decided that I had to do something.”
Many of the students stay with us; last year we had the opportunity to have half a dozen of us go to Alaska and work with a group of eight up there. In the week that the weather allowed us to work we were able to collect about 20 tons from three miles of shoreline on Montague Island. We are very happy and very proud of that and are doing it again in January. This time we are going to the Hawaiian Islands to work with three different organizations over there.
VP: You guys appear to be very expansive location-wise: California, Alaska, and now Hawaii. Depending on where you are located, does the plastic pollution change?
JH: Absolutely. And it is a dramatic difference from one area to another. In my migration up and down the West Coast here, I’ve noticed that in our time in Alaska we saw a lot of very large stuff which was coming out of a counterclockwise current up in the Gulf of Alaska. It’s countered exactly to the North Pacific Gyre. This ends up depositing everything on the eastern-facing shores up in the islands of Alaska because of the rotation of the currents.
The same with the southwest-facing shores of British Columbia, where the trash collects because right around there the current splits. In Washington you still see some larger debris, but you’ll also start seeing some of the smaller stuff on the northern-facing beaches. Through Oregon you see a much finer type of marine debris plastic: micro-debris. Some of it is coming out of the riparian environments from where the cities are. A lot of it is just micro-debris that is left over from the plastic circulating around in the Gyre. And by the time you get to California, mostly what people are finding is spread around from local activities rather than ocean-born. It is a dramatic change when you go from one location to another.
VP: As far as cleaning it up, because of the changes how cautious do you have to be using different technologies? How do you determine what you need to use to clean up?
JH: Right now we are mostly experimenting. We try to teach everyone what we are working with and that everything we are picking up is essentially considered toxic waste. We’ve got a tabletop exhibit where we show this.
In the exhibit we have bags with nerdles [small microplastic pellets] in them. They are pre-production nerdles. The nerdles are all stained different colors. We explain that the color of those stains depict the different chemical composition signatures of what has attached itself to what were originally clear white nerdles. That really gets the message across.
“These days, there is an incredible influx of plastic from outside sources, no method whatsoever for recycling, and very little options for getting petroleum fuels. This solution covers a lot of different areas and solves a lot of different questions with one simple technology, and everybody wins.”
People understand that all the plastic floating around in the ocean has toxic waste on its skin, and to recognize that it gets into their food chain. We try to teach people to be afraid. I think that’s really the right way to go.
VP: That sounds great! Can we just shift a little and discuss the Plastic-to-Fuel technology? How does it work? How did you get started to do the campaign for it?
JH: My former partner discovered Plastic-to-Fuel while I was on a research trip. He said he found the answer to our questions about what to do with rubbish once we manage to collect it. I got wind of it and we started to do research. We eventually realized that we needed a small-scale version of this large-scale technology. At that point it didn’t exist.
A couple of years later we discovered that there were some miniaturized versions of the technology. We started walking down that road about five years ago. It has taken that long to go through the education process to learn the technology.
Right at the moment we’re pretty heavily committed to a program out of Michigan which originated in Indiana. We have our first prototype here in Santa Cruz called the PTF 100. Our unit is small and experimental, and can convert about 10 pounds of plastic per hour into approximately a gallon of gasoline equivalent.
It uses very little electricity once it gets warmed up and running. We’ve installed that system and all the support equipment into a trailer and have it on the college campus to use as a laboratory with the intent of proving that the technology is clean. We show people how much energy and effort it takes to produce ‘X’ gallons of fuel in these systems; that way they will be able to determine whether or not it’s an economically viable option for plastic recycling.
VP: That sounds like such a good idea! What do you hope the future for this Plastic-to-Fuel technology will become? What do you hope to get out of this campaign? Do you want us to start using it nationwide?
JH: That is the perfect question. Right now there are half a dozen or so large-scale systems in our country that can take many tons a day and produce fuels. The stumbling block: when you turn around to make a profit by selling that fuel, you have to compete with a very entrenched system that happens to be owned by the petroleum companies. It is difficult for [small operations] to get into the commercial sales aspect of their fuels and to meet the standards, so many of them are surviving by selling their product to the oil companies.
We believe that on a smaller-scale, communities will be able to dispose of their own plastic waste and keep the profit centralized. That will provide a local motivation to manage the plastic pollution problem in that neighborhood and thus keep it out of the environment. Our intent is to promote this to either communities or industries or individual users that can then earn a return on their investment by doing the right thing. And most notably this will work perfectly in say, the Wilds of Alaska, where there really is not much option for an infrastructure and there is still plenty of plastic debris. Or perhaps Pacific Island Nations, or any tropical island nation actually.
These days, there is an incredible influx of plastic from outside sources, no method whatsoever for recycling, and very little options for getting petroleum fuels. This solution covers a lot of different areas and solves a lot of different questions with one simple technology, and everybody wins. That is what we are trying to promote: small-scale adoption of this technology and rather than try to compete in the open market with sales, the end user will then offset the cost they already incurred through import use of petroleum products.
VP: I really like this idea of working with smaller communities on this project. By promoting Plastic-to-Fuel technology to local communities and educating students, does Clean Oceans International seek to create a future of small-scale, eco-friendly communities?
JH: Well, what we are doing at the moment is using our community as a test case. Our community here is 30 thousand people or so in the town itself and we’re disposing of around 16 thousand pounds of plastic per week. This plastic might otherwise be recyclable except for the fact that it is not valuable enough in most cases.
If in fact we’re able to divert all of that and make fuel, that would be approximately 16 hundred gallons of diesel fuel or gasoline. The price here in Santa Cruz, we’re going to say for our purposes, is $3 a gallon for diesel fuel. That is around $4,500 a week.
If we factor in electricity and maintenance and a few other odds and ends, we’re probably going to reclaim around $420,000 to $450,000 investment in approximately two and a half years or so. The communities are getting the greatest financial return on their investment, and that is what we are trying to encourage – financial motivation to do the right thing.
VP: Do you have any final things to say about Clean Oceans International?
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VP: Thank You!
JH: Thank you for taking an interest and letting us speak our piece. Aloha!