Fuel project to curb plastic attack on seas

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am


With rapid development and a growing appetite for plastic, Asia is on track to become a major contributor to the vortexes of rubbish in the world's oceans, a marine conservation group has warned.

There are signs that Hong Kong could already be partly to blame for the pollution.

But a joint project in the city is seeking to stop some of the tide of rubbish and turn it into fuel.

Doug Woodring, co-founder of Project Kaisei, a marine conservation non-profit working to remove rubbish from the world's oceans, says that some industry estimates predict the appetite for plastics in Asia will rise from 20 kilograms per person per year in 2008 to 36 kilograms by 2015.

Woodring says that given the region's lack of recycling facilities and landfills, a portion of this mounting pile of plastic is bound to end up in the ocean, adding to the several ever-growing 'trash vortexes'.

Trash vortexes are remote parts of the world's oceans where currents bring together plastic detritus like lighters, bottle caps and nets.

The largest of the five known is in the North Pacific, with some scientists estimating the total contaminated area to be as big as the US state of Texas.

The impact of the rubbish can be gruesome. Autopsies of seabirds show stomachs lined with lighters and other bits of colourful plastic. Turtles struggle to survive with nets strangling their torsos. And micro-particles of plastic collect in fish, which can ultimately end up on dinner tables, according to Woodring.

'We tested fish of 5cm or less in the [North Pacific] area to see if they contained plastic - 10 per cent of the fish had plastic in them,' Woodring said. 'But without more studies, it's hard to know the exact impact.'

Hong Kong could easily be a culprit. Project Kaisei says pieces of plastic with Chinese characters have been seen among the rubbish in the North Pacific vortex.

Hong Kong does have a ravenous appetite for plastic. According to the Environmental Protection Department, the city threw away 3,991 tonnes of plastic per day in 2009. And last year more than 36 tonnes of rubbish was removed from stretches of the Hong Kong coastline in beach clean-ups by the public.

But there is some cause for optimism. Woodring and the Project Kaisei team are working with Hong Kong-based Ecotech Recycling to promote its plastic-to-fuel technology to stop at least some of the waste even reaching the water.

The hope is that the plastic destined for landfills can be collected and converted into marine-grade diesel fuel - possibly to power clean-up vessels.

Ecotech project manager Bryan Ching says the company is applying for various government licences to operate its conversion plant in Fo Tan.

Woodring says a number of Pacific island and South American nations are interested in the conversion technology and the Philippines may be the first to adopt it.