A pilot and his mission: to save the environment by transforming plastic waste to fuel

It’s not every day one comes across a person who can walk the talk. But I was lucky enough to meet someone who does and what he does is something extra-ordinary for the environment. UK-born pilot and now Australian resident Jeremy Rowsell has made it his mission to not only raise awareness about the negative impact of plastic products ending up in the world’s oceans, he is also promoting a brilliant idea: transforming plastic waste from being a pollutant into an alternative jet fuel.

Raising awareness about the environment is, in itself, quite a daunting and unrewarding task; it’s like carrying a sign on the street that says “The end of the world is near” while people just walk on by. Let’s face it, most of us know that plastic products and other pollutants cause death and damage to wildlife and the environment and yet most of us turn a blind eye to the problem. What’s worse is how we ignore the damage it can ultimately cause human health in generations to come. A recent report delivers not very good news for seafood lovers like me. Since sea creatures like plankton end up eating plastic waste, they can make their way into human bodies too.

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Researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium believe that microplastics accumulate in the body over time and could be a long term health risk.

Unfortunately, if we look back through human history, it is evident that it’s innate in most people to ignore something they perceive as “negative”. That’s because we are attracted to the “fun” side of life. I am guilty of that myself. When I see a documentary about how wildlife is getting affected by pollutants in the ocean, like a picture of a seal getting caught in a plastic bag or something icky, I shudder and begin to look away. Then I forget about it. In my mind, I immediately think that it’s someone else’s problem to solve and blame others by saying “shame on people who throw garbage indiscriminately!” This is exactly what I say when I see images of mountains of garbage washed up by the sea along the shore after a strong typhoon hits a Third World country like the Philippines.

That’s where Rowsell comes in. He wants everyone to get involved. After all, one person cannot do it alone. His project called “On Wings of Waste” has made being an “environmentalist” look cool. As a pilot, he sees firsthand the impact of pollutants like plastic. Since plastic does not break down, they build up and become what they call plastic soup in the ocean.

Rowsell and his co-pilot recently completed their mission – a world’s first – making history by flying his light plane across Australia about 500 miles from Sydney to Melbourne using 10 percent fuel derived from plastic waste blended with 90 percent conventional fuel. If airlines start using plastic fuel, the cost of airfare can potentially go down since as he pointed out, 33 percent of airlines’ operating costs are spent on fuel.

“Jeremy’s vision crystallised when he reached agreement with Plasticenegry, a Spanish based company, producing fuel made from end of life plastic. What emerged was the perfect marriage between the man, inspired by the barnstorming pilots of the 1930s with a mission to spread the word about marine plastic pollution, and a company passionate about the environment, delivering on the sustainable circular economy.

The project dubbed ‘On Wings of Waste’ was born. Jeremy has now flown a WAM RV-9 two seater aircraft in the skies above Wollongong and from Sydney to Melbourne. The ‘On Wings of Waste’ flight is an ambitious, daring and historic initiative to raise awareness about end of life plastic waste in our oceans and to highlight its potential benefits as a new source of fuel.”

Rowsell’s advocacy has certainly caught my attention and made me want to help raise awareness about the effects of plastic waste on the environment and our health. Indeed, he has proven that if you can convince one person, you have already achieved your goal. Starting with ourselves and changing our own behaviour towards how we treat and see plastic is what’s important. Next stop is to convince corporations to come on board. Once they are convinced that this is a big contribution to solving the plastic problem, the effort looks less like one pushing the tide.

This project could greatly benefit developing countries once it takes off. Countries like the Philippines can reduce the volume of garbage being dumped in the ocean once people find another use for plastic waste.

13 Replies to “A pilot and his mission: to save the environment by transforming plastic waste to fuel”

  1. Plastic should be a high value material. It should be in products that last a long time, and at the end of the life, you recycle it. To take oil or natural gas that took millions of years to produce and then to make a disposable product that last minutes or seconds, and then to just discard it — I think that’s not a good way of using this resource.

  2. The technology is not new. It is called: Pyrolysis – it is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material, at elevated temperature, without the participation of Oxygen.

    This kind of aviation fuel mix, has its problem; at high altitude level, where the temperature is cold…

  3. It’s a nice idea, but as hydentoro said, it’s well-known chemistry that has only marginal usefulness simply because it’s uneconomic.

    A far better approach would be to simply stop using plastic for all of those things where it’s completely unnecessary. It’s pretty bad in “The West”, but the Filipino obsession with plastic is ridiculous. Out in what ought to be pristine countryside, there’s always a confetti of washing-liquid sachets, empty packets of chips and other junk food, plastic bags, etc etc.

    99% of that trash should have never been sold in the first place. Why can’t sari-sari stores tell people to bring their own containers if customers insist on buying 25ml of shampoo? Why do idiot parents feed their kids with overpriced corn snacks instead of giving them proper food? Why do you need two plastic bags (one inside the other) to carry something that fits in your hand?

    A lot of countries now ban plastic bags, or set a minimum price for them (5-15 US cents, generally). It’s a small thing, but it’s had a large positive effect. It’s the sort of thing that even third-world countries can do easily. But I suppose if third-world countries ever paid attention to the low-hanging fruit, they would be third-world.

  4. Better way is to recycle used plastic wastes. They can be manufactured to various plastic items.

    Recycling works on: plastics, iron, papers, cellulose materials, glass, etc…

    There is no complicated technology used in recycling …

    1. hyden: no, they can’t. The cost of sorting, cleaning, and reprocessing is higher than the cost of buying new plastic, and the product is inferior (especially for colored plastics). That means extra man-hours are wasted, extra machinery must be made, extra energy burned, which all adds up to a more ecologically-unsound product.

      The general consensus these days is that it’s best to just burn it. Not in the Filipino way, of course (making a fast pile useful biomass plus plastic and letting it pump out noxious smoke and chemicals for three hours) but with lots of oxygen to ensure complete combustion. This seems fairly reasonable to me.

      The question remains: why do we insist on using so many plastic bottles, wrappers, and bags? They are entirely unnecessary. If people can drink their Red Horse from reusable bottles, why not do the same with water, milk, or those disgusting chemical-filled “fruit” juices that Pinoys are fond of?

  5. There is a good recycling method/system here in the U.S. Every household is given a container to to put these items to be recycled, and are collected every week.

    This includes plastic materials. I’ve seen the process,and it works.

    If the U.S. and other countries can do it…why not the Philippines ?

    1. I agree.


      Problem #1: how do you get a Filipino to follow simple instructions? Where I live there’s a separation policy and the receptacles are labelled. Everyone just throws random trash in any container they like. Not because they can’t read, but because they don’t care.

      Problem #2: local government officials have stolen all the money earmarked for trash collection/processing, or spent it on stupid things. So nobody will collect those sorted materials, and there’s no place for them to go anyway.

      Problem #3: nobody here has even heard of compost, or if they have, they don’t know how to make it. So you’ve now got tonnes of waste food separated out, and a bunch of Pinoy pen-pushers scratching their heads wondering how to set fire to it.

      Problem #4: metal recycling needs an advanced understanding of metallurgy and specialist equipment for sorting and testing. How is the average flyblown town going to afford that sort of equipment or expertise? Same with plastic recycling.

      I still say in a country like the Philippines, the best solution is to stop using stuff that people don’t have the money, brains, or social systems to deal with. The chips wrapper that isn’t used is a chips wrapper that doesn’t need recycling.

    2. People in the Philippines use plastic bags in lots of ways other than as shampoo sachets and coke bottles. I frequently see eateries in Metro Manila line plates and bowls with plastic bags. I assume tens of thousands of plastic bags are used every weekday during a single lunch hour in M.M. to compensate for the lack of running water to simply wash dishes. Plastic bag pollution is a systemic problem caused by substandard infrastructure. It’s a problem that needs multiple approaches. Besides, not everyone in the Philippines drives up to their suburban grocery store, in their car with a basket full of old plastic bags, because not even half of the Philippines owns a car to carry all the old plastic bags nor shops for food in a grocery store

  6. Teach these people, and let them learn….we will never improve our country, if we don’t try ! I don’t believe, they are too old to learn….

    “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan !”

  7. Of course.

    Task #1: hire some competent teachers, who are prepared to carry on teaching even when the politicians are stealing all the money for their schools. Hire armed 24-7 security for them, to protect them from parents who threaten their lives if they dare to discipline their horrible kids.

    Fifteen years later, you’ll have a generation of young people who aren’t spoiled, ignorant, badly-behaved psychopaths, ready and willing to get down to the serious business of learning how to build a country. You’ll also have a generation of 40-year-old spoiled, ignorant, badly-behaved psychopaths who, fortunately, will be dead from heart disease or diabetes within a decade or so.

    See, it’s quite simple 🙂

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