If you’ve ever tried to navigate your county’s recycling rules, you’ve probably realized that there’s a lot of plastic that can’t be recycled. And most plastic can only be recycled once.

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s landfills are nearing capacity, and plastic is polluting the oceans and washing up on Hawaii’s beaches.

But residents are looking for creative ways to address the growing plastic problem. The latest episode of “Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” profiles three ideas sent in from listeners.

Plastic To Petroleum

On a Saturday in late February, a group of elementary students and adult volunteers gathered outside Kamiloiki Elementary School in Hawaii Kai to sort through giant garbage bags full of plastic bottle caps.

Suzanne Frazer teaches members of Kamiloiki Elementary School’s “Save The Environment” club how to clean bottle caps so they can be melted down into fuel. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

The kids were part of the school’s Save The Environment Club, one of dozens of groups who worked with the nonprofit Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii to collect plastic lids, plastic bottle caps and other flimsy types of plastic from across the state.

Their hope is that the flimsy plastic can be melted down into fuel for ships and planes.

“There’s probably always going to be a need for fuel, so why not get it from all the plastic waste that exists today,” said Suzanne Frazer, who heads the nonprofit.

But the plastic has to be completely clean and free of any stickers before it can be melted down.

That’s where 10-year-old Hannah Ferguson comes in.

“I saw a video about the environment and how it’s getting damaged and I wanted to save it,” she said while donning gloves and starting to sort through the giant pile of caps on the sidewalk in front of her classroom.

Volunteers filled a 40-foot shipping container to the brim with plastic caps — all from people in Hawaii. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

After months of work, the groups collected and cleaned enough plastic caps to fill a 40-foot shipping container with about 7,000 pounds of plastic.

It arrived at New Hope Energy in Texas mid-March. New Hope Energy is one of six companies experimenting with plastic-to-fuel in the country and at peak capacity, their factory can produce 4,500 barrels of fuel a day.  The technology to “chemically recycle” plastics into fuel has been around for years, but in past decades many endeavors have been thwarted by sudden drops in the price of oil.

The price of oil is once again low, which will make it hard for plastic-to-fuel companies to compete, but Frazer is hoping that local governments will start investing in plastic-to-fuel as a way to empty their landfills.

“I think that this is one of the technologies of the future, because there’s a lot of potential,” she said.

Right now the shipping container with Hawaii’s plastic is just waiting at a train station in Texas, but once it’s safe to travel and work again the caps will be shredded, melted down and the experiment can continue.

“We’re so close to this being a reality after years of hard work,” said Frazer. “Just need this pandemic to pass and then we can start production.”

Building Blocks

Turning post-consumer plastic into construction material is an idea that was specifically mentioned by nine different “Are We Doomed” listeners.

Ed Grieser runs a company in Pennsylvania that makes building blocks from all sorts of plastic — no prior cleaning required.

“This is the bottom of the barrel stuff,” he said. “This is the type of plastic that if we weren’t working with it, it would absolutely be going into a landfill.”

Ed Greiser’s invention stabilizing a hillside in California. Courtesy: Ed Grieser/HydroBlox

He melts down plastic film, dirty bottles, even plastic with stickers on it, and extrudes the plastic “noodles” into porous building blocks, which he calls HydroBlox. They’re used across the country as a substitute for gravel underneath athletic fields, as foundations for gardens and to stabilize hillsides.

“It looks like a burnt Rice Krispie,” he said. “And it is stronger than the normal concrete.”

Hawaii, like many communities across the country, doesn’t produce enough plastic to make a traditional recycling facility economically viable, so recyclables have to travel thousands of miles to a large plant.

Grieser thought this model was a waste of financial resources, so he started bringing his HydroBlox machines to different communities on the backs of flatbed trucks.

“We tell the community, ‘Hang on to your plastic’ and … we just come in with our equipment and process the plastic right there on site,” he said. “We call it FLOW — it’s the factory line on wheels.”

Whether this makes sense in Hawaii remains to be seen. Grieser will face the same challenge companies looking to set-up-shop on islands face: geography, price of land and high operational costs.

Grieser is currently working with a few local governments in the Caribbean to bring a mobile HydroBlox factory to their island communities, which Grieser hopes could be a model for Hawaii.

And although he does care about the environment, at the end of the day Greiser says he has a business to run, and he wouldn’t be expanding to the Caribbean and the Hawaiian Islands if it didn’t make economic sense.

“As much as we’d love to tear at your heartstrings, tell you that ‘this is the right thing to do …’ it has to make sense in the market,” he said.

Microplastic Magnets

Elm is often accompanied by her dog Jack on walks to collect microplastics off the beach. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

Most recycling facilities won’t take marine debris because they can’t verify the type of plastic.

While Stephanie Elm was horrified at how much trash washed up on her nearby beach, she was also inspired by all the different colors.

“Green army men toys, bright red toothbrushes, blue nets and purple — that’s the one that’s really rare so it’s exciting when I find that,” she said.

Using alphabet molds filled with these bright shards of plastic, she creates magnets shaped like little letters. She runs her business, Micro Malalo, out of her spare bedroom where every surface is covered in tiny molds of the letter “A.”

“There’s so many A’s and vowels in the Hawaiian alphabet that I would always be turning over A’s so quick and running out,” she said.

She says she regularly sells out at farmer’s markets and craft fairs across Oahu. Creating magnets, jewelry and keychains from microplastics won’t be enough to clean Hawaii’s beaches but Elm hopes the little magnets remind people to stop using so much plastic in the first place.

“Make an effort to buy more sustainable products, find alternatives for products that they use every day and make better choices when it comes to buying so that we’re not having to continually keep picking these up and clean the beaches and hurting our environments,” she said.

Stephanie Elm hopes tourists taking the magnets home use the opportunity to educate their friends and family about marine debris and its effect on Hawaii. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
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