Developing a tech solution in South Africa to convert the world’s plastic into energy – Scarabtech’s Jeffrey Barbee

Single-use plastic has become the key environmental issue of our time. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has predicted that there could be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. That figure may be disputed because fish are hard to count, but it is undeniably a massive problem. A company that is doing something about it is Scarabtech, a technology company that was started in the United States and its technology is now being developed in South Africa. They were one of the regional winners of the African start-up awards. The CEO and Founder of Scarabtech, Jeffrey Barbee’s vision is an army of their mobile units, called beetles that turns plastic into carbon-neutral energy. Barbee who is also an investigate journalist has recently highlighted a Canadian oil company efforts to explore oil in the Okavango Delta. He told BizNews that Southern Africa has become ‘ground zero’ for oil companies. – Linda van Tilburg

Plastic, plastic everywhere (or4.9 billion tons of plastic litter the earth):

Plastic is a persistent and growing problem around the world. 4.9 billion tons of it already litter the Earth, and it’s destructive to ecosystems. It’s dangerous to people’s health; it breaks down into smaller particles, and there’s really no safe way to get rid of it, except for putting it in landfill and covering it over. So, one of the problems with that is that putting it in a landfill means that the landfills are filling up all around the world. Most of the plastic on planet Earth was actually being processed in the Far East, in countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and these countries have refused to take any more plastic. So, we’re a Colorado-based company in the United States and in Colorado itself, we used to export most of our recyclable plastic to Southeast Asia on board huge ships. And now those ships are not going anymore. And landfills in Colorado, for instance that we’re going to fill up in 20 years five years ago, now have a projected lifespan of only five to seven years. So, this is a major problem for everyone around the world.

Scarabtech is using the same technology as Sasol:

We’re using the technology built on that system, on the coal to energy and to turn plastic, which has more energy density than coal, back into usable fuels that are carbon neutral and to also offset mined fuels and create a much more environmentally friendly product that also gets rid of plastic forever… The technology wasn’t actually developed by Sasol. It has been around before Sasol. So, this technology was actually used originally in Paris during the German occupation in World War II to create energy because they did not have any supplies of liquid fuels really. So, they would turn old rubber and first plastics, Bakelite, and stuff like that into energy that they could power the taxis of Paris. So, this is a very old technology that was harnessed by Sasol because at that time during apartheid, there was the blockade and there were no liquid fuels available. So, they used it to generate power to generate liquid fuels from coal.

Scarabtech started with Burning Man:

We actually are built on a not-for-profit that started six years ago. We got a grant from American-based Burning Man to take a machine that was inside of a vast, shiny steel earth made with recycled material. And that machine turned plastic into electricity to power arts and entertainment here at South Africa’s version of Burning Man called Africa Burn. And from that time, we built that off some technology that was created by one of our co-founders, Pierre Pretorius, who’s based in Limpopo. And we turned that into a current, commercially available machine that we are rolling out into pilots throughout southern Africa, not yet here in South Africa, but also in Bangladesh, Australia and Papua New Guinea. These are small systems because pyrolysis, which is the technology these systems are built on, has already been lauded for the last 15 years as a major way to get rid of plastic forever. But the problem is, it’s like most of human nature. People have been a little bit greedy. These machines have been built into the size of huge city blocks, and they are not very efficient. They also don’t create enough energy to justify their massive expense. These are machines that cost upwards of $70 million US dollars to build and run.

Smaller Beetles developed with great South African know-how:

What we did here in Johannesburg is focus on creating a much smaller machine that is modular, that fits in a 40-foot container, can be taken out, implemented within days where the plastic is the problem, and we’re talking about far-flung communities, usually far away from municipal solid waste sites like in northern Mozambique and central Mozambique, Bangladesh, the beaches of Papua New Guinea. These are places that have a massive plastic problem, a massive energy problem and are mostly already using generators to generate electricity. So, we’ve taken this great South African know- how, put it together with a big, very powerful international team, some of which is financed originally by the people who helped start Uber and the people who helped some of the first founders of Facebook.

Facebook backers and Uber founders got behind Scarabtech:

Maybe some of them felt a little bit guilty about those two ventures… But they got behind us because they could see that the plastic around the world is a major problem, especially in these far-flung communities. So,  our systems are affordable. We want to bring them down to about 40 thousand US dollars each, and they can be transported very easily overseas in containers and plonked where the plastic is a problem and start creating energy from people’s plastic. Within a week. So this is a small, modular, highly efficient system that creates usable energy from the get go.

No burning of plastic in Scarabtech beetles:

So, burning plastic is really bad for the atmosphere. There’s currently only two ways to get rid of plastic. Today you put it in the ground safely, you put it in the ground. That’s the only safe way. And that makes a problem for people down the road. But it stops it from being in the environment today, or you burn it into the atmosphere, which creates incredibly dangerous pollutants called dioxin. This is horrible for people’s health. You can see it hanging over the townships of Johannesburg, where people are burning plastic in barrels, particularly in the dry season. It creates a really terrible ground level ozone asthma in children. We do not burn plastic; we are heating plastic in a closed container just like a still does. So still, where you get whisky uses the sour mash, it heats it up, it t vaporises the alcohol out of the sour mash in a particular temperature. Then it really condenses it into alcohol. If you’re releasing that vapour into the atmosphere, you would have no alcohol or no product. So, in our case, we’re very meticulously capturing all of the vapour that comes out and then reconstituting it into a fuel that can be used to run generators or diesel engines.

When will they be commercially available?

We’re working on a group of commercial semi-commercial pilots around the world. These systems are complex but not too complex, and they are run by highly efficient software algorithms that our team has been developing here in Johannesburg and will be implementing these pilots in places like Maputo, possibly in Vilanculos in Mozambique, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and with our partners, our first commercial build partners in Australia. So, it was never our intention to be manufacturers of these machines and send them out from South Africa all around the world. It has always been our intent to have a very comprehensive group of plans where we have commercial build partners who have lots of experience in high tech fabrication. So, you could have a high-tech fabricator in Cape Town making these for the southern African market off of our designs, we would get the remittance from that. So, what we want to see is thousands, maybe tens of thousands of these machines in the next five years working all around the world, creating small economies that support them in the places, many of these places which need jobs and training in the places that are most highly impacted by the plastic problem.

Creating micro economies around beetletechs for local community benefit or (Only about 20% of plastic is actually recycled):

These create two types of micro economies around these machines. One is, it taps into the local economy that’s already picking up high value plastic, but it’s leaving a lot of the low value plastic in place and in place. We mean in our streets, our rivers and our beaches. So, it creates a small micro economy around it by valuing up the plastic that people would normally not pick up in return to the recycler. The recyclable plastics that we can all imagine. They have a very good recyclable value. They are easy to recycle, they use a lot less energy. And there is a large infrastructure in most places that will turn those plastics into new plastics. Again, keeping in mind that of all the plastic that goes into the recycling system, only about 20%  is actually recycled. So we then go to the small pickers, we call them plastic pickers, and in this case, we’re working on a project to develop one of these systems in Maputo. And so we’re working with the university in Guatemala on it, and they are helping us identify places we could implement this that would really value up the plastic that people are leaving in place. So, this  polypropylene plastics,  thin film plastics that are degraded but very low value. And so those people who are already picking up the plastic can make two or three times more money picking up all of the plastic, and we can employ more people than are currently being employed in that value chain.

So that’s one type of micro economy that is created by the implementation of these machines in the field. The second type of micro economy is the actual build of these machines. So, you can imagine in Indonesia they have a massive plastics problem in the eastern Indian Ocean, and they also have a very high level of manufacturing capability there. If you think about it, a lot of hard drives are made there. There’s a high level of computer-based engineering available in those places, but they are not using this technology yet. So, what we want to do is create manufacturing partners and create an economy around the development and implementation of the machines so that they will go out and build these machines, according to our very high level of safety that we e use here in South Africa and in Australia, and we will then be giving those designs over to them. They pay us a remittance and they develop these machines and implement them in some of the two and a half thousand islands in that Indonesian island chain. So those are the sort of partnerships that will make this scalable globally, and those are the micro economies that are built around them now.

Southern Africa is becoming ground zero for oil companies:

I’m a contributing writer to National Geographic. I’m a freelancer and I also work with The Guardian in London and sometimes for Thomson Reuters Foundation. I mostly follow environmental and scientific issues and mostly around sort of educational remit. So, what’s going on? What can be done about it? How were events unfolding on the ground? So, I fortunately have the chance to go to some of these places in the Okavango, myself and my colleague, my co-writer. Her name is Dr. Laurel Nemi, and she and I have been following ReconAfrica’s attempt, it’s a Canadian company to drill for oil and gas in the Okavango watershed, partly in Namibia and partly in Botswana. And we’ve seen throughout southern Africa over the last three years a large number of oil and gas companies coming into the region looking at developing resources here that they’re not really looking at developing elsewhere in the world, partly because of what we consider to be a limited regulatory environment and partly because they are just running out of other places to drill. And we’ve seen it on the Wild Coast of South Africa was shell recently, and we’re going to see it again now on the west coast of South Africa with a new group coming. And these are just two or three of the places that are being targeted.

There’s the Zambezi Valley, there’s the area around Vilanculos in Mozambique, then in northern Mozambique; we all know about the total investment there by the French company and the gas find that they found there. So, southern Africa seems to be ground zero right now for oil and gas. And one of the things that we looked at at Scarabtech,  was how could we limit the new drilling of oil and gas? And one way to do that is to take a plastic problem and turn it into a fuel solution that then basically helps bankrupt these companies and stops them from being able to sell more oil and gas to moSstly off grid power producers. And if you think about most off-grid power producers in Southern Africa or on Indian Ocean islands or in the Pacific are using generators, and that fuel is very expensive. It takes two to three litres of fuel to deliver one litre of fuel to an island like Vanuatu. And you can imagine that comes with a huge cost in carbon to drill it, to get it out of the ground, to drive it in a ship, to put it over the reef in a small boat, in a plastic container and deliver it to the person sitting on an island in the Pacific, who already has literally hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic sitting on their beaches.

A vision of an army of beetles cleaning up the world’s plastic:

In the next five years, we’d like to see thousands of these beetles cleaning up the plastic problem, creating energy microgrids and then supplanting those microgrids as the plastic diminishes with solar, which most of these places are very sunny. A combination of solar and wind power. And so, we develop a microgrid around the machines because they generate electricity at source, and then that microgrid is taken over by renewable energy. And we would like to see the plastic problem go away and be a completely renewable energy company in the next 10 years.

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