Sunday, January 27, 2019

1st Trees4Trash Cleanup on Cape Fear Dr. Burgaw, NC

Hurricane Florence made landfall on 9/14/18 along the NC coast, a direct hit in Wilmington, NC, where Plastic Ocean Project was founded. Here where we have been so fortunate to conduct research at UNCW with extremely talented scientists like Pamela Seaton, PhD. Ralph Mead, PhD., Alyson Taylor, PhD., and Brooks Avery, PhD. to name a few. Here where we work along side other dynamic nonprofits like Cape Fear Surfrider, Cape Fear River Watch, and Cape Fear Sierra Club. Here where students from K-12 on up to master students, community members, and business owners, help relieve some of the pressure on the planet due to plastic waste. Here marks the entry point of Flo where she brought up to 140 mph winds and 3 feet of rain. The Cape Fear River swelled up and out consuming sections of I-40 and other major roads, laying captive to the people trapped by the mote surrounding the New Hanover community. That part of the story, the news reported daily. The water receded and so did the press. What we were left with was a destroyed science building, Dobo Hall, where we conducted our research, thousands of trees, especially our hardwood centuries old, and devastated communities.

Communities, like Pender County, lacking the resources to remove debris turned into a legislative battle. Many of the residents were just recovering from Hurricane Andrew (one family had just moved back into the house two weeks prior) before Hurricane Flo filled the walls with river water tainted with human and animal excrement, up to the roof. There the water sat, in some cases, for weeks. Windows and doors broke open from the weight and surge of the water forcing belongings out of orifices and into nature.

Rumors of the area trashed by personal belongings, not intended to be forfeited, pricked the ears of Plastic Ocean Project and we decided to go have a look for ourselves. 

What we found in this area was not trash but actual peoples lives strewn about in and under the trees and lining many of the roads in ditches. One member of the community said children would cry seeing their beds and toys on the side of the road.  Because it has taken so long to remove the debris, everyday has been a constant reminder of what was lost 4 months ago. Seeing the devastation made it difficult for us to feel sorry for our own loss of lab space and thousands of dollars in research samples that could no longer be used.

For weeks we watched FEMA remove our beloved tree canopy that had fallen like soldiers due to our already saturated soil before the storm. The 140 knot winds made them an easy target. Wilmington, "The City of Trees" lost thousands of trees. We decided to combine the two issues. For every 25 lbs. of trash removed, we commit to planting 1 hardwood tree. As the saying goes, "Someone is sitting under a shady tree today because someone planted it many years ago." We hope to create a clean, shady place for the next generation to enjoy.

Anna Edmundson, Raleigh
Saturday, 1/26/19, was our first Trees4Trash Cleanup where we removed 3050.5 lbs of lost debris left behind after the community won their battle to have the large debris removed from the corner of Highway 53 and Cape Fear Drive, Burgaw. To look out over the area, one could see shiny objects peering out from the dried muddy soil that was a grassy field not long ago. A place where the locals would see animals prancing about.

We rented a 15 passinger van for UNCW students volunteers to take the 30 minute drive up, work 3 hours, then back. We were met by a caravan of cars lined up along Cape Fear Drive. Linda Edmundson and daughter drove down from Raleigh, NC, Maddy Arena, a high school student from Carteret County drove the hour to get there and Bev Lawrence and Jim Rineholt from Florida visiting in the area were there too. The Hammers Family, Karl, Angel, and Amanda, Cordelia Norris, Guilianna Martinelli, Kelsey Kelly from Extended Range Diving Services, and Harvey Tate all donned reusable gloves and reusable bags and quietly went to work in the debris field. They recovered things like keys, Good Luck coins, CDs, photos, toys, clothes, kitchen utensils, vintage baseball cards, and vases. Items that meant something to someone, not like the single use trash that we usually clean up. Our hearts broke a little when one of the volunteers brought a baby shoe to our table where we would put special items. Folks that lived on the road stopped to thank us, others grabbed their buckets and joined us. The owner of the property shared the story of how the location became a huge dump sight because the county would not be picking up on private roads, he offered his property close to the highway for the neighbors to put the destroyed items close to the road so FEMA would pick them up. But then came those who were paid to dispose of the debris in other neighborhoods who began dumping, and some tree removal outfits did the same, and the several acre area became a major dump site.

Roger Hamrick, Angel and Amanda Hammers

Caili Casadei UNCW
Darren Cannan who lived on the road asked what we were going to do with all the debris. Not truly prepared for the mass quantity of debris that laid before our eyes, we planned on coming back with a small trailer but soon realized we would need several. Before we knew it, he was gone and then back again with his flat bed trailer. "I can take one load, but we only have 10 minutes to get it to the site." Darren offered. We hurriedly filled the trailer and off he went.

We continued our assembly line of 30+ volunteers bringing filled bags weighing 10 to 50 lbs., while Tricia Monteleone and I took turns recording and weighing bags, then the debris would be handed off to another group who would transport the debris into garbage bags, and move it to the side. Darren came barreling back and said, "I can take one more." We loaded up his trailer again and off he went. More black bags piled up when he came back again. But this time he had another offer. "If you all are hungry, the Friendly Food Project at the end of the road said they would feed you. They knew you were coming and cooked extra." For real this happened. We finished up as fast as we could, piled into the van and found ourselves at a neighbor's house where Natalie Johnston, manager of Friendly Food Project, provided vittles. She cooks for this community free of charge several times a week. The food was incredible and so were the neighbors. Patti Cannan, Darren's wife, was one of the neighbors who joined the cleanup effort and as neighbors drove by she'd encourage them to "grab your buckets and come on!"

She hugged several of us and thanked us for caring enough to come out. "That location is a constant reminder of the pain we suffered in this community. It looks so much better."
Natalie Johnston, manager of Friendly Food Project
Phil and Lisa Barnes helped with the cleanup too, filling their tarp several times and moving it to the table for it to be bagged. After we ate, they brought us over to their home and showed us the water line on the second floor of their house. We then went down to their deck that faces the river and we could see with our own eyes how the river had to rise over 30 feet to find its way into the second floor of their home.

Patti and Darren Cannan loading up their trailer with debris
We soon got back on our way to finish packing up our supplies, weighing and tying up the rest of the bags when here comes Patti and Darren with their flat bed trailer. "We can take one more." We filled it up and off they went. We looked around and realized there was still a lot to grab. Chip Jackson gave me that look, when he said, "So you need a truck." We both looked at his truck and then back at each other, "I cleaned it out on the off chance." His pre-teen daughter Torie helped fill up his truck and we headed back to Wilmington where we disposed of it properly.

As the t-shirt Reads -Seahawk Strong!

Thank you UNCW Plastic Ocean Project students Noelle Minch, Shelby Cobb, Zachery Tyson, Kenna Robinson, Ceili Casadei, Claire Bachman, RAH, and especially President, Eric Dzenis, for donating your entire day to be a HUGE part of this project. Big POP is stronger with the awesome sauceness of UNCW POP. (Sorry if I missed any of you.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Plastic2Fuel Innitiative in Puerto Rico gets a GRANDE welcome

Flying across the beautiful blues of the Atlantic Ocean heading towards the Caribbean Sea, a Plastic Ocean Project team was embarking on its first trip to Puerto Rico to study the feasibility of a plastic to fuel solution for the island.  The team, consisting of Ned Buddy and Rafael Toro, was at the beginning of a 96-hour fact finding tour of the “Enchanted Island”.  POP’s research into a Plastics2Fuel solution for the islands of the Caribbean began 3 years prior.  Initial research on Puerto Rico was made possible with the help of Daniela Romero, an undergraduate and founding member of UNCW POP.   


Ned and Rafael had begun seriously discussing the use of a proven technology developed by a company called Renewlogy which takes plastics and converts them into a distillate and fuel oil combination, similar to a #2 diesel back in October 2017. Could we take this process and set up a prototype in Puerto Rico?

In December 2017, Rafael travelled to the island on family matters.  It was his first return to his native island in over 8 years. He saw firsthand the devastation wrought by the hurricanes, not just on the land, but on the people. Traffic lights were nonfunctional and approached with caution. Abandoned and neglected gas stations and homes made once bustling areas look like ghost towns. Bent and broken billboards, debris, trash, hanging tree branches, utility poles and lines littered the side of the roads.  But the noticeable effect of the hurricanes was on the faces of the Puerto Ricans.  The festive and jolly time of Christmas he remembered from his past was missing this year.

One glow of optimism came when Rafael visited longtime friend, Pedro Negrón, in his home near San German.  He related the harrowing 40 hours he endured during hurricane Maria and the immediate recovery efforts afterwards. Discussing the Plastics2Fuel initiative with him, they explored ideas of how to place such a system in Puerto Rico. He saw this as a worthwhile endeavor and even offered his land to locate it on. Being a long-standing member of the community, made him a unique barometer of POP’s vision.

On the approach into San Juan, the blue tarps still passing for roofs on the houses below were a stark reminder of the devastation wrought by hurricanes Irma & Maria 7 months prior. Yet driving the northern route across the island, we found ourselves surprised by the cleanliness of the surrounding landscape.  Although we saw numerous billboards toppled over into parking lots and buildings, as well as hundreds of trees lying a strewn in the hills, the highway roadside was clean and lush. The downed power lines, poles, and scattered debris were gratefully missing since Rafael’s last visit to Puerto Rico. The expressway to Arecibo showed signs of cleanliness, well-manicured landscapes and highway maintenance.


Traffic and street lights were functional and made for safe travels. In the distance homes and neighborhoods were lit up.  Going through town after town, we noticed such a high volume of traffic coming in and out of the malls, eateries, pharmacies and grocery stores. Business was flowing as usual.

We arrived in San German close to 10pm, settling into one of the original cities of the island, at the gracious bed & breakfast operated by Tony Linares just across the street from the Porta Coeli (Gateway to Heaven) Convent church, built in 1609. After a brief tour and background of the historic house which was to be our base for the next 4 days, we settled in for the night with coquis lullabying us to sleep.


We awoke Sunday morning, Earth Day, to a beautiful day. We headed off to visit several popular beaches in the southwest. Heading out through Cabo Rojo we reached Playa Buyé, a small cove with a reef and rocky shoreline. We continued on to Combate, passing through Boquerón. We reached the old fishing village in the southwest corner of the island near to the lighthouse. There we saw 55-gallon plastic barrels clearly marked for recyclable materials, but empty for the most part. We picked up trash along the ¼ mile beach. We received some weird looks but we also found some receptive offers of help.  We did get about 30 minutes of swimming in that beautiful sea. We filled up a dozen or so bags of trash, containing lots of straws, plastic cups, packets of Gasolina – a unique potent rum drink unfortunately sold in Capri-Sun like packaging.


Sunday evening, we had a traditional Puerto Rican dinner back at the house with Pedro Negrón and his wife Iris. In addition, the Head of Public Works for San German, the engineer, Damian Morales and the recycling coordinator, Ulises Quinones and their wives joined us. Breaking bread and getting to know them, gave us a greater appreciation for their hardships during the hurricane.  How resilient and resourceful the human being can be. All agreed that something had to be done with plastic waste.


Monday morning, we woke up to sound of roosters and the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Ulises picked us up at 9 to begin our tour of the municipality and the recycling center. He brought us through the network of recycling centers set up at the 15 schools in the municipality which complement the household collections. One of the schools was named Bartolome De Las Casas.  He was a Spanish monk who was sent to the island in the 16th century to study its population, fauna and wildlife. We felt like him on our research study. We continued on through the waste stream to the public works facility.

Reaching the municipality recycling center which is located in a small valley we entered a well-kept and orderly facility.  Entering into the building we passed a flatbed trailer loaded with empty black drums which had been flown in by FEMA as emergency fuel. Ulises offered these to us to store our fuel. We met with Damian Morales and his staff and presented him our initiative. We collected some data and more information on their services and programs. Later we toured the outdoor facility where we were able to view the sorting and baling of the various recyclable products.

We left to visit the next stage of the waste stream, WR Recycling, which manages the recyclables for 11 municipalities in the region. We proceeded to Bajura, a low-lying area where their Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) is. We were met by Melissa Bonilla Ramos, one of the administrators of the company, who graciously provided many facts, insights and a tour of the facility.  We spent a couple of hours there gaining an understanding of how it was operated. Since the hurricane, the Army Corps of Engineers has charged WR Recycling with processing the mounds of white goods (refrigerators, washers, dryers, stoves, vending machines, etc.)  collected throughout the region. As a result the amount of recyclables has piled up creating rows and rows of 10 foot high stacks of baled plastic containers, aluminum cans, plastic bags all around the grounds. This was also the cause of the backlog we witnessed at the sorting facility in San German.



Tuesday morning, Ulises took us to a regional landfill in Lajas. This landfill, one of the 28 across the island, has been in operation for over 40 years now and is one of the 12 which are not under closure orders from the EPA. It is operated by the municipality of Lajas.  We were granted access to drive anywhere we like and look around as long as we please. We explored the 34-acre site which takes in near 300 tons of waste a week. It too had huge mountains of white goods awaiting disposal. As we drove up the 100 foot “cliffs” of garbage we taken aback by the cake layered effect of plastic bags which had accumulated over the years.


Afterwards, we headed south towards the Caribbean Sea, we reached the town of Guayanilla. We had been invited there to tour their facility and present our initiative to Ruben Carrero, the Head of Recycling for the municipality. He has built a collection network of 5,000 homes as well as using the 19 schools in Guayanilla. They have their own MRF which processes over 250,000 lbs. of recyclables a month. Ruben has built a very resourceful network and is one of the few facilities actually able to find alternatives to the landfill for glass.


After visiting both facilities, we headed northwest past San German to Mayagüez where we visited Campus Verde. This is a collegiate initiative of the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, which encourages and educates how to responsibly manage the planet's resources inside and outside the campus. Campus Verde coordinates activities and workshops to raise awareness about the importance of living in harmony with the Planet. They provide innovations ranging from planting trees, cleaning beaches, movie presentations, conferences, and workshops to the community and now also offer an online course on Environmental Sustainability. In 2015, they opened an Eco House on campus. The opening ceremony was attended by Jane Goodall. Yamitza Gaztambide, Administrative Assistant, was graciously spent over an hour with us going over some of their presentations, explaining their background and programs and leading us on a tour of the Eco House.  The similarities between Campus Verde and UNCW POP were striking.


We returned to San German after a fulfilling and rewarding day to get some much-needed rest and prepare for our final day which would be in San Juan. Reflecting on our successes of the past 3 days, we were quite pleased that we had been able to view the whole of the waste stream from the schools to the sorting facilities, the recycling facility and the landfill. Around 4am, we were reminded of one additional piece, the household garbage collection!

Awaking just past dawn, we ate another delicious breakfast and packed ourselves up. After saying our goodbyes, we travelled off along the southern highway through Ponce and then north through the mountainous interior of the island and on to San Juan.  Along the way, we came across a large windfarm, saw one of the main diesel to electricity plants which creates the majority of the island’s electricity and wondrous views of the Caribbean. Travelling through the mountains, with thousands of trees strewn across the hills like toothpicks, you could understand the amazing logistics involved with bringing power to the final 10,000 or so households still dark 7 months on.


In San Juan, we met with Robert Castaneda and John Gray of Greenlink RE, a renewable energy company working on developing new technologies to make a positive impact upon the waste streams. They are also looking at using Renewlogy’s technology on a more commercial level. We traded our experiences in Puerto Rico and listened with interest to their other projects elsewhere in Latin America. After our cups of delicious Puerto Rican coffee, we moved on to lunch with Jessica Seiglie and David Savilla, the Executive Director and fellow Director of Basura Cero (Zero Waste). Over some delicious local seafood, we discussed how they are making an island wide impact on reducing the amount of waste generated in Puerto Rico.

We had such an inspiring time in Puerto Rico!  We went down there with the question of whether it could be possible to use a P2F technology in Puerto Rico. We were met with enthusiasm, cooperation, open doors and genuine encouragement to go forward with POP’s goal of a P2F solution for a Caribbean island. The answer to our hypothesis was a resounding YES!

We would be amiss if we did not thank POP for the faith in our convictions, Tony Linares for his hospitality, Jessica Seiglie for her perseverance in proof reading and fine tuning the Spanish version of our 36 slide presentation, Damian Morales for his insightful questions, Frontier Airlines for providing us the low cost fares which made this venture possible, to the family of Rehole Polyte and the rest of the Haiti team, Hannah Phillips, Annie Clark, Blada Johnson, Getro Deliscas, your tribulations were in our hearts during our journey, and to you, for reading our tale of adventure, hope and dreams of providing a sustainable solution to the “Planetary Pickle” that plastic waste has enveloped us in. We hope we have piqued your interest, inspired your creativity and perhaps we can count on you to help us to continue our research. For more information on Plastic Ocean Project’s Plastics 2 Fuel initiative, please visit