We tend to view plastic waste as worthless garbage, but a group of innovators and creators in Africa view it as an unexploited asset. They created the Dung Beetle Project, an art project that includes a pyrolysis gasifier to turn plastic into usable fuel. Through the effort, which recently debuted at AfrikaBurn and was spotted by the Land Art Generator Initiative, the Dung Beetle Project hopes to convert plastic from a problem to a solution. Inhabitat spoke with the project’s Finance and Marketing Director, David Terblanche, to find out more.
Ideally, the Dung Beetle Project will roll around emulating the insect from which it draws its name — cleaning up waste and transforming it into something useful. The trailer-mounted movable art piece was sculpted with recycled metal in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it contains gasification technology that recycles plastic into low-emission diesel and liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG. It’s not just the shape of the Dung Beetle that catches attention — it actually shoots flames into the sky by firing recycled gas, and it features an art stage as a platform for musicians, artists or jugglers to create “a spectacle of light and sound…to ignite people’s imaginations and spark excitement about solutions to environmental problems,” according to the group’s statement.
“We want to change people’s perceptions around what plastic is,” Terblanche told Inhabitat. “Right now it’s viewed as a waste, as litter, as a blot on the landscape,” but the Dung Beetle Project could help communities realize “this is a commodity that we can harvest, that it’s got some value, that we can turn it into something.”
The Dung Beetle Project got its start when inventor Pierre “Pops” Pretorius, who lives on a rural farm, was tinkering with a gasification system using macadamia nut shells that would otherwise largely be discarded, according to Terblanche, a longtime friend of Pretorius and Jeffrey Barbee, project director and director of Alliance Earth, the organization backing the Dung Beetle Project. Pretorius wondered what else he might be able to gasify and thought of plastic. The friends all attend AfrikaBurn, a regional offshoot of Burning Man, and thought maybe they’d show off the gasification technology there. They had a scale working prototype and decided to transform it into a playa-ready art project. Both AfrikaBurn and Burning Man offered funding that the Dung Beetle team used to create a more sophisticated prototype; artist Nathan Honey designed the metal beetle shell.
Here’s how the Dung Beetle Project works: plastic is shredded into pieces and burned in an oxygen-free environment in a reactor; gases then rise up while physical particles are recirculated to be burned again. The gases run through cooling ribs and condense into liquid, “similar to how a whisky still might work,” Terblanche says. Fuel drips out, and it can be used to power a vehicle or generator. According to the group’s statement, “Anything not burnt will fall out the bottom as pure carbon that can be placed directly into the soil to enrich it, or made into something more exciting like nano-tubes or graphene sheets.” There’s no waste, and while some emissions are produced when the resulting fuel is burned — it isn’t a clean fuel — the process used to create that fuel has no emissions, and the fuel itself burns cleaner than oil.
Any plastic could be gasified, but there are some types the team avoids using, like PET, as it’s easily recycled, or white PVC piping, which has chemicals like chlorine that don’t work well with the gasification process. “The big benefit is that [the Dung Beetle Project] can process things that can’t be recycled, like the cellophane wrapping your pre-packed salad comes in, and this process allows you to process items that would have just ended up in a landfill,” Terblanche said.
The vision for the Dung Beetle goes beyond AfrikaBurn. The group aims to take it on a roadshow to educate people and work with communities to create lower-tech versions inspired by Pretorius’ original gasifier built with recycled parts.
“The really nice thing about the low-tech version is it can kind of be built in any little backyard garage. So imagine a mechanic who has a welding machine and a workshop. That’s all you probably need to make one of these,” Terblanche said. “So we want to spread the message, and if we can get hundreds of these out there, then we’re going to have hundreds of communities which are cleaning up their own plastic. And then at a community level you starting changing people’s behavior so the plastic doesn’t reach the ocean.”
The project could even offer incentives to preserve forests: in places with shortages of fuel or employment, people chop down ancient hardwoods to make charcoal to sell. The Dung Beetle technology could provide fuel security as people use plastic instead of wood for fuel, and people could even sell the plastic for money or some of the fuel a gasification system would generate.
In the future, the members of the Dung Beetle Project even see themselves taking to the seas on a boat powered with their tech, bringing the message to island communities facing plastic washing up on their shores. Terblanche said they’d love to “go out into some of these ocean gyres and basically fish for plastic and turn it into fuel on the boat, which we can then store in oil bunkers at the bottom of the boat. At worst, you’ll power the boat and get it across the ocean with its own plastic fuel; at best, you’re creating a commodity which you can actually sell.”
The group has been invited to come work with a Mozambique nonprofit; there’s also been interest in the Dung Beetle Project from a Cape Town sustainability institute and even Serengeti National Park. Regardless of what happens, we’re curious to see where the Dung Beetle rolls in the future.
Images courtesy of Jeffrey Barbee