Simon Bernard, Co-Founder and CEO of Plastic Odyssey, was the guest of honor of the event organized by Frenchfounders and hosted by the Consulate General of France in San Francisco during SF Climate Week in the presence of the Consul General Frédéric Jung. The explorer and entrepreneur made a notable stopover in San Francisco to dive into the Bay Area ecosystem and propel the NGO he co-founded with Alexandre Dechelotte to new heights in the fight against ocean plastic pollution, by building a network of supporters and financial partners in the U.S. that will help advance the project globally.

Originally from Concarneau in Brittany, the merchant navy officer who was destined for a career in maritime transport became aware of the magnitude of the problem of coastal pollution during a trip to Dakar, Senegal in 2016, where he visited one of the most polluted beaches in the world. He then decided to tackle the problem and take action “on the ground” by launching Plastic Odyssey, a three-year expedition around the world on a laboratory vessel that tests and deploys plastic waste recycling solutions in coastal areas most affected by plastic pollution.


Alarming numbers

Every minute, 40 tons of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean, a colossal amount of plastic that washes up in mass on coastal areas or ends up at sea, causing environmental disasters around the world. If we do not act in time, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

Based on the finding that 80% of plastic pollution comes from coastal cities in about thirty countries in Asia, Africa, and South America, the expedition stops in these most polluted coastal areas to implement local plastic recycling solutions and replicate them around the world.


Cleaning up the past and building the future

“The idea is to collect plastic waste at the source and then transform it into a resource to prevent it from reaching the ocean. These local recycling solutions are also a considerable engine of economic and social development for local communities,” explains Simon. 

By making environmentally-friendly behaviors financially profitable for those who wish to engage in recycling, local communities are incentivized to recycle, as the production of construction materials from plastic waste as raw materials becomes a key tool for economic development. Thus, the two objectives of the project are achieved: the past is cleaned up, and economic development promotes a more sustainable future without plastic and based on a circular economy model.


Transforming plastic waste into a resource

Plastic Odyssey welcomes local entrepreneurs aboard its laboratory ship and works with them to prototype solutions and create micro-recycling plants, thus encouraging the creation of local recycling businesses and local jobs. 

To go even further in the installation and operation of these micro-recycling plants, Plastic Odyssey has created a franchise network to pool services and reduce the risk of failure for these local recycling businesses.

The organization is also working on reducing plastic consumption with a team on board the boat that raises awareness among local communities to use less plastic, find alternatives and showcase local, home-grown innovations that replace plastic with other materials for everyday use.


An ocean of possibilities for using recycled plastic 

Thanks to ready-to-use, low-cost, and open-source recycling devices and technologies, plastic waste is sorted, cleaned, and then transformed on-site into finished products such as building materials: paving stones, roofing, pallets. All this collected and recycled plastic opens up an ocean of possibilities for solutions and uses. 

For example, in Conakry, Guinea, Plastic Odyssey worked with a local entrepreneur to manufacture paving stones for roads, offering a low-carbon alternative to cement. In the same spirit, plastic tiles can be used for house insulation, providing better performance than sheet metal. Plastic planks can replace wood in the manufacture of many products. In Bogota, Colombia, in another example, an entrepreneur has built entire houses from recycled plastic planks. There is a considerable potential to create a variety of structures from recycled plastic. 

“We have also set up an ecosystem restoration program for areas where there are no plastic consumers, but where plastic naturally washes up with the currents. For example, we cleaned up a beach in French Polynesia where we recycled waste from permaculture (nets, fences, ropes..) into furniture for a nearby island,” adds Simon.


Impossible Cleanups: Restoring remote ecosystems

The latest challenge taken up by Plastic Odyssey is to carry out impossible cleanup missions in remote areas where the collection and transport of plastic is particularly perilous, and thus enable the restoration of ecosystems and the preservation of biodiversity in these fragile environments.

This is the case of Henderson Island, an isolated atoll in the Pacific classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional biodiversity but which previously had the highest density of plastic waste in the world. Previous cleanup attempts were left unfinished, due to the surrounding coral reef barrier. The challenge is to cross the coral reef without damaging it, a difficult step due to the rocks and waves that block access to the beach. Waste extraction with conventional means is therefore impossible. Another expedition in 2019 failed due to weather, logistical challenges and lack of resources.

Five years later, in 2024, the explorers of Plastic Odyssey embarked on the adventure with a completely innovative approach. After establishing a base camp on the island for 10 days to recover the 6 tons of waste from the previous mission and the 3 new tons of plastic accumulated since, the team succeeded in removing and transporting the waste above the coral reef using a parasail powered by a motorcycle engine stationed on board the boat. View the images of this incredible expedition here:


After eight days of relentless effort, nine tons of plastic were removed, thus restoring the island’s natural beauty
and returning Henderson Island – now cleared of plastic waste – to its rare endemic species.

The success of the Henderson Expedition paved the way for the deployment of new impossible cleanup missions in other isolated and heavily polluted areas such as Cape Verde, where one of the coastal areas was inaccessible due to the accumulation of waste.

Nothing stops Plastic Odyssey in its quest for solutions to plastic pollution.

Follow and support Plastic Odyssey’s next expeditions by visiting:

https://plasticodyssey.org/
https://www.instagram.com/plasticodyssey/
https://www.linkedin.com/company/plasticodyssey/


Merci Simon


This article was made possible thanks to Frenchfounders, the international francophone business network.

Are you an entrepreneur, investor or corporate executive interested in joining a business club? Get in touch with Frenchfounders via Clara Bousquet, based in San Francisco (c.bousquet@frenchfounders.com)

 

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