Discover the Story Behind the Summit Systems and Ocean Clean Up Partnership in our Podcast
08 April 2022
Following the announcement of our Oceans Integrity (RIO) partnership last week, Dan Jordan and Kieran Kelly sat down to discuss Summits involvement with the ocean clean up program in further detail with David Gray on the Interplas Insights latest podcast.
You can listen to it via the following options or read the full interview below:
David Gray, “Hello and welcome to another episode of Interplas Insights Podcast. I’m your host, Dave Gray, head of content at British Plastics and Rubber and InterplasInsights.com.
In this episode, I speak to Dan Jordan and also Kieran Kelly. Dan Jordan, first of all, many of you may know from Summit Systems, a big player in the UK plastics industry. Kieran Kelly may be less familiar in the UK plastics industry; he is a former fisherman, turned plastics recycler, come environmental activist. The story of how he and Dan got their heads together is quite an interesting one, so we talk about that, we talk about Kieran’s life and his experience, and we talk about a project he is working on now which is called RIO Oceans Integrity. It’s an interesting new viewpoint in ocean clean up, addressing the plastic waste problem and recycling. I think it’s a really interesting interview and I hope you enjoy.
First of all, Dan, this kind of came about when I had a conversation with Mike Jordan (Managing Director) at Summit Systems a couple of weeks ago, and he was talking about a project that you have gotten involved in, called RIO Oceans Integrity. Do you want to kick off by telling us how you came to be involved with the project?”
Kieran, “Well my background, I grew up on the Southeast Coast of Ireland, my family were in the fishing industry for multiple generations. I grew up in a little fishing village called Hellwig, so at a very early age we were introduced into the industry by my father and my grandfather. In the 90’s, I could see that there were all kinds of problems within the fishing industry in Europe, and I’d always wanted to go to the US and look at the fishing industry again and open a fishing company in the United States. So, I emigrated to the United States and shortly after arriving there I bought my first vessel and I operated out of Port Gloucester in Massachusetts. Shortly after that I had purchased several vessels and I was working all around the US, central south America and also Alaska in the Bavarian Sea.
One thing that always concerned me was the amount of plastics that we would see on the ocean floor. No matter where we went, we’d come across plastic. I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, the fisheries in the US are well managed, they’re sustainable fisheries and they were not the problem, the big problem was their plastic waste. One winter, up in the icecap, way north in the arctic circle, further north than we’d even fished before because of the melting polar caps. We took the net back one night, middle of winter, storm force conditions, and I was in the wheelhouse looking out the window at the crew, it was a horrendous night, and the first thing that these troll doors (auto doors that come out of the water) they were covered in plastic. This was virgin ground that we’d never fished before, nobody had ever been that far north before, and the place was full of plastic.
I remember calling home later that night, and I said to my family, “We’re selling the fishing company”, and they told me to go home as I’d been a sea for 4-5 months and needed to take a break and rest, and think about it, and I said, “No, I’m all done, we have to do something about trying to protect our oceans. We have to figure out a way to collect this plastic” and that was the start of it. Shortly after that, I got rid of the company, got rid of all the boats, and initially I put the [new] company together with some coastguard officers in the US and we were going to target plastic only in the Caribbean on the backside of hurricanes. We’d tuck in behind the hurricane and collect the plastic when it’s easy to collect from the backwash off the islands, and that was the idea behind it.
Within a short few months, we found ourselves in India, and I remember waking up in a hotel in Mumbai thinking how had I got here, the company had only been put together a few months earlier and the rest was history. We ended up in Vietnam, then Indonesia.
We’re all about solutions, we’re about collecting plastic on an industrial scale. Collecting plastic like it’s never been collected before. And that’s what we do, we look at where the big concentrations of plastic are and how we can collect that. The plastic that is the problem on the ocean floors and floating on the surface, is multi-layer plastic, single-use plastic and there are massive volumes of it. There is 6 to 7 meters of plastics on the ocean floor in the Java Sea and that’s the plastic we target. We target that with local indigenous Indonesian fishermen. It took a long time for us to get them to come along and trust us, trust that we’re an environmental company who are only interested in the solutions and targeting plastic. We weren’t there to get involved with the politics, we weren’t trying to shut them down, we were going to try and work with them and strengthen these indigenous communities, and of course put some money back into the pockets of these guys.”
David, “It’s amazing that that one vision you saw during your fishing career changed the course of your life completely. It changed not only your career but your priorities I guess, in a personal way as well, and I think that’s why it’s really important that people check out your website, and some of the video that you have online as well because they help you to visualise the scale and the scope of the problem. I have seen videos of a literal river of plastic, and I think people need to go and take a look at that.
I want to move onto that now, you’re out in Jakarta at the moment, the United Nations Environment program is meeting with 50 member states of the UN this week in Kenya, and one of the things that they’re talking about is the potential of a global plastics pact. One of the stats that they’ve released is that 2.7millions tons out of a total of 11millions tons of plastics which go into the ocean come down from rivers, so that’s something that you have been involved with and I think that’s partly where some of Dan and Mike Jordan’s involvement comes in as well. How do we get to the point where that much plastic is entering rivers and waterways?"
Kieran, “Well if you look at the bigger picture, nearly all the plastics that you see going in the ocean are coming from rivers. Looking around here in Indonesia, which is the second worst polluted country in the world, regarding their plastic waste. Over 90% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean here comes from the rivers. The sheer volume of plastic you see coming in at times is horrific. We collect plastics here that I’ve have seen come from the UK, Norway, Iceland, countries that you would never imagine. I post up photographs and videos of boxes and packaging from all over the world.
One of the big things that happened here for years, western countries ship their plastics overseas and our governments knowingly (or unknowingly) thought their plastics were going to end up in a recycling facility in the developed world, but of course that never happened. What happened was the plastic initially ended up inside the landfills. The landfills here are mountains, they are no longer what you would consider a landfill; there’s strobe light on top of the landfill so aircrafts don’t fly into them. The highest pieces of land here within the cities are the landfills. You cannot fit any more plastic waste within these landfills. So, what happens after that, of course they have to get rid of it. The vast majority passing through is being burnt here at the moment.”
Dan, “From the UK audience, when you say it’s being burned or incinerated, you typically think it goes into a proper Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) incinerator but that’s not the case. He means set fire too with no regulations in an open burn pit, and that is what happens on a regular basis which then directly links to a lot of deaths and lung disease.”
Kieran, “In 2020, 5.5million people ended up in hospital in Jakarta alone because of breathing problems due to air quality. 5.5million. Not because of COVID, just because of pollution. The burning of plastic here is a brutal problem and people are dying from the pollution in the cities on a massive scale, and nobody ever talks about that.”
Dan, “You see that at the coalface and part of the reason I have been so involved with Kieran is just the shocking stories and the want to be able to make a difference.
Kieran is involved with a shoe program where they donated thousands of pairs of schools a month to the local orphanages and schools where many of the children don’t have their own footwear. Many of them are also experiencing chemical burns on their legs from playing and washing in the rivers, and that’s the result of these big corporations dumping and polluted not just plastics but chemicals into the rivers. Kieran’s pretty much on the rivers most weeks if he’s not travelling, getting this information and data, and our goal is to end up changing that over the shortest period of time we can.
It's not the bottles, it’s not the trays, they’ve all got their own commodity value in it, it has its own ability to fund itself. It’s the unrecyclable plastics that we’re targeting at RIO and the way we’re tackling that is collecting it on massive scale.”
Kieran, “We can collect 5000-6000 tons of that plastic in a week, that’s if we can move it. Looking at it where we are right now, 600-800 tons a week for recycling we’re collecting, is an easy task. But we’re opening a new factory here in Tangerang right now where we’re turning plastic into aggregate, and we’re then making blocks from that. We can make enough blocks here in a day to build 35 houses in a day. It’s a big volume of plastic that we can get rid of but again it’s only the tip of the iceberg, we must scale up from there, but of course that’s what we need to be able to look at, can we find customers in Europe and the UK where we can start bagging up thousands of tons of this aggregate and put it into building projects around the world? Corporations can actually take part and truly help clean our oceans.”
Dan, “Because they’re going to create this demand for this product, because we’ve moved on now from a few years ago where the status quo was if it’s not perfect, we don’t want it. Perfection in packaging is not required for a green future, I quite like that saying because it really pushes it back to the consumer wanting to have a little blemish in the packaging, or not having a perfectly clean surface. Recycling isn’t pretty and it needs to show it in the product, and we need that to be able to drive these businesses and brands to want to have that recycled content. It may look a little bit unsightly or have a little colour or pattern in the finishes and that’s going to come from using recycled product. In non-food applications of course, because getting into food applications is very tricky so we’re looking to take really difficult-to-recycle plastics, process it, shred it, get it into aggregate to be used in massive volume, so those sorts of companies we wanted to get onboard with us and work as a partnership. The massive CSR value in that is going to be great and actually just being able to realistically show the full audit trail of material from the cradle to grave, and then also we’ll be able to prove the carbon footprint of it. We do plastics offsets, carbon offsets for it as well.”
David, “Dan, you’ve touched on the involvement you and Summit Systems have had so far with RIO Oceans Integrity, but talk to us a little bit more about the net you have funded?”
Dan, “I went over to Denmark with Kieran a couple of weeks back now, and we met one of Kieran’s old contacts who’d been in the fishing industries for years, who make nets. Kieran’s come up with this design, we’ve [Summit Systems] just helped fund it through the recycling programs we’ve been doing with the aprons. Kieran invited me over to take a look and we were also getting local fishing businesses onboard to help with the net recycling program we’re doing with RIO.
With the net itself I’ll let Kieran explain, but essentially it is in transit at the moment, on its way over to Indonesia where Kieran will be receiving it. It’s 120m long by 20m deep and it’s going to be a static fixed line net in one of the main polluting rivers over there. There is a myriads of different pollutants coming down, a lot of them are microplastics as well, which aren’t your traditional microplastics or nurdles as some people call them, this is waste from a wash plants and the plastics washing plant takes in dirty plastic, shreds it up, washes it and when they go through the centrifuges the holes are typically 2mm screen sizes and anything sub 2mm comes out and is dumped into the river, as it’s the quickest and easiest way to get rid of it. A lot of these wash plants are situated on the river because of the ease of disposal. And that’s already a microplastics, it’s not already degraded due to the microplastics breaking down, it’s been dumped in that form. So, this net RIOs put in will be going down to around, when stretched out about 500 microns, so ½mm, and that will start to take out a lot of these microplastics.
A lot of companies do the ocean clean up and it’s all about show and showing the big pieces but that’s not necessarily the biggest issue, it’s the smaller issues we can’t see, the stuff underneath the surface. This isn’t a surface skimming net, it drops to 20m down. Also, we’re not dragging it, we’re not using two huge tugboats burning 30,000 litres a day of fuel, to pull this around, this is a static fixed line net at source. So that’s the idea, it gets collected and the material will then be going through a sorting facility at Kieran’s plant, and we will then take any of the unrecyclable material and then that gets blended into the concrete mix for the aggregate bricks which will then be used to build houses for local people, empowering local people doing the collections and manning the nets. Essentially there is going to be no carbon footprint with operating that net, apart from maybe the winching in and winching out, which is minimal.”
Kieran, “The MPED, Microplastic Elimination Device, when we started working on the device to target microplastics, one thing that everyone said to us was how’re we going to figure out waterflow. The flow of water that you’re talking about running through this is absolutely mindboggling. Once you start reducing the mesh size, you’re going to have to filter 4.2billion litres of water per hour, so you’re filtering that water from first side of the bag down to 500 microns and on to the backside where the meshes are closed, you’re down to about 50 microns. Every time we tried it, the problem we had was the waterflow, but we then started working with a company in Denmark, who were a net making company I’d known for years.
Previously we could never figure it out, I started working on it about 5/6 years ago when I was a sea, just before I sold the companies. I was in Alaska and had just started taking the nets back on a miserable night with storm force conditions, and I watched the waters from the cavitate inside the net, and when it did you could see the meshes opening up and you could see water and fish escaping because the nets get slack, and I remember saying “That’s it!” and my first mate says “Are you ok, Captain?”, and I said, “That’s it, forget about it, that’s it, I know it!” So, we went back to the flume tank, and we put separate chambers on the back side of the net, we reduced the size of the mesh, and we created all these independent pockets and then the water would deadhead, it would go in the chamber and create a cavitation, but a water cavitating and actually the water itself even though this tiny mesh, the water itself would escape a true cavitation of plastic stays inside the net, going from chamber to chamber all the way to the very back section. Once in the back section, every few hours, we’d lift the back section up and empty it and keep going from there.
What makes the MPED very different, if you look at the few companies that have river collection devices, they have aluminium barges with conveyor belts and skimmer devices that stop for the most part, PET bottles on the surface, something that has a value.
So, they collect those bottles, but over 90% of the plastics they caught goes underneath these skim devices. If you look at the environmental space as a whole, companies need to look at where their money is going and how much plastic is being collected with the money they are contributing by sponsoring these companies. Right now, it’s anywhere from thousands of dollars per kilo to hundreds of dollars per kilo. On the very low side, it’s $4 to $5 but most companies are in the thousands, and of course they are never going to move the volume of plastic out of our ocean unless you can cut down the collection price. Companies need to get something in return for that, and with companies like ourselves onboard we collect a great big tonnage of plastic, and we can offset any companies’ plastic footprint through the kilos of plastic which we collect.
For instance, say a companies plastic footprint is 1000 tons, by us collecting 1000 tons of plastic from the ocean, not just collecting it but recycling it also, and then using it in the social program to build homes. We can offer that to any company. We eliminate their plastic footprint firstly by collecting plastic, their recycling initiatives that they have to have due to the new laws that are coming through, we can give them the recycling credits. We recycle 100% of this so called non-recyclable plastic, and of course we build homes, which is a massive problem here [in Jakarta]. We pass all of that on to any company who wants to take part in it for a fraction of the cost. These are real programs, there’s no greenwashing attached to these, you can sponsor a family to get into a house, we can give you the names of the families and you can keep in touch with them. Children will be able to go to school and learn, rather than begging on the sides of the streets, looking to make 20 or 30 cents an hour to try and help feed their family.
If you don’t connect the dots, we’re never going to fix the problem here. Poverty and pollution go hand in hand. Unless you can fix the problem of poverty, you’re never going to fix the problem of pollution. The beauty of this program, we can actually get people in homes as there is currently a shortage of 3 million homes at the moment, the Indonesia government tells us. We have a great relationship here with the government, meeting them on a weekly basis. There are currently situations where they have 15-20 people living inside a building that’s not much bigger than the average UK sized living room.”
David, “It’s shocking. To round this off, I’m really getting the impression that this is not an anti-plastics movement. Our listeners will be from the plastics industry, what you would say to them Kieran, what would you want from them and how can they engage with you and get involved? The way that you work with Dan and his colleagues is unique and you’ve worked collaboratively with them, but I know you want to work with other stakeholders from the plastics industry, so what would your key takeaway be for them?”
Kieran, “We want to be real about everything we do. One thing I want to say first before I answer that, plastic is not really the problem, we cannot turn around and point fingers at companies and say they’re polluting our oceans because that’s just not the case. They never threw a plastic bottle into the ocean. The problem is it is coming from individuals and with that it’s a case of educating people and showing people how we can use plastic for the better good to enhance communities. We need help from corporations as we can constantly scale this up. We want to be able to build tens of thousands of houses a year. Our goal is to be able to handle 50,000-60,000 tons of plastic a month, and that is a figure that we will meet, and we will collect. And we can do that with any companies, we’re real programs, instead of these “feel-good” programs. We can connect the dots from start to finish, from the collection of the plastic to the recycling and then the social program.
If you look at any large corporations, like with stakeholders in the industry, the question you must ask yourself, what are you getting at the moment for these programs that you’re pumping money into? Companies are trying to do the right thing, they’re looking for proper programs, but they need a program there that actually works, that they can be involved with and truly save our oceans. They shouldn’t be looking at a program where something says, ‘ocean bound plastic’, that’s plastic that will probably never make its way into the ocean but ‘true problem plastic’, plastic that is in the rivers, on the riverbeds, plastics that’s already in the ocean and on the ocean floor, plastics that’s creating a massive problem, they can be involved with collecting that which will eliminate your plastic footprint by doing so. At the same time, we’ll recycle 100% of that plastic, every single scrap of plastic will be recycling and of course we can build the homes. We’d love anyone in the industry, any stakeholders in the industry to come onboard.
Let’s fix the problems that we have on this planet but let’s deal with them in a way that makes sense, that’s not going to break the bank doing it.”
David, “Dan, final word from you, you and Mike are well-known figures in the UK plastics industry, what would you say to friends and colleagues?
Dan, “This is a really unique program that can actually instruct real change. It’s not one of these ‘ocean bound plastic programs’, where there’s not enough tonnage so they have to use the ‘bound’ to collect material that 50km from the watercourse, this is genuine, out of river from the worst polluted areas, which is why we’re getting involved, so anybody else who wants to show support or offset their plastic, and really make a difference, this would be a great program to get involved with. It’s very easy to target plastics as a bad thing but we all know that the carbon footprint associated with say, moving back to glass is way bigger than plastics and that’s just going to be fuelling a bigger wave behind the plastics space, but as we know reduction of carbon footprint is hugely important for everybody on the planet. Those are my parting words for it, thanks so much for having us on.”