The pioneering ‘On Wings of Waste’ flight, which travelled 500 miles from Sydney to Melbourne and landed today (12 January), is the culmination of a four-year project to fly a plane on a unique fuel blend made up from 10% end-of-life plastic normally found in the ocean and landfill sites which has been reprocessed by London-based Plastic Energy.

Use of the fuel – dubbed “the 10% solution” – in Rowsell’s Vans RV9a aircraft essentially proves that end-of-life plastic waste can be transformed from a pollutant into a viable alternative jet fuel and can also be used for any diesel engine.

“After years of preparation and many ups and downs, we’ve finally shown that the eight million tonnes of plastic dumped into the oceans each year can be put to good use,” said Rowsell, who was inspired to embark on the project after witnessing the devastating effects of plastic pollution from the air.

“We blended 10% of fuel manufactured by Plastic Energy with conventional fuel and the flight was a dream.”

Flight delayed

To produce the fuel, On Wings of Waste partner Plastic Energy use a ‘thermal anaerobic conversion’ process, which sees plastics heated in an oxygen-free environment to prevent them from burning, and then broken into their component hydrocarbons to create the equivalent of a petroleum distillate, which can then be separated into different fuels. As there is no ‘burning’ of the plastics, there are no toxic emissions released into the environment throughout the process.

If scaled up, the On Wings of Waste project could have a profound effect on the aviation industry. A 747 aircraft on a 10,000 mile flight burns 36,000 gallons of fuel and 33% per cent of airlines’ operating costs are spent on fuel. If 3,600 gallons of that fuel was sourced from plastic waste it would be the equivalent of 18 tonnes of waste plastic that might otherwise be dumped in the ocean. Based on the 1,200 flights that are made from Heathrow every day, approximately 21,600 tonnes of plastic waste would be transformed from pollutant to fuel every 24 hours from that airport alone.

The ground-breaking On Wings of Waste flight was originally scheduled for take-off last year, with Rowsell leading an ambitious plan to fly more than 3,000 miles from San Francisco to Alaska using the plastic-to-oil technology. But a campaign spokesperson told edie that the inaugural flight was not able to go ahead due to “various complications”.

Scaling up

The eventual success of the On Wings of Waste project in Australia this week is seen as a significant opportunity to showcase how plastic waste can be put to productive use as a transportation fuel.

The flight has even gained the support of legendary broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough as a “sign of hope in a very depressing world”. Attenborough said: “The Wings of Waste flight, I hope, will bring the attention of the world to this great solution that is there waiting to be taken if only we can get the support of people to do so.” 

Rowsell and his On Wings of Waste team are now looking for support from investors to build a recycling plant in Australia which they hope would lead to a change in culture and attitude about how we dispose of single-use plastic.

Jo Ruxton, part of the On Wings of Waste team, said: “Plastic breaks up into small particles, mixing with the plankton at the ocean surface. Plankton is at the heart of the food chain and provides us with more than half the oxygen we breathe – our oceans keep us alive.

“We can’t yet safely remove plastic particles from plankton that lives in the ocean, so we must stop dumping plastic waste in the ocean. There are estimated to be 5.25 trillion particles of plastic floating – mainly at the bottom – of the world’s seas.” 

Ruxton is among the producers of ‘A Plastic Ocean’, a film highlighting plastic pollution set to be released on 20 January.

edie’s innovation month

The month of January sees edie shift the editorial spotlight to green innovation, with a series of exclusive interviews, features and podcasts running throughout the month to celebrate the very best of emerging clean technologies and low-carbon systems.

Change will not happen without genuine innovation and so this month will explore the bleeding edge where change is really happening. From emerging tech to new business models; breakthrough approaches and creative leaders, we’ll shine the spotlight on the real game-changers and sort the facts from the fads.

Read all of edie’s innovation content here.

Luke Nicholls

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