Students at Haida Gwaii’s Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay school load a machine that turns plastics to diesel. (Dan Schulbeck - contributed)

Haida students turn plastics to power

Dan Schulbeck, a teacher at Haida Gwaii’s Masset Island high school, spearheads the project.

by Hayley Day

On Haida Gwaii, the answer to local waste prevention is in the trash.

Island students are working to wipe out some of their schools’ single-use plastics, as well as prevent further plastics from ending up in landfills, forests or oceans.

Dan Schulbeck, a teacher at Haida Gwaii’s Masset Island high school, spearheads the project.

“Garbage is our karma,” said Schulbeck. “We have to handle our own karma. If the project is a success, we will be … taking a lead in controlling our own responsibility.”

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Last March, the archipelago’s school district and the nonprofit Gwaii Trust Society funded a roughly desktop-sized machine to turn some of the schools’ discarded lunchroom plastics into diesel.

The machine liquifies leftover materials like milk jugs and yogurt containers at 420 C. Then, the evaporated vapor runs through water until it condenses, leaving petroleum to float on top.

The machine heats plastics with a two, four or five stamp to 420 C to create diesel. (Dan Schulbeck – contributed)

The overall plan is to stop polluting the islands with plastics. In addition to eliminating those plastics with a two, four or five stamped on the bottom, the machine’s diesel will be used to create a business that helps prevent further plastics use.

Eventually, said Schulbeck, students will run a diesel-fueled stove to evaporate the archipelago’s coastal waters and infuse the leftover sea salt with herbs, like thyme or rosemary grown in a school greenhouse.

Revenue from selling the salt will fund projects that stop islanders’ reliance on plastics — whether that’s purchasing materials to sew cloth bags for a local grocery or buying biodegradable takeout containers for a nearby restaurant.

(Dan Schulbeck – contributed)

All plastics cannot be melted and blended to form new products, and those that are recyclable, don’t always make it to recycling centers. As a result, less than about 11 percent of plastics is estimated to be recycled in the nation, as reported by Environment and Climate Change Canada. In 2010 alone, according to the government department, the country released almost 8,000 tonnes of plastic waste into waterways.

That, said Schulbeck, puts communities like his at risk.

“On Haida Gwaii, a lot of our food comes from the ocean and rivers; it’s our blood, it’s our lifeline,” he said. “We can’t underestimate the importance of the environment to our health and wellbeing.”

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One drawback to both burning diesel and burning plastics to create fuel is that it releases carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. However, Schulbeck said the small amount produced by the machine is the equivalent of the natural occurrences of just a few people breathing or digesting.

(Dan Schulbeck – contributed)

Carla Lutner, of the Gwaii Trust Society, explained that the organization’s youth board chose to award this project because it “presented a creative solution to the problems of plastic waste with the added benefit of creating a fuel to support [a] school’s gardening program.”

Schulbeck also says the sea salt will be a “negative-waste product,” because there will be less garbage after the salt is formed than before it was made. The project, he explained, is part of the remote archipelago’s small steps to solve the global problem of waste management.

“Students are excited about doing something,” said Schulbeck, “not just complaining or having angst, but doing something that affects the world.”

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