'There is an important pollution problem in certain developing countries but there is also a lot of local know-how.'
Later this year, Plastic Odyssey will set sail around the world on a mission to develop transitional solutions to the ocean plastic waste crisis. The 40-metre scientific exploration vessel will voyage across three continents and 30 cities, aiming to offer a new knowledge-sharing model of local-level action to fight against plastic pollution. The expedition aligns with Quintet private bank’s sustainable values, including its successful pledge to eliminate all single-use plastic from its premises. As part of this month’s plastic-free theme, we are delighted to share an interview with Plastic Odyssey’s CEO and co-founder Simon Bernard. First published by Springwise, a platform delivering inspirational ideas that drive positive sustainable change across all sectors, the interview delves into what Plastic Odyssey hopes to accomplish, the roots of this unique initiative and much more.
Where did the idea for the Plastic Odyssey expedition come from?
I spent a year with Corentin de Chatelperron, the founder of the ‘Nomade des Mers’ project. He was working on low-technologies: simple systems that enable access to technologies that meet basic needs such as food, water and energy. This approach inspired me a lot.
I also spent some time at Explore (where I am now, actually), which is a kind of incubator for new explorers. There is a whole community that has come together; one that is thinking about new economic models, new ways of solving major ecological issues. With this community, we’re mainly working on biomaterials, low-techs, innovative ways of thinking, and open-source systems. I was rocked by this whole environment for over a year and a half.
Around the same time, I embarked on the ‘Nomade des Mers’ vessel, where I had the opportunity to take part in a stopover in Dakar, Senegal. That is when I realised that there was plastic everywhere in the city, yet you don’t necessarily see it at sea, because it doesn’t float at the surface. There is an important pollution problem in certain developing countries but there is also a lot of local know-how. So, I realised that a lot of things can be done at the local level, regarding the challenge of plastic pollution.
When I came back from this trip, that’s when I said to myself: “We must apply this same approach, this same logic, to plastic recycling to create a lot of small recycling centres.” So that’s where the idea for the Plastic Odyssey expedition emerged.
'If we behaved as if our resources were scarce, we would be able to find solutions to very complicated problems, with very little means.'
How did the founders of Plastic Odyssey get together?
After the trip, I was still at university with Alexandre [Dechelotte, Chief Communications Officer]. We were in the same class and had already collaborated on several projects. He was also interested in the fight against plastic pollution and had learned a lot about how to clean up the ocean. When I told him about this idea, he liked it a lot and we started working together on the project. Then, when we finished our studies, he said to me: “What do you say if I join you and we devote ourselves to setting up the project together?”
A couple of months later we met Bob [Vrignaud, Chief Technology Officer] through a mutual friend of mine. When I told him about the project, it was incredible as everything was in line with his passions and ambitions, as if our collaboration was meant to be. And the funny thing is that we remembered afterwards that we had already met when I was working on ‘Nomade des Mers’. Bob and I realised that we were following the same projects, that we were passionate about the same things, and it was an instant match. So that is how the three of us all got together on Plastic Odyssey.
To give you a brief timeline: my expedition with Corentin was in spring 2016, so it was in January 2017 that we started working full-time on Plastic Odyssey.
What was your background prior to this, and how did that shape your work with Plastic Odyssey?
My background is in the merchant navy, so I was trained to become a merchant navy officer. I am passionate about the ocean on one hand, and technology on the other. You know, being a sailor is very versatile. You learn to do everything on a ship. You learn how to drive the vessel, but above all, you learn how to fix the engines and get by with very little means. And that is also a key principle of low-tech: to be able to solve problems with as little means as possible.
When you are on a boat you don’t have a lot of resources. This means you have what’s in the hold: no one is going to deliver missing engine pieces out of the blue. When facing a problem, you have to find the solution with the means on board - and I like this approach! If you were to stretch this approach to our behaviour with the planet, we could find some similarities. Today, we think that all our resources are unlimited, whereas, in reality, they are extremely scarce and will not regenerate. So, it’s quite similar in the sense that if we behaved as if our resources were scarce, we would be able to find solutions to very complicated problems, with very little means.
In addition to being a merchant navy officer, ever since I was a child, I wanted to be an inventor. I have always tinkered and dreamed of making blueprints for engines. This passion for do-it-yourself, fab-lab and makers, all of that follows the lead of open-source and sharing approaches that are much more collaborative because they are built by enthusiasts and not necessarily by companies that solely aim for profit.
The makers and fab-lab movements are led by people who wish to innovate, get together and exchange good practices and techniques. Our mindset follows these movements, even if we don’t necessarily consider ourselves as makers, because it’s a little too professionalised. But we have fully embraced the spirit and idea of conducting innovative ways of thinking, which are open and accessible, and which are different from what has already been done in the industry, for example.
'If everyone were to connect their brains and share what they know, we will succeed in finding better solutions much quicker than if we were to follow the traditional way.'
What change does Plastic Odyssey want to facilitate?
What we hope for, beyond the recycling of plastic — which is nowadays mostly being dumped into nature and not being collected — is for this pollution to generate economic income for local communities that suffer the most from its mismanagement. This is the main change we want to see. Today there is a lot of waste, and our goal is to collect it and to show people that they can live out of it. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is: today we have a model that does not enable the growth of innovation systems. We have the knowledge about plastic recycling, but it is not accessible, as it is only available to very few experts in the world. When we are facing problems that affect the whole population, we cannot afford to build barriers, nor produce brakes to innovation and knowledge.
The change that I want to see with Plastic Odyssey is to offer another model of possible innovations, to show that we can share knowledge that anyone can benefit from — when done collaboratively — which then serves those who have contributed to it. Our state of mind today tells us to do these things in a corner, to keep them secret; otherwise, ideas will be stolen. Yet by maintaining this mindset, you lose a lot more resources than if you were to share your acquired knowledge with others.
In fact, by disseminating information, one can learn twice as much as what is originally shared - and that is what we want to prove with Plastic Odyssey. We aim to disseminate, to share as much as we can, and we know that we are going to receive as much knowledge from all the people who are going to be part of this community of contributors.
Before the COVID crisis, this approach wasn’t very comprehensible. But now, with this extensive health crisis we are facing, we can see that when we have urgent problems that affect everyone, simply sharing knowledge and making it easily accessible — whether it is scientific knowledge, research, human resources, open-source plans and designs of sanitary equipment such as masks — makes the fight against it much more impactful. And when we talk about ecological issues, climate change, plastic pollution, it’s the same thing. It’s just that today, unfortunately, we do not behave with the same sense of urgency. Yet, the urgency is the same, and we must act as such.
We must tell ourselves: “If everyone were to connect their brains and share what they know, we will succeed in finding better solutions much quicker than if we were to follow the traditional way.” That is the only way we will rapidly solve problems on a global scale.
Through your work so far, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in how the ocean plastic problem is being tackled?
Since we started working on plastics, we’ve seen a change in people’s mindsets. We used to believe that the solution was to clean up the ocean, convinced that it was the key to fight against plastic pollution. We were committed fans of all the projects that were going to clean up the ocean and cheering them all the way! Yet, when we started working on the plastic issue, we realised that the solution is not there at all, as there is very little plastic that floats at the surface of the ocean.
We came to realise that the solutions to fight against plastic pollution are ashore, at the local level. Firstly, in the collection and recycling of plastic pollution; and secondly, work must be done upstream by rethinking materials, their uses, and finding alternatives. And I feel there is a real shift happening at this level. More and more people are talking about it in the media and the world is starting to realise that the problem will not be solved simply by cleaning the ocean, or even by cleaning rivers; it has to be solved much further upstream.
I feel like we’ve gone from “Let’s go clean up the Ocean!” to “Let’s turn off the tap at the source”, which is definitely the ambition of Plastic Odyssey. In fact, we had aimed for this shift, as we had anticipated it.
'The problem will not be solved simply by cleaning the ocean, or even by cleaning rivers; it has to be solved much further upstream.'
What keeps you motivated during times of frustration?
I think what keeps me motivated, first of all, is my optimistic character, which is, I have to admit, a little utopian. I want things to happen so badly that I do not accept failure. Another thing is that I am constantly projecting. I say to myself: “Don’t worry, in six months the recycling machines we are building, as well as the ship, will be ready”.
Looking ahead, projecting to the moment where all of our problems will be solved, to the time where we’ll have created our first recycling centre, and we’ll have gotten halfway through the expedition, really gives me a boost!
Every morning when I walk by the port in Marseille – which is where the expedition will depart from in November, before calling at Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco – I imagine the vessel moored there (currently it’s in Dunkirk, being refitted in a shipyard). So, I keep on telling myself: “Come on, in four months the boat will be here, we’ll be having a drink in the sun on the deck, and we will be ready to leave.” That definitely keeps me motivated.
What has been your proudest moment so far?
My proudest moment? I think there were two of them.
The first was when we baptised Ulysse (our first prototype), navigated in the open sea and realised that everything we had imagined, which seemed completely crazy in 3D, had finally become reality. At that moment, all the pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together. We had a huge event with over 150 people, a government official, a crazy boat, with all the national televisions that were present. That was a great moment because nobody really expected it.
At that time, we were kind of still in a dreamy-utopian mindset where nothing could stop us. The more we got into it, the more we realised that there was still going to be a lot of work to do and that it was going to be very complicated and challenging to put it all together. But during this event, it suddenly all fell into place so naturally. That moment really marked the beginning of Plastic Odyssey as Ulysse was proof that, with a motivated team and very little means, we were able to build a successful promising model.
There is also the moment when we bought the vessel. Before we knew it, we found ourselves with a 40-metre research ship on our hands and we were torn between pride, joy, and at the same time fear, because it suddenly seemed like a huge responsibility to us to own such a ship.
I must also add the moment where we presented the prototype Ulysse on the Galeries Lafayette’s rooftop in Paris. That was pretty crazy and spectacular! I even wonder if that isn’t the moment that I’m most proud of, as that is when people started to believe in us. The entire Boulevard Haussmann in Paris had been blocked for us and when we arrived around midnight, a crane was waiting for us and the boat, with security guards everywhere.
When we saw the boat rising in the air, we couldn’t help but think about the pyrolysis on it and wondering how on earth it was possibly holding. But it held perfectly, and in the end, we managed to put a boat on the roof of the Galeries Lafayette, which was quite an achievement, believe me!
'If you want to achieve something different...you have to be innovative and deviate from what is already possible today.'
What is one book you’ve recently read that has inspired you, and that you might recommend?
I’m not sure if it has been translated into English but there is Jean Louis Etienne’s memoir entitled Persévérer, which recounts his journey to the North Pole, and also Bertrand Piccard’s The Greatest Adventure. These two memoirs are about perseverance, and they magnify the fact that if you set your mind up to something, and you are convinced that you are going to make it happen, you will. What I love about them is that both also set examples of failure. That is to say that Jean Louis Etienne went to the North Pole but only succeeded after having failed three times. At the time nobody knew if it was possible to achieve such a journey as it hadn’t been done before.
With Bertrand Piccard, it’s the same idea, but I find it even more awe-inspiring. He said to himself: “I’m going to fly around the world by using solar energy.” But when he wanted to do it for the first time, it was literally impossible. Technically, the solar panels were too heavy and the technology hadn’t been developed enough to make it technically or physically possible. Yet he never gave up, and by persevering and believing in his project, after 13 years of hard work, an aeroplane light enough to fly with batteries that store enough energy was built. So, a literally impossible project became possible. What I like about Bertrand’s work is the idea that the candle manufacturer did not produce the light bulb. It’s the idea that we’re not going to change things by trying to solve problems with the same classic tools.
Bertrand Piccard has a good example with his father, Jacques, who was also an adventurer. He built Auguste, a submarine that could descend very deep, and at the time, it was considered impossible to do something like that. Instead of going to see a submarine manufacturer, he went to see a beer tank manufacturer who managed to build the submarine because he didn’t know it was impossible. So, it ties in with Mark Twain’s famous saying: “They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it”. That’s exactly it.
Bertrand Piccard is not an expert in solar panels; he just wanted to do it. All the experts told him he couldn’t make it, that it wouldn’t work. And although it was out of his field of expertise, he went on despite people telling him it was impossible. In the end, after 13 years, he found a way, and he contributed to the progress of science, thanks to his perseverance. And I find this pretty awesome.
That is how we should all be thinking. We tend to constantly listen to what we’re told in school, what science knows, what researchers have already discovered. Yet, researchers have already discovered what exists in books and on the internet, so by definition, their discoveries are either past or present but not about the future. These are not things that we will achieve tomorrow. They are things that we are already doing today. So, if you want to achieve something different, again, you have to be innovative and deviate from what is already possible today.
Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring environmental activists and advocates?
I think that I would remember the following as an inspirational quote: if you want to solve problems on a universal scale, which are said to be impossible, you just have to deviate from traditional paradigms and accept the fact that you hold a vision and ambition that are thought to be “impossible”.
In other words, if it is already too easy and possible, you are not on the right track. Otherwise, we would have done it a long time ago and we wouldn’t be challenged by these issues today. So basically, if you want to have a significant impact and a chance to solve the problems that we are facing, then you have to change your paradigm and expect to go off the beaten track and take on unconventional paths or challenges.
'If it is already too easy and possible you are not on the right track. Otherwise, we would have done it a long time ago and we wouldn't be challenged by these issues today.'
Who inspires you personally?
In terms of the personality that inspires me the most, I think we can say Bertrand Piccard from a visionary and persevering aspect, as well as a unifying and leadership side, even though I don’t quite share his vision of the world that high-tech technology will save us all.
Another personality that inspires me a lot - and I believe that the two are quite complementary - is Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, who created Precious Plastic. He represents the real success of this new approach which is based on sharing, open-source, and community building.
He has a truly innovative vision of a new world, a much more sustainable tomorrow, with values that are not bound to the mindset of “the one who succeeds is the one who makes the most profit”. He carries so many projects that radiate this unconventional mindset, and I love that.