A while ago, I had promised to tell you the exciting story of how we built our Precious Plastic Extruder. So far, I only delivered the first half of it. Looking at the second plastic recycling machine that we built standing here in front of us, I think it’s about time to spin this yarn to the end.
Great news: we finished our Precious Plastic Extruder
Maria and I met up in Bahía Caraquez (Ecuador) in early February, where we had moored our sailboats Joana and Karl for some months whilst we were off on some other boat adventures. We buddy boated heading north along the stunning pacific coast of Colombia and made it to Panamá just before the country started its lock down due to covid-19.
Arriving in Panamá just before covid-19 lock down
Most countries were closing their borders, so we could not sail anywhere for various months. Looking at the bright side of life, you can say that the pandemic gave us the present of having a lot more spare time available than usual. Now what would we fill it with?
Since we had not been on our boats for a while, we used some of this gift to simply enjoy the beauty that comes with living on a sailboat to the fullest. We slowly sipped our coffees looking into the rising sun, watched the visiting whales teach their babies all the cool big mammal tricks, checked out the local under water fish market with our spear guns and walked the pretty beaches of the uninhabited islands that we were still allowed to visit.
What seems perfect at first glance reveals a gruesome truth when taking a closer look
Yes, our lives are filled with moments that are picture perfect. Until you take a closer look. Those pretty beaches and that underwater fish market are both loaded with plastic. It’s impossible not to think about it because it’s right up in our faces 24/7. Sometimes we look up from a plastic-free picknick that we brought along to the beach and realize how normal it has become to us that we are surrounded by a bunch of colorful ocean plastics that washed up on the shore.
Fighting plastic pollution one step at a time: let’s finsh our Extruder
“Let’s finish our Plastic Extruder”, I say to Maria between two tasty cookies that she baked that morning. “There is so much precious plastic here on the beaches that needs to be collected and recycled. It feels overwhelming, but we need to do something. Even if it’s just a little bit.” She nods and shakes her head at the same time, looking at the countless pieces of wild plastic around us. We pack up our usual dose of ocean plastic and start our way back home to our sailboats.
The next day, I bring over the parts of the extruder that I brought with me from Germany. Together, we take a look at what there is left to do and split up the tasks between the two of us. Maria is tackling the metal part of the project and I am faced with figuring out the electrical part.
Learning to weld whilst circumnavigation the world on a traditional sailboat
Maria learnt how to weld steel on her first world voyage on the traditional sailboat the Picton Castle. Roughly a decade later, she added welding stainless steel and aluminum to her skill set when she worked in a metal shop in Cape Canaveral (Florida). Owning and upkeeping her own steel vessel has made her quite the pro throughout the last fifteen years. I might have taken advantage of having an aluminum welder as a friend one or the other time when Karl was having some issues.
Maria has a MIG and a TIG welder on board, powered with a 6 kW Westerbeke generator that she calls Roxanne. This enabels her to weld stainless and aluminum on her boat, which is pretty awesome. For our Extruder, she will be welding black steel using the MIG welder with a flux core wire.
The mother ship Joana is our floating workshop
We are blessed to have such a great infrastructure on Joana. Without her, this project would be a lot harder, if not impossible, to realize. My 37 foot sailboat Karl looks like a tiny little toy next to her. That’s probably why we lovingly call Maria’s 72 foot French lady the mother ship. She provides shelter and lots of living space but above all: an extensive tool park and a work bench area that is home to a drill press.
Maria has to weld the angle irons and the square tube together. They build the base for the extrusion tube and the bearing for the shaft. Inside the extrusion tube sits a massive wood trill bit that moves the melted plastic through the tube until it gets spit out on the end. We cannot help ourselves but think that this construction looks a tiny bit like a weapon. Well, basically, it is one. A weapon to fight plastic pollution.
Let’s figure out the juicy part of this recycling machine
Whilst sparks are flying around Maria, I set up my work area on the foredeck. Since we are trying to recycle and reuse as much material as possible, I am faced with a small challenge. I have to fit two heat controllers, two solid state relays, two thermocouples and two sets of each four wires (negative and positive) into a tiny little plastic box. Maybe I should have kept on looking for a bigger one. Maria gives me a slightly sceptic look, quickly followed by an encouraging “I am sure you will figure it out, chica”.
When you live on a sailboat and do all the maintenance yourself, you have to become a jack of all trades. Dealing with electrical stuff is one of them. I cannot say it’s my favorite, but I think Maria likes it even less, which is why I usually get stuck with it. Luckily, there are plans to follow. Whenever there is information missing, my boat library and google help me to figure it out.
Better not get zapped by this one…
On my boat Karl, I only deal with a 12 Volt system which is a lot less scary than the 220 Volt that I have to play with for the Extruder. That’s why I am trying to make extra sure that everything is connected properly. Most of it is fairly straight forward. After searching through three boxes of electrical spare parts, I found two matching switches and two bus bars that will be brand new after giving them some TLC.
In the meantime, Maria is cutting and welding some metal sheets together that she found in her treasure bilge. Our hopper will be a little smaller than others, but that’s the only size we could create with what we had at hand. We are confident that it will do the job.
The last finishing steps to complete our Extruder
All the cables, controllers and wires are sitting snug and orderly inside their little red box. Maria is welding a bolt onto the back of the shaft, thins it out with the grinder and slides a handle on it. Another one of those re-purposed treasures. I am fighting with the four band heaters, trying to slide them over the extrusion pipe. Things are slowly coming together. What’s now in front of us is starting to look like an Extruder.
It’s time for a celebratory drink
It was a long day. We got a lot done. But now it’s beer o’clock, maybe even time for a capful of rum. “You should give it a try”, Maria points at the magic red box that controls the band heaters of the Extruder. “Are you sure?”, I get back to her hesitantly. “Let’s open the box and look at it all one more time together, okay?”. We follow all the cables and make sure that everything is connected tightly. “Okay, let’s do it!”
And then we went about and threw some paint on the Extruder the other day and made it look like prettiest IN MOCEAN Extruder ever. We cannot wait to test it!