Innovation That Matters

Simon Bernard of Plastic Odyssey on How to Clean the Oceans While Helping Local Communities

Wise Words

Bernard is the CEO and a co-founder of Plastic Odyssey, the expedition around the world to develop transitional solutions to the plastic waste crisis facing our Oceans.

Plastic Odyssey is the expedition around the world to protect the ocean and to develop transitional solutions to the ocean plastic waste crisis. The Plastic Odyssey is a 40-metre scientific exploration vessel that will span three continents and 30 cities to uncover solutions to fight against plastic pollution, set to embark in early 2021.

Simon Bernard, a former merchant navy officer, is Plastic Odyssey’s chief executive officer and one of its co-founders. We spoke to Bernard at length to understand 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 lot of time with Corentin de Chatelperron. Corentin is the founder of the project “Nomade des Mers” and was working on low-technologies, which are simple systems that enable access to technologies that meet basic needs, such as food, water, and energy. So I spent a year with him, and 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. Thus, 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. And that is when I realized that there was plastic everywhere in the city. Yet, you don’t necessarily see it when you are at sea, because plastic does not float at the surface. 

However, when you find yourself in certain developing countries, you realize that there is an important pollution problem. Yet, there is a lot of local know-how. So I realized 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, this expedition, that is 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. 

How did the founders of Plastic Odyssey get together?

When I came back from this trip, I was still at University with Alexandre [Dechelotte, chief communications officer]. We were in the same class and we had already collaborated on several projects together. He was also interested in the fight against plastic pollution and had learned a lot about how to clean up the Ocean. So when I told him about this idea, he liked it a lot and started working with me on the project. And 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?” 

So we both went on with the project, and then a couple of months later we met Bob [Vrignaud, chief technology officer], with whom I had a mutual friend who set us up. And when I told Bob 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,” Corentin’s project. Bob once came to an open door event we had organized, where we had a chat regarding the project I was working on. But I had completely forgotten about this episode! So Bob and I realized 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 the project.

And to give you a brief timeline: my expedition with Corentin was in spring 2016, so the beginning of Plastic Odyssey was in January 2017 when we started working full time on the project. 

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.

So as a merchant navy officer, therefore, obviously, 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 how to 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. 

And when you are on a boat you don’t have a lot of resources. The means you have are the ones you have in the hold and you cannot do otherwise, because you are in the middle of the Ocean and no one is going to deliver you missing engine pieces out of the blue. So 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 our planet, we could find some similarities. Today, we think that all our resources are unlimited, whereas, in reality, the resources we hold are extremely scarce, and we know that they will not regenerate. And so it’s quite similar in the sense that if we actually behaved as if our resources were scarce, we would be able to find solutions to very complicated problems, with very little means. It’s the idea that you use what you have, as you have no other solution than to solve the problem you’re facing. 

Coming back to the vessel, you must face the challenge of fixing the engine, otherwise, the vessel will not be able to navigate. That is what I think has the most shaping effect on the approach we have with Plastic Odyssey. It’s about solving problems with very little resources.

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, etc. And all 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 passionate people who love to tinker, who wish to innovate, get together, exchange good practices and techniques. And our mindset follows these movements, even if we don’t necessarily consider ourselves as makers, because it’s a little too professionalized. 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. 

What change does Plastic Odyssey want to facilitate? 

What we hope for, beyond the recycling of plastic — that is nowadays mostly being dumped into nature and is not being collected — is for this plastic pollution to generate economic income for local communities that suffer the most from pollution’s 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. The knowledge of plastic recycling — today, we have it, there is nothing that needs to be invented. The only thing is that this knowledge is closed, it is not accessible, as it is only available to very few experts in the world. In reality, that is true for a lot of things. And when we are facing problems that affect the whole population, issues that hold no borders, we cannot afford to build barriers, nor produce brakes to innovation and knowledge. 

Thus, the change that I want to see with Plastic Odyssey is to offer another model of possible innovations, to show that we can share innovative knowledge that anyone can benefit from — when done collaboratively — which then serves those who have contributed to it. Yet our state of mind today tells us to do these things in our corner, keep them secret, otherwise, ideas will be stolen. Thus, by maintaining this mindset, you lose a lot more resources than if you were to share your acquired knowledge with others. 

Because, in fact, by disseminating information, one can learn twice as much as what has been 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. That is the change I want to see. 

We saw it before the COVID crisis, it didn’t seem very comprehensible. But now, with this extensive health crisis we are facing, we can see that when we have urgent problems that affect everyone, the simple fact of 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 the crisis 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 have to have the same approach as with the COVID crisis. 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? 

I think since we started working on plastics we’ve seen a change in people’s mindsets. We used to be the first to believe that the solution was to clean up the Ocean. We were 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, we were cheering them all the way! And since we started working on the plastic issue, we realized 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 realize that the solutions to fight against plastic pollution are located directly ashore, at the local level. First in the collection and recycling of plastic pollution. And second, the work must also be done upstream by rethinking materials, their uses, and finding alternatives. And I feel there is a real shift going on at this level. More and more people are talking about it in the media and the world is starting to realize that the problem will not be solved simply by cleaning the Ocean, or even by cleaning rivers, but that the problem has to be solved much further upstream. 

And so 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. 

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 myself. 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, etc. Thinking like that really gives me a boost! 

In fact, every morning when I walk by the port in Marseille, I imagine the vessel moored there. So I keep on telling myself: “Come on, in 4 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!” I think that definitely keeps me motivated!

What has been your proudest moment thus far? 

My proudest moment? I think there were two of them.  

The first was when we baptized Ulysse (our first prototype) when we navigated in the open sea and realized that everything we had imagined, which seemed completely crazy in 3D, finally became 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. But the more we got into it, the more we realized 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. And 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 even knew it, we found ourselves with a 40-meter 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 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 I’m most proud of, as that is when people started to believe in us. And at that time, that was completely improbable! The entire Boulevard Haussmann in Paris had been blocked for us, when we arrived around midnight with our boat coming from I don’t even remember where, and a crane was waiting for us, with security guards everywhere. 

And when we finally saw the boat rising in the air we kept on hoping for it not to let go, and we couldn’t help ourselves but think about the pyrolysis on it and wondering how on earth it was possibly holding — as we weren’t quite serene about our fresh welds and everything. But the whole 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!

What is one book you’ve recently read that has inspired you, and that you might recommend? 

So I am not sure if it has been translated into English, but there is Jean Louis Etienne’s memoir entitled Persévérer. Or, Bertrand Piccard’s The Greatest Adventure.

Persévérer recounts Jean Louis Etienne’s journey to the North Pole. It is similar to the journey of the Solar Impulse, and it inspired me a lot. 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. 

And what I love about these memoirs is that both set examples of failure, that are still being driven by relentless perseverance. That is to say that Jean Louis Etienne went to the North Pole but only succeeded after having failed three times. And at the time, nobody knew if it was possible to achieve such a journey. He just wanted to do it but nobody had done it before, so it was basically already impossible. And through perseverance, he succeeded. 

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. 

That is to say that technically, the solar panels were too heavy, the technology hadn’t been developed enough to make it technically, physically possible. Yet he never gave up, and by dint of persevering, by dint of believing in his project, after 13 years of hard work, they managed to build an aeroplane that was light enough to fly with batteries that store enough energy. And so they managed to make a literally impossible project, 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 Picard, who was also an adventurer and built Auguste, a submarine that could descend very deep, and at the time, it was considered impossible to do something like that. And instead of going to see a submarine manufacturer, Jacques Picard went to see a beer tank manufacturer. And the beer-tank maker 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 Picard is not an expert in solar panels, he just wanted to do it. All the experts in aeronautics or solar panels told him he couldn’t make it, that it wouldn’t work, as it cannot be done. And although he was out of his field of expertise, he went on despite people telling him it was impossible. And in the end, after 13 years, he found a way to do it, 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 already exists in books and on the internet, so by definition, their discoveries are either past or present. But they are 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 ones to solve, 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. Because 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. 

Who inspires you personally? 

For the personality that inspires me the most, I think we can say Bertrand Picard for the visionary and persevering aspect. But also for the unifying and leadership side, because he still managed to get a lot of people on board with him. It was a  huge project, and it’s quite incredible what he managed to do. Yet, 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 Dave Hakkens, the Dutch designer who created Precious Plastic.  He’s a very inspiring visionary because he represents the real success of this new approach which is based on sharing, open-source, and community building. 

He is simultaneously modest, simple and accessible while having 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”. Hakkens’ vision is truly innovative in that sense and he carries so many projects that radiate this unconventional mindset. And I love that!