/ 16 September 2021

‘Dung Beetle’ turns tech into art and plastic into fuel

Dung Beetle Outreach Photos Copyright Jeffrey Barbee Dung Bee
The art of science: Children from the Boesmanland High School in Pofadder in the Northern Cape explore the Dung Beetle sculpture that turns waste plastic into fuel.

An art installation that was meant to inspire young people to find solutions to the plastics crisis has demonstrated its potential to turn the waste plastic problem into an electricity or energy solution.

In the same way that dung beetles make waste useful, a steel sculpture — the Dung Beetle — does the same for plastic. The three-dimensional, plastic pyrolysis machine, houses a gasification system that turns plastic waste into liquid fuel. 

The sculpture was imagined by South African artist Nathan Honey and designed by Pierre Pretorius. Pretorius, who invented the technology, explains how plastic is fed into an opening on the machine and then shredded and subjected to extremely high temperatures before entering a condenser and reactor that turns it into fuel.

“The response has been incredibly optimistic,” said David Terblanche, cofounder of Scarab Tech, a plastics-to-energy organisation, which says its machines can help to significantly reduce landfill costs.

Terblanche said young people “need a visual metaphor. When we go out and have a performance while simulating the plastic collection and feeding the dung beetle followed by this dramatic flame, they pay more attention as opposed to lecturing them and talking at them, instead of with them.”

Project Dung Beetle has evolved into a pilot project to test how the technology can benefit places that have no electricity. 

Only 11% of plastic is reused in South Africa. 

Jeffrey Barbee, the cofounder of a partner organisation, Alliance Earth, said he uses the machine to reduce his car fuel bill when the Dung Beetle Project is not on a roadshow. 

Barbee is able to produce enough fuel to fill his car using only three weeks’ of plastic waste from his household.

The Dung Beetle Project is supported by a global team of collaborators, including nongovernmental organisations, academics, cities, entrepreneurs and scientists, “all working towards a common goal of addressing plastic waste”.

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa