Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Global Eco-Adventurers Arrive in Fez

In September 2011 a truck rescued from the scrap heap and restored in the UK completed an around-the-world journey - powered by waste vegetable oil. The journey began in September 2009.  The man at the wheel of the 'Biotruck Expedition' is Andy Pag from Croydon in London.  Yesterday, The View from Fez caught up with Andy and his partner, Christina Ammon, who are in Morocco resting up and writing about their 30,000 kilometre, 25 country, odyssey. 
Photo: Suzanna Clarke

It is easy to suspect that, as a child,  Andy Pag was hard to keep indoors. There is no record of his having run away to join the circus, but it is easy to imagine. The major escape, however, had to wait until he was twenty-one when he headed to Africa.

"When I was 21 I borrowed my sisters motorbike and drove it to Dakar. Along the way I saw 'dole scroungers' driving beat-up old cars from Europe to sell in Africa. Having been a tour guide in Europe during the summer, and having nowhere to stay in winter, I decided to try my hand at selling an old wreck in Africa. I went to Germany, got a Mercedes 240 and drove it to Mauritania."

It was not his most successful trip. "I lost the money to police and Mafia in a setup scam," Andy explains with a wry smile. "Next year I didn’t lose money. On the third year I actually made money."

Travelling and making money at the same time was an alluring combination and from one car per trip Andy graduated to organising a three car convoy and spent the next twelve years of selling second hand cars in, "the Sahara… Niger, Mauritania most of West Africa".

"We couldn't have done it without the enthusiasm and help from the strangers we've met along the road. The random acts of kindness have given us an overwhelming faith in how great humankind is" - Andy Pag

In 2007 Andy drove a chocolate powered truck to Timbuktu. The truck was adapted so that it could run on waste from a cocoa butter factory. As one newspaper reported at the time, the fuel was, "extracted from thousands of misshapen chocolates". For some people the achievement would have been enough. However, for Andy it was just the start. “When we quietly rolled into Timbuktu, we were too tired to be elated. But by the time we backed on to the ferry across the Niger at dusk, we were plotting our next carbon-neutral adventure.”

Andy became intrigued with the possibilities of biodiesel and so organised a rally to see if it was possible to travel from the UK to Greece in vehicles powered by waste cooking oil.  For that journey, he drove an adapted Peugeot 405 that he bought for £500 on Ebay.  It was on that "Grease to Greece Rally" in 2008, that a signpost pointing to Istanbul gave him the notion of voyaging further afield.

Back in England Andy rescued a 22-year-old school bus from a scrap dealer. The vehicle had a 1,200 litre fuel tank and oil filtering system, and was converted to run on vegetable oil. The speed may not have been great, but the fuel economy certainly was.  The truck was capable of travelling 5,000km on a full tank of fuel.

For the Biotruck Expedition leader, finding waste vegetable oil from restaurants along the route was only one of the challenges. The Mercedes truck also suffered "constant breakdowns" and, in a more serious incident, Andy was arrested for using a satellite phone illegally in Ajmer, India. He was fined 1,000 rupees (about £15) by a court for violating Indian wireless and telegraphy laws. The court dropped a more serious charge of misuse of a satellite phone for espionage and terrorist activity. "This held up the trip for months,",Andy said. It also soured his previous affection for India. "The cost and the stress were petrifying. I was stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare. It was Kafkaesque".

Andy says that it would have been even more difficult without the support of friends and family. "When I was in prison my sister brought messages. But I nearly gave up. All I wanted was to head to Nepal. Anything to get out of India".

No good adventure story would be complete without romance and for Andy this came when he was contacted  by freelance journalist Christina Ammon, from Oregon in the US. After many Skype phone conversations Christina joined Andy.

Andy working with school children in Thailand

"Christina contacted me when I was in Nepal because she wanted to write an article about the truck. We kept in touch after that because we have a lot in common - she lives in a truck and we both like paragliding. Eventually I said to her: It's a shame you're not a bit nearer because I'd really like to take you out to dinner'. "She said: 'Well when are you arriving in the US?' "I was due to arrive in the US around Valentine's Day and promised to take her out on a date. "In the end we couldn't wait until then and she ended up joining me early in Indonesia and the relationship blossomed from there."

For Christina, the best bits of the trip have been the breakdowns. She said: "That's when we met the most interesting, friendly people and had the unique sort of adventures and insights which you can't have travelling any other way."

Now the journey is over and the truck has been sold, Andy and Chris have come to Morocco in order to spend time writing about their adventures. Why Morocco?  Andy does not hesitate."I love Morocco. All the trips I have done here have been great. I love the mountains, the sea, the food and sense of freedom. Now we are thinking of staying here until April or May".

The book that comes out of this stint of writing should be fascinating. Andy describes the theme as "being about breakdown. The truck is really a metaphor for this journey and I put myself in situations where things break down. It is only in those moments that one feels truly alive."

And, yes, there is a new truck. Recently purchased, it is undergoing modifications in Spain. The new truck isn’t going to be all junk. Andy explains, "Having learnt some lessons from the last one, I want to pick and chose what bits are recycled, and what parts are new and efficient. The truck itself for instance is only seven years old. It uses only eight litres to do 100km on motorways, less than half of the old Biotruck.

"So this new Biotruck represents a shift in philosophy of living purely off waste to a more compromised approach to allow for the benefits of the efficiency of newness. With the same find of cooking oil, I’ll be able to go twice as far, and I’ll be able to get there quicker."

This extraordinary journey is both a learning and teaching experience for Christina and Andy who believe that making fossil energy more expensive, so its price represents the damage it causes, is the only way to encourage viable development of alternatives sources of fuel, and to reduce consumption. But that’s a view that is hugely unpopular because it impacts dramatically on quality of life.

Are they pessimistic about the political will to change things? "No politician will do it, but eventually as the stuff runs out, the price will climb anyway. It already is. Driving around the world teaches you that the earth spins on an 'axis of diesel'. Even in the milder political climates of national and local politics, leaders worldwide don’t want to tell their voters about this link between energy and comfort. Voters don’t want to hear it. Corporations certainly aren’t going to admit it. Even environmentalists don’t really want to highlight it for fear of alienating the fragile public interest in sustainability."

Perhaps the most interesting lessons of such an adventure are inevitably about oneself. Andy smiles and says, "It is ironic then, that as someone who has travelled the world in search of an answer, I’ve discovered that the answer is not to travel, but to invest yourself in a community, and to build relationships with the people and places around you."



Anonymous said...

Why did you call it "Bio-Truck". It has nothing Bio about it. It uses vegetable oil rather than Petrol (Petrol comes from the latin: Petra Oleum. Which means: Rock's Oil). That is the only difference. It pollutes even more than regular oil.
If by "Bio"you mean organic oil, rather than mineral oil, then it makes sense. But I am guessing that is not what you meant.

Andy said...

...For the same reason they call it "Biodiesel" perhaps?

Burton said...

And Anonymous is wrong in another aspect as well. Bio fuel does not pollute as much as regular oil. Ho Hum... please get the science right

Unknown said...

Nice one Andy

Anonymous said...

Loving your comment that the aim in life is to " to invest yourself in a community, and to build relationships with the people and places around you." Look forward to hearing how you feel in ten years time :-)

MissTickle said...

Oh dear! They have let anonymous play with the school computer again. I wonder is it me or is the pedantic "anon" the same annoying one all the time or are there two or three of them?

On another subject. Well done to Mr Andy and Miss Christina. To not only start a relationship on skype, but then to continue it on the bus is such an adventure. But then, as the great Ken Keasey once said "You are either on the bus or off it."

Do tell me you played music in the bus? The Dead, maybe, or what???

Truckin' got my chips cashed in
Keep truckin' like the doodah man
Together, more or less in line
Just keep truckin' on

Anonymous said...

Did I tickle some British sensitivities?
I guess I did.
Have a good day with your so-called "Bio-Truck".
I don't see anything "Bio" about it.
By the way, I got the science 100% correct.
Here in the US. This type of vehicle is so common, no one even pays attention to them. They roam restaurants for used oil to fill their rigged truck with.
There is NOTHING, let me repeat that so you don't miss it again: NOTHING bio about this type of truck.
Maybe a solar-powered vehicle might qualify to be called "bio" or Eco-friendly.
In the meantime. Enjoy the view from Morocco.

Reg the Veg said...

I was going to say that anonymous was just an American twat. But that is unkind to more intelligent Americans. So I will just leave it as twat.

Pascal said...

I am agreeing with Mister Reg. If the other man does not understand bio he should go back to the school

Bio Design said...

Congratulation to you guys. What a superb eco-adventure and a great inspiration.

The View From Fez said...

The US EPA also states that one litre of biodiesel reduces net emissions of CO2 by over 67.7%, so one litre of biodiesel will save 1.8kg of CO2.

Anonymous said...

Last time I checked, this was not biodiesel.
Am I missing something?
When was cooking oil biodiesel?
One more point about the "science" of your so called "bio truck": It has been demonstrated, and I hope that one of you is a scientist, I doubt any of you is, but there is the possibility someone might be, anyway, it has been amply demonstrated that the so called bio fuels are contributing to the world hunger.
Not so long ago, corn was abundant in the US at very affordable prices. When the US government decided to subsidize ethanol, derived from corn, as an oil additive, the prices of tons of commodities shot through the roof.
Is this what you call "bio fuels"?
The day someone figures out how common grass can be converted to ethanol efficiently. That day I will believe human race has made a huge step forward.
In the meantime, I hope that this young couple can enjoy their free time in Morocco.

Peter said...

Great adventure. Very fine effort and a great Bio example to us all!

Frankie said...

Oh my goodness, yous sister sounds amazing!

Frankie said...

Oh my goodness, your sister sounds amazing!

Andy said...

Anonymous makes some interesting points which I've heard many times before and it's a good opportunity to correct some popular misunderstandings.

Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil. Any sort of vegetable oil, or fat can be "Transesterified" in to biodiesel. The reaction reduces the viscosity and gel point of oil, making it more suitable for modern engines to run on. It also increases the octane a little, and its well documented that biodiesel gives better "gas" mileage.

Another way you can make vegetable oil work as a fuel is to covert the engine (as I did with the biotruck) so that it can cope with the higher viscosity, and people all around the world do this. - There's an active movement in the US, but I'd disagree that its as popular as you suggest, based on the reaction to our truck and the media interest we got while in the US.

If the vegetable oil used to make biodiesel comes from unsustainable farming (like palm oil in SEA) then the fuel made with it will also be unsustainable. Sadly much of the commercially available biodiesel is made this way, but not all.

During the trip we filled up from small producers that make biodiesel from waste cooking oil collected locally, as well as seeking out sources of waste oil that we could use because of our converted engine.

As for biodiesel making food more expensive, this is an argument made by some economists but actually the situation is more complex; it's about the tipping point of food production v food consumption. Biodiesel has a part to play in that equations but it's not the only, or even the biggest factor.

I feel that using WASTE cooking oil is about as sustainable as it gets. All my "bio-trips" have been fuelled by waste oil, or biodiesel made from waste oil.

If you can bring yourself to overcome your revulsion of my use of the term "bio" then you can learn more at www.biotruckexpedition.org.

Your thoughts and opinions are welcome there, though we have a rule that you can't use an anonymous name tag if you want to comment on that blog.

Best, Andy.

Jeanine Sturm said...

Dialogue is absolutely important as we move toward discovering and using more alternatives to our petroleum based world economy. Obviously, we have no choice. Kudos to Andy for focusing on the recycling of not only the materials to build his truck, but also the recycling of waste oil. Recycling and reusing have GOT to become our credos as we humans learn how to curb our habits of instant use and disposal.