It is estimated that every year around eight million tons of plastic waste enters into oceans from coastal regions. Plastic pollution has become so pervasive, scientists recently identified microplastic particles in the placentas of unborn babies. Yet, out of the millions of tons of plastic produced each year, only around 9% is recycled.
There is, however, a fledgeling industry working to end this harmful cycle by creating a circular economy for ocean-bound plastic, by collecting, recycling, certifying, and selling it back to brands and manufacturers.
However, gaining market traction and building trust in this discarded, and potentially degraded waste, around 80%-90% of which is mostly found on the coasts and waterway of developing nations, has its challenges.
Certifying ocean plastics
Ryan Schoenike is co-founder and president of OceanCycle, a company that certifies the quality and origin of ocean-bound plastics. He says that he started the public-benefit corporation because he felt there was not enough transparency and traceability around the recycling of this type of plastic.
“Often the users of ocean-bound material have many questions about how it is collected, it’s a people-focused operation and there are concerns over forced or child labourer,” he explains.
Launched in 2018, OceanCycle’s certification programme includes social auditing and baselining the recycling process conducted by local communities.
Companies and manufacturers often feel confused about how they can verify where the material comes from.
“Our certification provides assurance and transparency to buyers who want to use the material. This is extremely important because companies and manufacturers often feel confused about how they can verify where the material comes from,” adds Schoenike.
The certification is paid for by either the local recycler or the buyer. 98% of the material OceanCycle certifies is referred to as ‘ocean-bound plastic’.
The company defines this based on a paper on plastic waste by Dr Jenna Jambeck, who determined that any rubbish within 30km-50km of a coastline, in an area that doesn’t have a formal waste management system, will end up in the water if not collected.
The company is certifying between 1,200-1,500 tons of plastic a month, which Schoenike says is the largest programme of its kind, but is still ‘a drop in the ocean compared to overall plastic use’. Even so, the company is certifying more supply than there is demand.
“We do have lots inquiries, but I think there can be an issue getting through procurement departments, but we’re on phone with companies and manufacturers all day, every day,” he says.
A premium product?
There is the perception that ocean-bound plastic is a premium product that is worth paying for because it provides a good story. Some brands have used the pernicious issue of ocean plastic, which was propelled into the public conscious by the BBC’s Blue Planet series, to produce special edition items. Adidas has made trainers and Patagonia fleeces and jackets, to name a few.
Sana Packaging, a small US-based cannabis packaging manufacturer launched in 2019, uses what it calls ‘100% reclaimed ocean plastic’ for one of its products. Co-Founder & CSO James Eichner, says he considers the plastic a premium product because it requires additional verification and smaller batch testing, which increases the cost.
“Ocean plastic is not truly a commodity material yet,” says Eichner, “Packaging is traditionally an industry that works solely with commodity materials, but we’re trying to get these materials to a point where they’re commoditised.”
Sana Packaging works with OceanWorks, a digital marketplace that sources and – through third-party companies – verifies the recycled plastic, making sure it is US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) approved.
OceanWorks founder and president Rob Ianelli says that the company defines the plastics they represent as either ‘ocean-bound’, coming from ‘waterways’, ‘coastal’, ‘nearshore’ – but not ‘high seas’, though this area is listed on its website – or ‘averted’, which comes from 51 or more kilometres away from shore. The pricing of the plastic depends on its origin and how easy it is to access.
Ianelli, incidentally also started working with ocean-bound plastics alongside Schoenike, with whom he co-founded a company called Norton Point that manufacturers glasses from plastic sourced from the ‘canals and coastlines of Haiti’.
He says ocean-bound plastics are sometimes used as a marketing asset but “it’s not the only leg they’re standing on”.
“We see business as a key part of the solution rather than solely being blamed for it, we want to make the product corporate-friendly; I think we will see many large consumer packaged goods and brands dive into ocean plastic because I think it’s an excellent story with immediate impact,” he says.
“Ocean plastics can be competitive it just really comes down to the product, the consumer, and the willingness of the brand or manufacturer to be innovative.”
Into the mainstream
UK-based Raffi Schieir is the director of Prevented Ocean Plastics and Bantam Materials, which supplies ocean-bound plastic certified by OceanCycle. when asked if plastics derived from waterways and coastal areas is a premium product, which might limit its scalability, his answer reveals an industry dispute over definitions and labelling.
“Unfortunately, some companies make an overreach of the statement ‘ocean plastic’ by showing imagery of people fishing bottles out of the water, and try to claim that’s what is going into their pack, when it isn’t,” he explains.
“I’ve audited more than 50 factories in 25 different countries and there’s not one factory anywhere that can take plastic out of the water, that’s been degraded by the sun and the salt and recycle it: it does not exist.”
Last year, Lidl UK launched Bantam Material sourced and OceanCycle certified ocean-bound plastic for use across more than 50% of the company’s fresh fish packaging, a deal that is arguably one of the most successful in the sector. The move won Lidl the Sustainability Initiative of the Year prize at the 2020 UK Retail Industry Awards.
Bantam is also working with Boots and, according to Schieir, in the next year every major supermarket in the UK, to make up the ‘largest ocean plastic prevention programme in the world, by a factor of ten’.
When charged a normal price the customer can actually shift away from using new plastic towards using recycled ocean-bound plastic.
Schieir is passionate about what he calls ‘mislabelling’ of recycled plastics because he believes it can stifle the industry.
“Some companies are trying to say because the material comes from a coastal region it needs to be twice the price, but that’s just marketing. When being overcharged the customer will only buy small amounts,” he says.
He adds that Bantam prices the material to market, and while there is a certification cost behind it, it’s still the same price as normal recycled plastic.
“When charged a normal price, the customer can actually shift away from using new plastic towards using recycled ocean-bound plastic,” says Schieir.
Another challenge, he adds, is that there is a bias that material from developing countries, Indonesia for example, is of less quality compared to Germany and so should be cheaper.
“That’s also nonsense: we properly control and organise good quality recycling, through very good quality recyclers in developing countries and all we want to do is pay the same price as you would for material from the Netherlands or Germany. That’s why the programmes are working,” he adds.
How else to increase uptake?
Discrepancies aside, the limited market take-up of ocean-bound plastics is part of a wider story: that recycling rates of plastic globally are just very low.
“New plastics are only one-tenth of a penny less expensive than recycled ocean-bound plastic – it’s so fractionally small but because the consumer is not aware of the difference between what’s new plastic and what’s recycled, the consumer doesn’t show preference,” says Schieir.
Consumers can drive change, however. “The ideal situation would be virgin plastics falling under further scrutiny, where consumers are turning over products like they would a nutritional label, to start taking an interest in supply chains and materials that make the products,” says Ianelli.
Legislation can also compel brands to act. In the UK and EU, a plastic packaging tax will apply from April 2022 to producers of packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic, whether imported or manufactured in the UK or the EU.
“The majority of material that we certify goes into UK and Europe, driven primarily by the upcoming recycling content minimums,” explains Schoenike.
“If the US did the same nationally, or even in some key states, I think it would drive much more demand for ocean-bound plastics because at some point manufacturers would need to look outside the borders for that material.”