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Reclaiming plastics from the seaClick to Enlarge

In business, solving big problems can lead to big profits. One of our largest environmental problems is the millions of tons of plastic waste that wind up floating in our oceans and washing up on beaches. It’s not only unclean, but a massive waste of raw material that should otherwise be recycled. Most importantly, it’s an ecological disaster affecting marine life and ultimately human health. Finding new ways to prevent or recover discarded plastics from rivers and oceans could be a gold mine business for 21st century entrepreneurs. Imagine how larger streams of recycled plastic could reduce our reliance on virgin material and the related energy consumption and pollution consequences.

But it will be tough going. Nevertheless, a few pioneering companies are beginning to recycle ocean plastics as a way of drawing public and government attention to the problem of ocean plastics pollution.

Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex problem of plastic debris in oceans and how it is detrimental to the ecosystem. They have identified five major ocean gyres or systems of rotating currents where wind and water trap floating debris such as plastic, much like an eddy in a river. The most notable is the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is estimated to be the size of Texas.

Because of the durability of plastic, it can float in these gyres for decades before sunlight photo-degrades it into tiny particles that float on and below the surface and can be consumed by creatures as small as plankton, a basic in the marine food chain. The plastic does not go away, however. Since it is non-biodegradable it remains in tiny sizes which can be ingested by sea creatures. Plastic particles have been found in sea birds and many species of fish and have been traced as the causes of sicknesses and death.

Picking up plastic debris from beaches and sorting it by hand is highly labor intensive and usually done by volunteers. Netting it from the water is currently cost prohibitive from a business standpoint.

In late 2012, Method, an environmentally-conscious cleaning products company launched its latest innovation in sustainable packaging – bottles made from a blend of plastic recovered from the ocean with post-consumer recycled plastic. The bottles are for a limited edition packaging of a new Method product, a two-in-one hand and dish soap, which is available exclusively at Whole Foods Market stores nationwide.

“Method is really demonstrating how smart business can make a big impact for our planet,” said Errol Schweizer, executive global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market.

Over the past year and a half, Method employees worked with volunteers from Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and the Kōkua Hawaii Foundation to hand collect several tons of plastic from the beaches of Oahu, where the kinds of plastic needed to make this packaging are most abundant. Method is making donations to these two non-profit groups to help keep them functioning as a supply chain for collecting and sorting plastics marine debris.

“We instructed volunteers to look for rigid, opaque plastic. We also had Method employees sorting through the trash volunteers collected off the beach to find the particular kind of plastic we needed,” reported Katie Molinari, a Method spokesperson. “Method’s current ocean plastic bottle is a blend of 10 percent recovered ocean plastic and 90 percent recycled HDPE. We have produced approximately 90,000 bottles and we are currently exploring how to increase the amount of ocean plastic in future production. We were able to divert much of the plastic we felt we could use in our bottle packaging at the beach clean ups. Items like fishing nets and tires were sent to landfills.”

While obviously a clever marketing approach that offers a unique buying opportunity for Whole Foods shoppers, many of which are avid environmentalists, it is the type of initiative that creates awareness of the problem and begins to create a market demand from other environmentally conscious companies interested in the issue.

“Our goal with ocean plastic packaging is to show that the most viable solution to our plastic pollution problem is using the plastic that’s already on the planet. Method’s ocean plastic bottle demonstrates in the extreme that recycling is possible.” said Adam Lowry, Method’s co-founder. “By recycling and reusing plastic to make our bottles, we turn off the tap of plastic flowing into our oceans and take the first, most important step toward solving the ocean plastic problem.”

Method’s objective is to demonstrate how business can tackle environmental problems, and that there are smarter ways to make plastic rather than using virgin material. Nearly all of Method’s other packaging is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled material, an effective way to reuse plastic and prevent it from ending up in landfills and oceans.

To develop the new recycling process to make the bottles, Method partnered with Envision Plastics. The Envision process allows the rigid, opaque plastics recovered from the ocean to be cleaned, blended and then remanufactured into high quality recycled plastic bottles for Method at virtually the same quality as virgin high-density polyethylene.

Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of sales-purchasing at Envision said, “In the first go around with Method, they shipped us all the material that was collected. We then gave feedback as to what material should be avoided in future collecting. Basically, we got in a mix of all kinds of polyolefins and we did further sorting at Envision. Then we ground and washed it before blending with curbside collected baled bottles.”

“The ocean material we are getting is pretty contaminated with UV degradation and is also a mix of polyolefins so you have a high percentage of polypropylene and polyethylene. By us blending it in as a percentage into our polyethylene that we already recycle, it allows the ocean material to be compatible. It’s not too big of a contaminant that way and it also helps with the degradation so the Method product put on the shelf does not break. If the consumer were to drop a 100 percent ocean plastics bottle it would break because it’s too brittle.”

No colorants were added to the bottle. Its gray color is distinct from all other Method products. Method’s head of creative design liked the natural gray that occurred during the blending process. The bottles are extrusion blow molded.

“Let’s face it, it’s not sustainable. It’s not economical. It’s a very expensive way to make a product. (The additional cost of producing the bottles is absorbed by Method and not passed on to the consumer). The whole purpose behind Method was to bring awareness to the consumer that there’s an issue and that we have to stop plastics getting into the ocean by greater collection and recycling efforts. If you think about who shops at Whole Foods, they are predominately educated people. When they learn about an issue they get excited and do something about it. We hope that pressure will be put upon abusers who are dumping in the oceans and that politicians will also get excited about it,” Ettefagh concluded

Back in 2010, Electrolux, a global maker of home and professional appliances first launched its Vac from the Sea project also aimed at raising awareness about the immediate need for the world to take better care of plastics and support people and organizations that do. Essentially their objective is to eventually incorporate ocean plastics into vacuum cleaners since plastic is the main raw material used to make the products. From a sustainable business point of view, Electrolux wants to use an increased global supply of recycled plastic.

Paul Palmstedt, vice president of communications at Electrolux Small Appliances said, “The aim of the Vac from the Sea project is to highlight the vast amount of plastic debris floating around in our oceans. We have great difficulties in finding supplies of recycled plastics for our green vac range. If recycling of everyday plastics could be made much more efficient, we could extend our green range and produce more green vacs, while having less plastic debris end up in our oceans, provided people buy our vacs, of course.”

Within the Vac from the Sea project, Electrolux teams collected plastic debris from beaches around the world. They used the recovered plastics to create a small number of vacs for exhibition purposes. After that, the company arranged press activities in a number of countries to focus the issue and it also sponsored two NGOs who arranged research voyages to map the extent of debris in the oceans. “I think we can say that we have helped build more awareness about the issue, but of course more activities, not only from Electrolux, are required,” Palmstedt added.

Tamsin Ettefagh at Envision reported that since Method’s announcement of the new ocean plastic bottle she has been inundated with calls from organizations interested in exploring the use of ocean plastics.

Obviously, the cure to having less plastic polluting the oceans is greater public awareness of the problem hopefully leading to programs aimed at increasing recycling rates. Pressure must also be put upon ocean-going vessels and commercial fishermen to control the disposal of plastic goods. And who knows? Someday ingenuity, passion and technological progress may make open-water plastic harvesting another practical solution.