A growing number of corporate partnerships are supporting a circular economy for discarded plastic in coastal regions of the developing world. Does this signal a sustainable solution to marine pollution?
The image of rubbish floating in an otherwise pristine ocean has become a defining one for plastic’s detrimental impact on the natural world. It’s a complex problem, but one that a fledgling industry, based on creating a circular economy for waste otherwise destined to become marine flotsam, is starting to tackle.
In April, Sainsbury’s and packaging supplier Sharpak entered a partnership with Bantam Materials to use its Prevented Ocean Plastic in 34% of the supermarket chain’s fish packaging and 80% of its Berry Garden strawberry punnets. It’s estimated that, 39.5 million items bought from Sainsbury’s this year will be packaged using recycled plastic bottles, retrieved from coastal areas around the world. This waste would otherwise be ocean bound.
Sainsburys follows Lidl UK, which uses Prevented Ocean Plastic for half of its fresh fish packs. Booths and Waitrose are also among a number of retailers using the recycled material in their food packaging.
What is ocean-bound plastic?
The term ‘ocean-bound plastic’ derives from a 2015 paper by Jenna Jambeck, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia. She determined that any rubbish within 30 miles of a coast, in an area without a formal waste management system, is at high risk of ending up in the water if not collected.
This is distinct from the term ‘ocean plastic’, notes Raffi Schieir, director at Bantam Materials. “There’s no such thing as recycled ocean plastic. No one can take plastic that’s been degraded by salt and sunlight out of the water and recycle it,” he says. “It does not exist, even if some companies make an overreach by claiming that it does.”
Prevented Ocean Plastic is made by recycling discarded PET bottles that are collected by coastal communities in developing nations such as Indonesia. The recycling is done locally and the product is certified to European standards by OceanCycle, a social enterprise that also conducts audits to ensure that child labour, for instance, is not involved.
Ryan Schoenike is the co-founder and president of OceanCycle. He says that, while it is the largest programme of its kind – Bantam Materials claims to sell about 1,400 tonnes of OceanCycle-certified recycled plastic each month – it’s still “a drop in the ocean” compared with overall plastic use.
Schoenike notes that OceanCycle receives many product enquiries from prospective buyers, “but there can be an issue getting past their procurement departments”, he says, alluding to the reservations that companies often have about using recycled PET.
These range from concerns about the cosmetic appearance of the product – it can be slightly discoloured – to those about cost and quality. There is a common perception that material from developing countries is inferior to that from the West and should therefore be cheaper.
“That is nonsense,” Schieir says. “We properly control good-quality recycling and we want the same price as for material from Europe. That’s what makes these programmes work.”
Providing detailed information on aspects ranging from collection to decontamination has been the key to gaining the trust of packaging manufacturers and users. Waitrose’s packaging development manager, Nikki Grainge, says that the company started thinking about using ocean bound plastic two-and-a-half years ago, but wanted to use a supplier that was fully certified.
“We need traceability, because we’ll never want to sell anything we don’t have full confidence in,” she says. “It’s reassurance for us that we can pass on to the consumer.”
Bantam Materials says that, while there is a certification cost attached to its product, it’s priced at a comparable level to that of other recycled plastic, according to Schieir.
“Our partnership with Lidl shows that this isn’t a cost issue,” he says. “New plastics are only a 10th of a penny less expensive than recycled ocean-bound plastic.”
For retailers, on the other hand, the price may be significantly higher, mainly because they’re often buying a finished product rather than the polymer.
Joanna Jensen is the founder and chairwoman of Child’s Farm, which makes children’s skincare products and packages them with Prevented Ocean Plastics. She says that these are about 20% more expensive than the non-recycled equivalent, but her choice is a “moral one. This is about ethical sourcing and creating local employment in developing nations. Looking at it under the lens of cost alone is ignoring the reasons why we’re doing this.”
Bola Lafe, founder and MD of Opus Innovations, which recently launched a hand sanitiser bottled in 100% Prevented Ocean Plastic, believes that companies can make the switch to recycled packaging without harming their profits unduly.
“The cost isn’t prohibitive – if companies choose not to be greedy,” he says.
Building an end market
Mike Webster is programme director at Project Stop, which helps build sustainable waste systems where there aren’t any. He says that organisations such as OceanCycle and Bantam Materials can ultimately make it easier for executives to switch from virgin to recycled plastic, which is important.
He explains: “We need robust end markets for this material, which will lead to more being collected and less leaking into the sea. Go for it, buy it, spend that extra bit of time investigating it. That’s the only way we can create a circular economy for this stuff.”
Schieir says the market has picked up considerably in recent months, largely because of the forthcoming tax in the UK on plastic packaging that doesn’t contain at least 30% recycled material.
But there is still a distance to go. According to research compiled by ReportLinker, the volume of illegally disposed plastic waste rose by 280% worldwide during the pandemic, while the recycling rate fell by about 5%. Many of the big corporate users of plastic – Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, for instance – still have plastic recycling content rates of below 10%.
“You can’t put 100 units of something into the world, buy back only four and expect recycling to work,” Scheier argues. “With some bigger brands coming on board, we’re showing that we can clean up what’s out there and move companies away from single-use plastic to recycled content.”