We see a lot of products that are made from recycled, or reclaimed ocean plastic. Sounds cool, right? Gathering plastic from the ocean to recycle into new products. That's what many companies think too, with more and more products being made from reclaimed ocean plastic. But is recycled ocean plastic a sustainable practice or a marketing term?
As it turns out, many brands that claim to use ocean plastic aren’t even using ocean plastic as the main ingredient in their products. They’re using ocean-bound plastic. The issue is that reclaimed ocean plastic has become more a marketing term than an actual certified practice. In this article we'll discuss the difference between ocean plastic and ocean-bound plastic and the murky waters it creates.
What is ocean plastic?
Ocean plastic is a relatively recent problem, but a persistent one as plastic takes a very long time to decompose. The oldest plastic in the ocean has been traced back to the early 60’s.
Nowadays, it is estimated that 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year. This plastic causes immense problems to aquatic life. Animals get constricted in plastic, mistake the plastic for food and die of starvation. Plastic pollution is a big problem in our world today.
The real solution would be to prevent plastic from entering our oceans, but for reasons ranging from lack of motivation to being unable to stop accidental spills of plastic, this just isn’t feasible on the short term. Non-profits and citizens have long been cleaning up the oceans and beaches and now, in the vain of eco-capitalism, businesses are trying to solve an ecological problem while at the same time earning money. Even the much criticized and applauded non-profit the Ocean Cleanup is now selling products made from ocean plastic they collected to be financially ‘sustainable’.
Ocean plastic vs. ocean bound plastic
The main issue is that ocean plastic isn’t a standardized term. How it's defined is based on the company that uses it. One of the leaders of the recycled ocean waste industry is Oceanworks. Oceanworks sells raw plastic pellets made from ocean plastic. They are very honest about where their plastic comes from and make the following classification for their pellets.
- Offshore: Material far from shore accumulated floating “gyres.” The material is primarily HDPE, as it floats, and represents a fraction of the plastics that enter the ocean each year.
- Nearshore: Material suspended in the shallow areas of the ocean that are close to shore. This category also includes fishing net recovery and intervention programs.
- Waterway: Material found in streams, rivers and other waterways flowing towards the ocean.
- Coastal: Material that has washed up onto beaches and coastlines.
- Ocean-Bound: Material collected from communities with no formal waste management within 50 km of the shore line. This catchment area was first utilized in research by marine debris expert, Jenna Jambeck, in evaluating the source of plastic waste entering the ocean.
Of the 98 different types of recycled plastic Oceanworks sells on their website, 0 are sourced from offshore, 20 are nearshore and 61 types, the vast majority, are sourced from the ocean-bound area.
As we can see in the image, offshore, nearshore, coastal, waterways and ocean-bound fall under the ocean plastic umbrella. All of these make sense to be categorized as ocean plastic, but ocean-bound doesn't really seem to fit in. Don't get us wrong, collecting ocean-bound plastic is just as important because when plastic is on the ground in communities that don't have any waste management, there's a big chance that this plastic will end up in the ocean. We just don't think that it's ocean plastic.
Imagine the following scenario: you're at the beach, you put the ocean behind you and ride your bike in a straight line for about 4 hours. There you find someone collecting plastic. You say "hey, are you collecting trash? Awesome!" Them: "Yeah, we're collecting ocean plastic for our bathing suits made from recycled ocean plastic." That feels a bit weird doesn't it. Still great that they're doing it, but calling it ocean plastic seems strange.
As you can see above, Oceanworks uses a clear classification system with a traceable supply chain but not all companies are as transparent in where their ocean plastic comes from. Case in point: Econyl.
As exposed in this video, Econyl, who make regenerated nylon that is made from ocean and landfill waste, actually use extremely little to no ocean waste in their products. Brands who then use Econyl in their own products, like this nearly 5000 euro Superocean Breitling Watch, sell the same half-truth. Breitling advertises their watch as: "ECONYL yarn, obtained from nylon waste, such as fishing nets recovered from the oceans".
However, Andrea Scholte, environmental scientist at WWF says: "there is literally no ghost gear in these products [made with ECONYL], or very very very little".
Other prominent brands are also being called out in the video. Brands like Coca Cola who claim to use ocean plastic in their bottles but are actually using ocean-bound plastic. The claims are difficult to confirm. Both from the companies that say they use ocean plastic, to the people that say they don't. We remain in murky waters here.
Difficult to recycle
Plastic that drifts in the ocean for any time quickly degrades in quality and falls apart due to the salt. This makes true open ocean plastic very difficult to recycle and the collection process difficult and expensive. For a nice illustration of this check out all the effort that the Ocean Cleanup has put in their plastic gathering expeditions.
Once the plastic is gathered there is often a lot of dirt, sand and other types of garbage mixed with the recyclable plastic. Separating the usable plastic can be very difficult and time consuming. All this put together makes recycling ocean plastic an expensive job, with prices 50% higher than virgin plastic.
Certificates & Traceability
Global standardized certificates are lacking. Individual companies are taking the lead on this, like Oceanworks who implemented something called OceanWorks Guaranteed. By involving third parties to test and validate their sources of plastic they insure the traceability and quality of their production process. But there really should be an independent overseeing organisation. Just as there are global wood certifications, there should be one for ocean plastics.
Companies we support
The companies that we feature on our website share the following traits, they are all directly involved with the collection of ocean plastics to recycle and have created a traceable supply chain. For instance Bureo, a California based company has created NetPlus. NetPlus Materials are 100% made from fishing nets. They work together with local fishers who catch ghost nets and bring it to dedicated collection points where it’s sorted, cleaned, and sent to one of Bureo’s recycling partners where the nets are shredded and melted into plastic pellets. These pellets are then used to make new plastic products. NetPlus products are made from 100 % recycled material with a fully traceable supply chain.
Ocean Plastic Pots does roughly the same, but on a much smaller scale. Their planter pots are made from 100% recycled fishing nets. WharfWarp makes their products from locally retrieved nets and ropes. Sea2See make their frames for glasses from 100% ocean waste. They created something called UPSEA™ which is comparable to Bureo's NetPlus.
So, is recycled ocean plastic bad?
To sum it all up, plastic should not end up in the ocean. Recycling ocean waste plastic is a last resort solution, albeit an admirable one. Right now, recycling ocean plastic is expensive and difficult but it is possible.
However, when it's done it should be done honestly. Companies should be honest about where their plastic comes from. Not tell and sell half truths for the sake of marketing. That smells like greenwashing. Our advise would be read product descriptions carefully, check for traceability, and ask questions.