A takeaway coffee cuo lid from breakfast. A pair of plastic cutlery from lunch. A straw in a plastic bottle from in between. These are just a handful of the plastic items we consume on a daily basis, often without a second thought.
But our love affair with the convenience of single-use plastic items is creating a pollution crisis. An estimated 30 percent of global plastic packaging ends up in the environment, often waterways and oceans, the equivalent to the contents of one garbage truck being dumped into the ocean every single minute. A report by the Ellen McArthur Foundation states that after its short first-cycle use, 95 percent of the reuse value of plastic packaging is lost from the economy, equivalent to USD $80-120 billion annually.
Some companies are beginning tap into this material resource by incorporating marine waste into plastic packaging:
- Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble plans to produce a recyclable shampoo bottle for its “Head & Shoulders” product line, made from 25 percent recycled marine plastic. The bottle will be on the shelves of French retailer Carrefour this summer.
- In the technology industry, Dell is pioneering notebook computer packaging trays made of 100 percent recycled plastic, including 25 percent marine plastic.
But how does recycling marine plastic work exactly?
First, plastics are collected from waterways, beaches and shorelines by entrepreneurial pickers, volunteer groups and professional recycling organizations. These plastics are then sorted by various waste processors, processed and cleaned before being molded into new packaging. A mix of marine and land-based recycled plastic is used (Dell uses a one-to-three ratio) to ensure that the impurities within the marine plastics do not affect the quality of the end product.
In the end, the new packaging is once again curbside-recyclable, ready to re-enter the circular plastic economy.
The fashion industry is also riding the wave of repurposed marine plastics, with the help of textile producers like the Aquafil Group that are making sustainable materials more accessible to the production chain. Aquafil collaborates with the Healthy Seas Initiative to rescue abandoned fishing nets from the ocean, repurposing them to produce nylon fibers that can be woven into fabrics. These textiles are used by companies such as Starsock, Koru and AURIA to create new swimwear and sportswear products.
A few big names in fashion are also getting in on the upcycled marine plastics action. Adidas has released 7,000 limited-edition trainers with an ocean plastic midsole. Bionic Yarn, another sustainable textile producer, turns old plastic bottles (some recovered from beach cleanups) into yarns and fabrics for clothing. The company, whose creative director is the singer-songwriter Pharell Williams, has partnered with G-Star to launch a collection featuring denim garments made from recycled marine plastics.
“It was a way to—not kill plastic off, but at least slow down the production of it, and slow down the production of new polyester when we can just recycle the plastic from bottles,” Williams explained in an interview with CNN.
With multinational corporations and celebrities getting on board with the cause, you know it’s official: Repurposed marine plastic is the New Black. But how long until circular economy thinking and sustainable materials become industry standards, rather than features in limited-edition collections?