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.