The reality of ocean plastics, when it comes to recycling, is that most of the plastic pulled from the open ocean simply cannot be recycled because it's usually too degraded. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be pulled from the ocean - it needs to be. It just means it is difficult to recycle.
So the bottom line is that unless you are The Great Ocean Cleanup, picking up tons of plastic that you can sift through to find the good bits for your 95% recycled HDPE sunnies, then recycled open ocean plastics just aren't a thing - at least not in high percentages.
Most recycled open ocean plastic (or highly polluted waterways) simply needs to be bound with higher percentages of virgin plastic to make it structurally sound. Which kind of sends you back to square one.
While trying to get to the bottom of the ocean plastics supply chain recently, we got a lesson in just how complex it can appear to be. In reality, it's not that complex, but you have to know where to look and who to ask. So we've set about trying to demystify the logic with the help of a couple of global experts.
The thing is that the plastic that is commonly referred to as reycled ocean plastic pretty much doesn't actually come from the ocean, especially if it is used as any kind of food, cleaning or body care container. It comes from somewhere close to the ocean.
OCEAN-BOUND PLASTIC IS THE WAY MORE IMPORTANT, RELIABLE AND IMPACTFUL OCEAN PLASTIC AND RESCUING IT AVERTS ALL KINDS OF DISASTERS BEFORE THEY GET A CHANCE TO HAPPEN
Recently Our World in Data published reports outlining how most of the plastic in our oceans comes from land-based sources: by weight, 70% to 80% is plastic that is transported from land to the sea via rivers or coastlines.
THE MOST EFFICIENT WAY TO TACKLE OCEAN PLASTIC POLLUTION IS TO STOP IT FROM ENTERING THE OCEAN FROM OUR RIVERS. ONLY 1,600 OF THE BIGGEST EMITTING RIVERS GLOBALLY ACCOUNT FOR 80% OF PLASTIC INPUTS TO THE OCEAN.
The most useful thing we can do to reduce ocean plastics is to stop plastics getting to the ocean in the first place. We are now able to specifically pinpoint where ocean plastic trash comes from, the opportunity to target hotspots is much easier. And it is with this knowledge that clean up campaigns and new marketplaces have sprung to life.
Vanessa Coleman from global plastics recycle marketplace Oceanworks recently explained the different kinds of so called ocean plastics in an article with Sustainable Brands.
Plastic waste removed or harvested from the ocean. This may also be called offshore plastic. This clearly fits the consumer picture of recycled “ocean plastic.”
Plastic waste collected from rivers or beaches via coastal clean-ups. This can include interventions such as fishing net take-backs that incentivize fishermen to return nets to shore and not release at sea. This may also be called waterway, nearshore, shoreline or coastal plastic and is frequently included under the umbrella of recycled “ocean plastic.”
Plastic waste removed from the environment within 50 kilometers of a coastline. Ocean-bound collection programs motivate local entrepreneurs to recover plastic waste before it reaches the ocean. This may also be called prevented ocean plastic and may be included under the umbrella of recycled “ocean plastic.”
Plastic waste removed from the environment inland. Collection programs and interventions offer local social benefits and support a cleaner environment. This may also be called mismanaged plastic waste or PCR with a story. This is not ocean plastic.
Plastic waste originating from consumer products. This can include ocean plastic, mismanaged waste, and formal recycling programs. All of the above labels are sub-categories of PCR. This is not ocean plastic.
Plastic waste generated in a manufacturing process that can then be directly reused in a production line. This is not ocean plastic.
System for purchasing the removal of plastic waste from the environment. This removed plastic waste material may or may not be recycled, but it must be properly disposed of to ensure that it does not end up back in the environment. If the plastic waste is from an ocean plastic collection zone, it may be an ocean plastic credit.
Every ton of material successfully recycled represents meaningful change, so if you are user of plastic containers (or a consumer making conscious choices), please consider the bigger picture. Read the stories your brand is telling, validate the sources and choose the one that creates the greatest positive impact. Targeting the millions of tons of plastic waste flowing into the ocean every year is a global game changer.
Plastic that can be collected at scale in coastal communities before it reaches the ocean and turned into bottles or jars like these, harvested from the shores of various locations in Central America.
The locations of the ocean's most polluting rivers means that plastics are sourced from emerging markets and this makes them cost-competitive and high-quality, and thousands of metric tons are available each month.
Images and data from Oceanworks except for the section on Our World in Data as noted