You’re probably already aware that millions of tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. You may have heard of the five plastic patches spread throughout the world’s oceans, or how companies like Adidas are turning ocean plastics into new products.

So why don’t we clean up that plastic? Here are the three problems:

  1. More plastic ends up in the ocean every year, and we’re projecting to double the amount in the ocean by 2025.
  2. Plastic that enters the ocean may sink or degrade into tiny particles, making it unfeasible to collect much of it.
  3. Plastics that are recovered from the ocean are low-quality material due to the exposure to sunlight and saltwater, meaning they can only make up a small percentage of recycled plastic content in new materials.

“Oceans are never going to stop filling up with plastic unless we stop the source,” says Sandra Lewis, director of business development for Envision Plastics. “We need to prevent plastics from washing into the oceans in the first place.” She likened the solution to turning off the bathtub faucet before you attempt to drain the water.

Envision Plastics has been a leader in ocean plastic recovery and prevention for 10 years, initially partnering with soap company Method to manufacture bottles from recovered ocean plastics in Hawaii. The company recently launched a new product called OceanBound Plastic, which is intercepting bottles made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) resin from the ocean before it even hits the beach.

The Coastal Garbage Challenge

In the U.S., we take for granted the fact that we have an established system not just for recycling collection, but for garbage collection in general. While we could certainly improve our recycling participation and habits, we do a good job of preventing litter.

Compare that to developing nations like Haiti where trash disposal doesn’t exist. This Caribbean island may not have a huge population (10.8 million people, basically the combined population of New York City and Chicago), but any plastic disposed within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of the coastline is likely ending up in the ocean.

Ocean Plastic Infographic
Graphic: How plastics end up in the ocean; Science Magazine

Envision based its definition of “at-risk zones” on marine waste expert Jenna Jambeck’s research. At-risk zones are areas where there are populations living within 50 kilometers of a coastline with no formal waste system in place. It’s estimated these areas produced 99.5 million metric tons of plastic in 2010, with up to 12.7 million metric tons ending up in the ocean.

“Eighty percent of plastics in oceans come from coastal countries, most of which don’t have a waste management program to properly dispose of trash,” says Lewis. “When plastic is littered and it rains, that material ends up in the ocean.”

So how do we keep that material off the ground and instead divert it into a recycling stream? While education is important, incentivization is more effective.

Envision goes one step further than sponsoring beach clean-ups by creating local collection programs in countries with the biggest needs. A person can fill up bags with HDPE bottles before they ever hit the water. She or he will be paid by Envision’s partner for the plastic collected, and in one case, filling up one sack pays enough money to feed a family of four for a week. Envision then buys and recycles the plastic resin.

“We have a proprietary scorecard used to qualify on-the-ground partners,” says Lewis. “For example, we require our partners to pay fair wages, not use child labor, comply with environmental regulations and have safe working conditions. We train them how to properly sort the plastic and safely load it into containers. The result is a stream of high-quality plastic that can go back into packaging, bottles, toys and finished goods, and displace up to 100 percent virgin resin.”

The company is so confident in the potential collection that it has publicly committed to collect 10 million pounds of HDPE from these at-risk zones over the next two years.

The Need for a Market

Collecting 10 million pounds of plastic only works if companies are using the recycled resin. Unfortunately, it’s often cheaper to manufacture plastic from virgin material than recycled content, which influences manufacturers’ decisions.

Envision’s OceanBound Plastic is no different, as the product costs more than virgin or post-consumer plastic. Envision has found a few partners to use its stock, including Dell Computers for its packaging and Norton Point for its sunglasses.

“In our opinion, the use of virgin plastics needs to cease,” says Norton Point CEO Rob Ianelli. “The planet simply cannot support any additional mismanaged plastic that is not bound for recycling.”

Norton Point pledges to keep 1 pound of plastic out of oceans for every pair of sunglasses sold, and also donates 5 percent of its net profits to global clean-up efforts. The company gets its plastic from Haiti, and uses Envision’s supply trace feature to let its customers know from exactly where the plastic was diverted to make its products.

“Our customers deserve to know where the plastic comes from so they can further educate themselves on the issue and truly grasp the scale and scope of how big this problem is,” says Ianelli. “Traceability and chain of custody are paramount for our brand and business operations.”

How You Can Help

While beach clean-ups and reusable plastic will always be viable ways of keeping plastic out of the ocean, you should also do your homework when buying products as to how they are sourcing plastic for the product and packaging. In most cases, companies that are paying more for recycled content will promote it right on the package, and while you may pay more for these products, you’re creating a market to continue using recycled-content plastic.

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.