You don't have to be a environmental scientist to know that the most important thing about plastic in our oceans is that we seriously don't want it there. It kills, maims and sickens marine life; it's depriving our oceans of oxygen and it's also breaking down and attaching itself in the form of microplastics to salt and seafood - which ultimately finds itself into the bodies of those who eat either product. And we now know that isn't ending well for our health.
You do however need to be a forensic scientist to work out the ocean plastic recycling supply chain - collection, sorting, shredding, remaking, selling and ongoing innovation. The twists, turns, corridors and marketing double speak are a rabbit hole that's as complex as the ocean itself.
Extracting plastic from the ocean, stopping it ending up in the ocean and recycling recovered plastic is one of the faster growing industries on earth. It's complex, has a number of it's own embedded supply chains and many many secrets - like the amount of recovered waste that is simply not recycled and the addition of virgin plastic in many recycling processes. And of course there is always the problem of supply chains playing fast and loose with facts.
One of the great wonders of our current world is the number of entrepreneurs who simply decide to solve a problem no one else has been able to solve and actually do it. With ocean plastics, specifically nylon, one such person was Giulio Bonazzi, who in 2011 developed the 100% recycled fabric Econyl - made from ocean plastic. Econyl pioneered the technology of adding fishing nets to other post consumer waste and basically mimicking the way virgin nylon is made, to make a true 100% remade polymer product that is actually stronger than virgin nylon - and recyclable.
Bonazzi has not only rescued millions of metres of nylon from the ocean, (around 40% of plastic waste in the ocean is nylon), he has created a recyclable nylon and has changed the way the entire fashion industry chooses fabrics like nylon. Econyl seem to have the entire world swimming in Econyl bathers and fashion's elite designers use the fabric extensively in garments and accessories.
In 2018, a company called Pack Tech, who have been developing and selling plastic resins for packaging solutions since 1946 for products in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, began supplying '100% recycled ocean waste plastic' to the packaging and retail industries. One buyer from 2019, was global salon products maker KEVIN MURPHY, who concurrently launched a sustainability campaign and relabelled all his packaging as 100% Ocean Waste Plastic. The packaging was supplied under the Ocean Waste Plastic (OWP) brand, a Pack Tech company that was developing a global recycled plastics marketplace.
In December 2020, KEVIN MURPHY announced that he had discovered the plastic he thought was 100% recycled, actually wasn't. It turns out that, the '100% recycled ocean plastic' had been under a cloud for years as the ability to achieve 100% ocean plastic was highly questionable, even with new technology.
It seems that OWP had been pursued by a European website Detektor since the product was released in 2016. In an original video, now deleted, but shown on the Detektor link, Pack Tech had explained how the plastic is collected by fishermen in Indonesia and ends up as new packaging. In the video, Pack Tech's CEO, Christian L. Jensen says, "It is not a combination of different types of plastic, virgin materials or other PCR materials. It is 100 percent sea plastic. 100 percent from the sea to the new packaging."
Not so fast.....
KEVIN MURPHY products are literally in thousands of salons around the world so he had a big problem. He had not only promoted the claimed environmental credentials of his packaging, but it was literally printed the claim on millions of bottles. He posted a video informing his salons and customers of the discovery, with a statement, "Our packaging supplier made us aware that they cannot guarantee that our current packaging that has 100% OWP on the label is in fact accurate.....In terms of concrete actions: 1) We have initiated independent investigations and are evaluating this situation to see how to move expeditiously to use the greatest amount of ocean plastic, Post Consumer Resin (PCR) and least amount of virgin material in our packaging, 2) We are evaluating and will be enhancing our audit programs, 3) We are reviewing the lost environmental opportunity, finding ways to make this right and deliver on our original commitment."
KEVIN MURPHY is an excellent example of what happens when suppliers of integral product components sell you a lie. With thousands of salons, the supply chain impact reached hundreds of thousands of consumers. While it's never a good thing, it's even worse when the lie undermines your commitment to being a better environmental citizen. In KEVIN MURPHY's case, his product was always going to be packaged in plastic, but he wanted a version that was more earth friendly. OWP also support programs that pull plastic from the ocean for every sale they make. (Please note that the integrity of that excellent program is not in question here.)
But what about companies whose central reason for being is linked to the integrity of their packaging? This scenario is pretty much always part of the story of every eco business with good intentions, especially those started in the last couple of years. Australian online start up Zero Co launched in October 2020 with OWP's 100% Recycled Ocean Plastic at the heart of it's environmental claims and promoting OWP's recycling story - including it's Indonesian fishermen rescuing ocean plastic, as part of its product packaging.
The discovery has the potential to be devastating for a company who themselves are promoting both the evils of plastic and the importance of collecting ocean plastic, recycling it and not allowing it to go to landfill. While it seems to be true that the dispensers are made from plastic pulled from the ocean, that plastic is mixed with potentially 50% virgin plastic to make the containers.
Differently to KEVIN MURPHY, Zero Co seem to have chosen to quietly drop OWP claims, use up current stocks, erase any reference to OWP from all digital media and move to try and find a local solution, starting with a massive local clean up of Sydney Harbour to create media 13 - 14th April.
Meantime, what has OWP done? They have simply disappeared the 100% recycled ocean plastic claims in relation to packaging.
CIRCULAR SUPPLY CHAIN - A SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION WE WANT TO CLEAN UP THE OCEANS AND RECYCLE AS MUCH OF THE COLLECTED PLASTIC AS POSSIBLE, PROVIDING AN ALTERNATIVE TO VIRGIN RESIN.
OWP have shifted their pitch to focus more attention on their 1:1 collection and leave the rest to everyone's imagination. (1:1 collections are very common. Essentially for every piece of plastic sold - in this case ocean plastic - OWP will pull an equivalent amount of plastic from the ocean.FOR EVERY PIECE OF OWP PACKAGING SOLD, THE SAME AMOUNT OF PLASTIC IS COLLECTED FROM OCEANS AND RIVERS. AS MUCH OF THIS PLASTIC AS POSSIBLE IS RECYCLED TO REPLACE VIRGIN MATERIALS IN DIFFERENT INDUSTRIES, AND WE ALSO STRIVE TO INCLUDE IT IN OUR OWP PACKAGING.
To be clear, we are not in any way trashing OWP's excellent trash collection initiative or even that they are only pulling 1:1 for sales of their 'ocean plastic' packaging. What is very hard to find anywhere, unless you know what you are looking for, is what percentage of the so called ocean plastic is virgin. One can only assume that the logistics and composition of plastic sold is now amended to reflect the truth, it still isn't clear on their website.
Just to confuse matters, apparently the garbage strewn across the high seas is not the only place you can find ocean plastic. Ocean vicinity plastic - stuff that might end up in the ocean - is apparently also ocean plastic. Another supplier, Oceanworks, a global 'ocean plastics' marketplace defines it thus. I appreciate this could be confusing, so here is a take from another angle:
THERE ARE TWO WAYS TO GET PLASTIC OUT OF THE OCEAN: 1. PULL IT OUT OR 2. PULL IT OUT BEFORE IT GETS TO THE OCEAN. OPPORTUNISTICALLY, THE LATTER HAS MORE OPPORTUNITY TO BE 100% RECYCLABLE. THE FORMER HAS NOT.
According to Oceanworks, plastic pulled from the ocean and plastic either picked up on a beach or near a beach or a place that might take it to an ocean one day are all called ocean plastic. While the Almost Ocean plastic has clearly never swum with any kind of fish or turtle or baked in the sun on the high seas, perhaps it is entirely fair to call it ocean plastic and stretching the truth to evoke desire is the soul of marketing elasticity and shoreline collections save fish, turtles and the ocean, so does it really matter what it's called?
The main problems with rescued open ocean plastics are degradation, contaminants and mixing of plastic types. Plastic that has washed around a salty ocean, rocks, reefs and been baked in the sun; tends to be lose a bit of its original strength, pick up friends along the way and often getting tangled up with other plastics.
Like leather made from leftover apple pulp or reusable coffee cups made from coffee husks, degraded plastic has to be cleaned and what is rescued has to be bound together with something to make it stick together. Generally that means adding virgin plastic - anywhere to 50%.
While it's referred to as Ocean Plastic by Oceanworks and is in fact the only ocean plastic they sell, Almost Ocean plastic has never actually been in the ocean, but rather has rescued enroute to the ocean. And this is precisely why it is so recyclable. Plastic needs to be clean and not degraded to have a chance at being commercially recycled, making Almost Ocean plastic more likely to be an excellent target.
As it is rescued before hitting the ocean, it's probably not unreasonable to call it Ocean Plastic, just a little deceptive. (See how Oceanworks describes their plastic below, citing plastics expert Jenna Jambeck for legitimacy.)
When suppliers get something wrong, the effects are far reaching. Sometimes that means it is difficult to easily uncover facts. Generally, however, if the ethics of a supplier are important to you, how they handle this kind of balls-up is instructive.
If you suspect a supplier or product seller isn't giving you the whole story, look for what is not said, rather than what is said - the clues are always there. If it isn't clear on the website where packaging comes from and who made it, especially when the whole point of a business is about less packaging plastic, investigate. Ask questions. If you get stone walled be suspicious. In the end, you may well still choose to use that business, but at least do so knowing what they really stand for.
Whenever you choose to use plastic - recycled or not - it's important to always remember that you also choose to invite in the children and grandchildren of that plastic. Microplastics. If you can avoid using it, always take that option. If you do use it, use, reuse and recycle responsibly!
Main Image: Ocean Waste Plastic | science.com | Econyl | kevinmurphy.co | Wayback Machine : Zero Co | Zero Co | Ocean Waste Plastic
Article updated 28 April 2021 to rectify an erroneous link between the OWP and Oceanworks and claims in relation to ocean plastics. The two companies are not affiliated.