One visible component of marine litter is plastic waste. The presence of this plastic waste in the world’s oceans has increasingly become a hot topic in the media. This has led to the Global Plastic Alliance, consisting of worldwide environmental stakeholders and plastics manufacturers, coming together to create a global declaration. Researchers have discovered many avenues by which plastic makes its way to our oceans, and how this litter travels among ocean currents. When designing a product and packaging system, it is important to consider how the materials used end up in the waste stream and possibly to our oceans. In order to prevent this marine plastic litter buildup, a company can elect to reduce their marine plastic contribution, or to use plastic from collected and repurposed ocean plastic sources. Reducing their plastic input can either come from reducing their plastic production, or helping to set up barriers in communities that prevent plastics traveling to waterways. All of these strategies will decrease the plastic matter in our oceans and alleviate the problem.
The sources of marine plastic litter can be divided into two categories: land-based (~ 80%) and sea-based (~ 20%). Land-based sources account for most of the visible plastics packaging litter. Of particular interest are plastic bags, single use food and beverage containers, polystyrene foam, plastic straws and stirrers, various plastic lids, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, six pack rings and even just plastic resin pellets. There are also many non-packaging sources of marine litter and plastics litter. By collecting and sorting these plastics in locations where they tend to collect (due to ocean currents) it is possible to repurpose some, but not all of the plastic into new packaging.
One organization that makes this possible is Ocean Waste Plastic. This organization is committed to reducing the plastic in our oceans by paying fishermen in areas that are most affected by marine litter flows to collect and sort the plastic as it comes in. Once sorted, the plastic can be cleaned and melted into pellets of ocean reclaim HDPE and PP, which is then shipped to OWP’s plastic packaging plants and made into packaging for their customers. According to their website, their headquarters are in Denmark and they work with factories in China, India and Denmark. They have local offices in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, England, China, USA and Australia as well.
Every kilogram of reclaimed ocean plastic comes from 1.3 kilograms of raw ocean plastic detritus because not every reclaimed plastic is able to be reused. OWP says, “Every year 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans… Currently, our goal in 2020 is to collect and reuse 3,000 tons of Ocean Waste Plastic. We have already collected more than 2,100 tons of plastic from the oceans. That number will increase every year. Since the beginning of our clean-up efforts we have removed over 3,600 tons of plastic waste from the oceans.”
While their efforts have made a huge positive impact, it is clear that the rate of plastic input in oceans is much greater than one organization is able to handle. Many strategies are necessary to clean up our oceans before it is too late. Analyzing how your packaging system contributes to marine litter will be helpful in reducing this risk. Using Ocean Reclaim Plastic or post consumer recycled plastic instead of virgin material can reduce the amount of plastic traveling to the ocean. Switching to a plastic material that can later be collected and reused instead of a non-recyclable/recoverable plastic can also help.
In order to quantify which strategy is right for a specific project, simplify the process and use EcoImpact-COMPASS to calculate the effects of your packaging on the environment. Demystify your entire portfolio’s carbon footprint and use metrics like freshwater toxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and fossil fuel consumption to evaluate each change you might make to your packaging or product before putting them into production.