Recycled Ocean Plastic: Greenwashing or Not?

Ocean plastic pollution is a pressing global problem – one that’s progressively getting worse. Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastic enter into the world’s oceans and make up around 80% of all marine debris. BBC Radio reported in 2010 that plastic waste on the world’s beaches had doubled since 1994. And without any significant action, plastic rubbish in our oceans is set to triple by 2040 to around 29 million metric tonnes.

recycled ocean plastic greenwashing
Ocean plastic to products - that's a nice thought

The impact of the plastic contamination of our oceans is devastating. Marine animals digest and become entangled in debris, leading to painful injuries and even deaths. Not only can it destroy entire ecosystems, but it also threatens the safety of our food, ravages the coastal tourism industry and accelerates the rate of climate change.

We always hear that recycling ocean plastic is a way to combat this trend. But could it really part of the solution?


Can plastic from the ocean be recycled?

Theoretically, yes. There are a handful of organisations whose mission is to collect plastic from the ocean and convert it into a whole range of so-called ‘ocean plastic products’. Businesses have also jumped on board.

What can ocean plastic be recycled into, you may ask? The Ocean Cleanup creates recycled ocean plastic sunglasses. Adidas announced their creation of shoes from ocean plastic (the ‘Ocean Ultraboost Sneaker’). Sunglasses company Norton Point also created a pair of sunnies made from plastic collected from the ocean. Brands like Remnant Bikinis also make ocean plastic swimwear created from ghost fishing nets and, importantly, ocean bound plastic (more on that below).

But recycled ocean plastic doesn’t exist on a large scale. And in some instances, only a small percentage of the plastic in an item is actually recycled from ocean plastic. Soapmaking company Method released a soap bottle made from recycled plastic – but only 10% was sourced from the ocean. The Seaqual Initiative has also adopted a mission to transform marine plastic into yarn. However, its yarn is only 10% marine plastic and 90% PET from land. Adidas’ claims that their shoe is made from ocean plastic may also be a little confusing – as ocean bound plastic is actually used to make it.

recycled ocean plastic greenwashing
Where the beach meets the ocean

Ocean bound plastic refers to plastic that is bound for (or heading to) the ocean. This could literally mean plastic at any stage of its life, but we generally use the term to refer to plastic collected within 50 kilometres from the coast. Most ocean plastic originates within this distance. The bottom line - it is not actually plastic pulled directly from the water used to make these products (the impression given by large-scale marketing campaigns run by companies such as Adidas).

No certification organisation exists to accurately determine a product’s composition of ocean-bound versus ‘ocean-direct’ plastic, so it’s completely up to you – the consumer – to do the research. Before you buy something, make sure that you know what you are buying. Ask the uncomfortable questions and seek transparency, detail and evidence of a company’s claims.


Problems with ocean plastic


So why isn’t genuine recycled ocean plastic used in more products? There are a range of reasons, which we’ll list below.


recycled ocean plastic greenwashing
The colours of the rainbow

Difficult to collect

Only approximately 3% of plastic on our oceans are thought to float on or near the surface. The majority breaks down into particles that are a few millimetres long, fragmenting under waves or the sun. Plastic can also attach to other debris and sink, or even be consumed by marine animals.

The Ocean Cleanup, the largest organisation dedicated to transforming ocean plastic into products, has virtually failed in its mission. It had ambitious and noble goals: to remove 90% of plastic waste from the ocean using U-shaped floating rigs. These rigs were powered by currents and winds, with the aim to collect plastic as it moved around. The organisation even had a significant $30 million finance backing.

But its first machine fractured in late 2018 as it was scooping up waste, and the system was said to fail simply because it moved too slowly. The design, according to the CEO of engineering company Miniwiz, was inherently flawed. "Any net or basket can collect any type of debris in water," he said. “Is it even remotely logical to build a football-stadium-size floating fishing net to collect three pieces of three-gram plastic almost 50 metres away from each other floating dynamically under the influence of currents in three dimensions?” “We all want a project like this to work,” he said. “But with a little research you realise this cannot be a plausible solution”. The solution, indeed, must involve stopping plastic from entering into the ocean in the first place.


Highly contaminated (and poor quality)


Ocean plastic is particularly hard to recycle because it is so contaminated. It can only be recycled if contains a maximum of 5% of impurities, which is difficult to achieve with plastic collected from massive saltwater bodies.

recycled ocean plastic greenwashing
Downstream recycling works, right?

Ocean plastic unfortunately photo-degenerates when it’s been under the sun for too long. It can become tainted with salt, sand and sea life which form their own ecosystems on its surface. Even when the plastic is industrially cleaned, sand can still be identified at a microscopic level. By being exposed to salty water and sun for such a long period of time, ocean plastic loses its qualities and simply can’t be recycled into high quality products.

Even The Ocean Cleanup stated in 2019 that it planned to burn some of the plastic collected from the Pacific Ocean because “not all plastics collected will be recyclable to new products”. Rather, it would be burned to generate electricity – a controversial move given that burning plastic waste is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.


Recycled ocean plastic: the noble myth


While collecting plastic from the ocean and recycling it into products is an admirable idea, it is simply not a sustainable approach to combating the global plastic problem. Companies that sell so-called recycled ocean plastic products are misleading, as most of them are crafted from ocean bound plastic or simply recycled plastic sourced somewhere on land. What is required is coordinated strategy to educate consumers on the harmful effects of plastic, including the use of green alternatives, and fostering a culture that encourages and rewards a zero waste life.

Here at TOMbag, we’re part of the movement to shift consumers away from single-use plastic bags (which end up in our oceans on a devastating scale) towards sustainable alternatives. We offer a truly reusable bin liner you can use to ensure that a garbage bag you use never again ends up in our oceans.