Features | From Pivot Magazine

Recycling ocean plastic is the future of sustainable packaging 

Combing the world’s oceans for discarded plastic isn’t cheap or easy, but it pays off in the long run

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A scuba diver surrounded by plasticA scuba diver surrounded by plastic near Bali, Indonesia (Jukka Saarikorpi)

Hair stylist Kevin Murphy has every reason to be optimistic for the future. His celebrity clients include Enrique Iglesias, Heidi Klum and Naomi Watts. Sales of his eponymous line of hair-care products, sold at salons internationally, have grown 109 per cent over the past three years—impressive considering the global hair-care market nudged up only 5.2 per cent during the same period. 

Yet Murphy worries all the same. In 2017, on vacation in Bali, he was dismayed by the barrage of plastic washing up on the beach at the resort where he was staying. It was a visceral reminder of how much garbage—more than eight million tonnes of bags, bottles, straws, to-go containers and discarded toys—is being dumped into the oceans every year. After some research, Murphy learned that by 2050, if the pollution continues, there will be more plastic in the world’s waterways than fish.

None of the errant containers in Bali were from Murphy’s own company, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if they had been. His company produces 360 tonnes of plastic packaging every year, the equivalent of more than 17.5 million water bottles. So Murphy decided to do something about it. In 2018, he became the first international beauty brand pledging to source 100 per cent of his packaging from ocean plastics, starting mid-2019. An admirable gesture, for sure. But the cost of packaging made from ocean-recycled plastics will cause the beauty brand’s costs to spike, raising the question: will Murphy’s embrace of this new type of sustainable packaging push pricing outside of his clients’ comfort zone?

It’s too costly to scoop it up out of the ocean. The key is figuring out where it washes up on shore in sufficient quantities to recycle.

Despite the volume of plastic in the oceans, cultivating it isn’t cheap or easy. Even the infamous gyre of junk—twice the size of Texas—floating in the Pacific is so diffuse, it isn’t practical to just scoop it out of the water. The trick is locating exactly where along the shorelines it collects in enough quantity for local teams to gather, sort through and process at a commercial scale. Sixty per cent of ocean plastic can be traced back to Southeast Asian countries that don’t have well-developed recycling infrastructure, which is why it ends up getting dumped in the water in the first place. (Currently, only nine per cent of the world’s plastic is recycled.)

Dell solved this challenge in part when it started introducing recycled ocean plastics in the packaging for its XPS 13 laptops in 2017. The tech giant used GIS mapping and satellite imaging to locate significant accumulations, then did an analysis of recycling capabilities in each location to see which had the most affordable processing options. Dell settled on Haiti as a pilot, but is currently expanding to Indonesia and other countries, using its size to help grow the ocean recycling industry into something more viable. “We are famous for the efficiency of our supply chain,” says Kevin Connolly, president of Dell EMC Canada Commercial. “It was so important for us to source something reliable.”

As with anything experimental, costs are high. “You can’t count pennies when using ocean plastics,” says Connolly, “or any other sustainable supply chain model.” Kevin Murphy concurs: “This type of product is five times more expensive to produce than our other bottles. But my team and I sat there with the guys who do the numbers and worked out a way we could do this with only a seven per cent increase at the store level.”

Seven per cent might sound like a risky jump for products that are already premium priced: a Kevin Murphy container of moulding paste retails for more than $50. However, the company might actually gain market share with the move. Seventy-three per cent of millennials are willing to shell out more for demonstrably sustainable products, according to a 2015 study from the market research firm Nielsen, while the McKinsey consulting firm has found that less-wasteful packaging can incite people to pay up to 25 per cent over polluting alternatives.

garbage on a beachCleaning up Kuta Beach, on the Indonesian island of Bali (Jukka Saarikorpi)

Still, both Dell and Kevin Murphy have a strategy to lower costs over time. They are both open-sourcing their procuring details and methods for processing in the hopes that by demonstrating viability, other companies will join in and boost demand. Kevin Murphy is collaborating with Danish packaging innovators Pack Tech, who are committed to sharing discoveries with any interested parties. Dell helped establish NextWave, a consortium of companies working together to develop an ocean-plastics supply chain, beginning in Southeast Asia. HP is among the companies that have since signed on, alongside General Motors, Ikea and Herman Miller. “Normally, HP is a competitor,” says Connolly. “It shows what an important issue this is that we’re now collaborating.”

Gord Beal, CPA Canada’s vice-president of research, guidance and support, says some companies shy away from sustainability initiatives because the upfront costs can be steep, with little in the way of tangible payoffs. “The associated benefits—including improved customer loyalty and satisfaction, attraction and retention of top talent, improved relationships with local communities and suppliers—are not directly recognized” in traditional financial metrics, he says. “But sustainability initiatives are generally worth the investment in the long run. And accountants in particular are well-positioned to measure and quantify the intangible benefits of sustainability to enable a more holistic decision-making process.”

Connolly knows where his priorities lie: “Using ocean plastics costs more money right now, but polluting our water has more serious, drastic long-term costs.” And Adidas has shown sustainability needn’t undermine financial performance.

In 2016, it became the first apparel company to commercially introduce ocean plastics on a mass scale with its Parley line, which currently produces over five million pairs of shoes per year (the polymers are re-spun into yarn). In 2017, the company also boosted its profit expectations, saying it is anticipating between 10 and 12 per cent higher earnings for the next three years. That can’t all be attributed to ocean plastics, but at the very least it shows that a company can innovate with sustainability without sinking.