Every summer, the folks at The Ocean Legacy Foundation get ready for a few months of ocean cleanup expeditions and community engagement.
They spend their time on the waters of the Pacific Northwest, collecting plastic waste that litters our waters and shores, while training volunteers to do the same.
Plastic itself, however, isn’t the problem. It’s a durable material that’s fabulous for structures and products that are meant to last, but it’s widely being used for single-use packaging and disposable items, creating waste that won’t break down for centuries. Its proper disposal is simply not a priority, as evidenced by the estimated five trillion pieces of it floating in our oceans, poisoning marine life and disrupting ecosystems.
But what if there was an economic incentive to clean up the plastic that’s choking our oceans?
The value of ocean plastic
Historically, there hasn’t been much monetary incentive to clean up ocean plastic. The process of collecting, washing, sorting and reprocessing was simply too inefficient to be economically viable, and many recyclers wouldn’t accept the recovered material because it was badly degraded. This left cleanup efforts largely supported by donations, grants and dedicated volunteers.
Ocean Legacy has been operating as a non-profit since 2014, and the partnership with Lush marks the first step toward potentially selling the plastic they collect. For Chloé Dubois, Co-founder of Ocean Legacy, this marks the beginning of a movement to create an economy around ocean cleanup.
“This is really setting a precedent to allow us to offer incentive to the communities that we’re working with. The long-term vision is to set up these intake centers around the world where people can bring in waste plastics for compensation or other resources they may need…it’s really creating a springboard for the rest of the world to follow.”
From pollution to packaging
Lush and Ocean Legacy have been working together for years. “We started out with Ocean Legacy as a Charity Pot partner,” says Lush Buyer Gary Calicdan. The funding the group received through our Charity Pot program supported their educational cleanups and helped them buy their first plastic to fuel machine that travelled around Canada to help them showcase sustainable waste management technologies.
Calicdan soon realized that there might be potential for this rescued plastic and along with Ocean Legacy devised a plan: Ocean Legacy would supply Lush with a small amount of ocean-bound plastic and determine if it could be incorporated into some of our packaging.
Introducing a new source of recycled plastic to our supply chain comes with a unique set of challenges. Plastic processors are used to working with huge volumes of material to keep their operations as efficient as possible—and as Calicdan experienced, not many are willing to experiment with smaller volumes. An initial test load of ocean plastic was a fraction of the tonnage typically sold to processors, and we needed recyclers that were willing to work on this project.
“I talked to a lot of people, but because of the small quantity, nobody accepted it. Finally, we were lucky enough to have Urban Resource Group (affiliated with Canada Fibers Ltd.) in Toronto accept the job for trial purposes,” he says. “They were willing to adjust their system to support this important cause. Their technological abilities allowed them to transform broken down pieces of ocean plastic into high-quality pellets that hit our standards. I’m very happy they accepted it. It’s been great having them as a partner in this initiative.”
A test batch proved that it is possible to use ocean plastic to make up five percent of our black pots and two percent of our clear bottles with the rest coming from other recycled materials. Even though this test batch was the first step in exploring what could be, it gave us the valuable experience and knowledge we need to see what’s possible for the future and beyond.
“The trial has proved that we could use ocean plastic. We now know that a bigger quantity will be needed…but the main takeaway is that it’s possible,” says Calicdan.