Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Decoding Ocean Plastic for Brands:
Small Details, Big Impacts

While the terminology soup of recycled plastic sourcing is daunting, at the end of the day every ton of plastic recycled and put back into a circular economy is part of the solution. The key for brands is to be clear and honest in communications with customers.

Meet Jeff. He is a product line manager for a large CPG brand. He has a corporate mandate to use sustainable materials, and even a specific initiative around ocean plastic — but he hesitates. Jeff is keenly aware that today’s shoppers are eager to support companies making a true commitment to sustainability, yet these same consumers hate unsubstantiated claims and are quick to call out offenders. Jeff cares about the planet and wants to do the right thing for future generations but is afraid of accusations of greenwashing — or, even worse, inadvertently making inaccurate, brand-damaging marketing claims. He also worries about the reliability of any new material source. He has qualified some ocean-bound plastic, and read about plastic offsets, but not launched a program. Does this sound familiar? 

A varied vocabulary

The rising awareness of “ocean plastic” motivated shoppers to demand recycled content and brands to take action — but also reinforced unhelpful material silos, with each new label attracting fans touting its merits along with detractors decrying it as greenwashing. The result has been a confusing clutter of competing claims from industry professionals, brands and the press covering them. This uncertainty has made it hard for brand owners to confidently wade in. Let’s start with a quick refresher on recycled plastic terminology. 

  • Deep-ocean plastic: Plastic waste removed or harvested from the ocean. This may also be called offshore plastic. This clearly fits the consumer picture of recycled “ocean plastic.”

  • Marine plastic: Plastic waste collected from rivers or beaches via coastal clean-ups. This can include interventions such as fishing net take-backs that incentivize fishermen to return nets to shore and not release at sea. This may also be called waterway, nearshore, shoreline or coastal plastic and is frequently included under the umbrella of recycled “ocean plastic.” 

  • Ocean-bound plastic: Plastic waste removed from the environment within 50 kilometers of a coastline. Ocean-bound collection programs motivate local entrepreneurs to recover plastic waste before it reaches the ocean. This may also be called prevented ocean plastic and may be included under the umbrella of recycled “ocean plastic.” 

  • Averted plastic: Plastic waste removed from the environment inland. Collection programs and interventions offer local social benefits and support a cleaner environment. This may also be called mismanaged plastic waste or PCR with a story. This is not ocean plastic. 

  • Post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR): Plastic waste originating from consumer products. This can include ocean plastic, mismanaged waste, and formal recycling programs. All of the above labels are sub-categories of PCR. This is not ocean plastic. 

  • Post-industrial recycled plastic (PIR): Plastic waste generated in a manufacturing process that can then be directly reused in a production line. This is not ocean plastic. 

  • Plastic credits or offsets: System for purchasing the removal of plastic waste from the environment. This removed plastic waste material may or may not be recycled, but it must be properly disposed of to ensure that it does not end up back in the environment. If the plastic waste is from an ocean plastic collection zone, it may be an ocean plastic credit. 

While the terminology soup of recycled plastic sourcing is daunting, at the end of the day every ton of plastic recycled and put back into a circular economy is part of the solution — no matter where it is sourced. The key for brands is to be clear and honest in communications with customers. 

Every action makes a difference

While there are no silver bullets to solving ocean plastic pollution, every ton of material successfully recycled represents meaningful change, which compounds over time as those practices are repeated and adopted by others. For brand owners that want to be first movers and position themselves at the forefront, there are a plethora of good options to choose from and impactful stories to confidently — and transparently — share. 

The best option for many brands is targeting the millions of tons of plastic waste flowing into the ocean every year (ocean-bound plastic). This material can be collected at scale in coastal communities before it reaches the ocean. It is sourced from emerging markets and is cost-competitive and high-quality, and thousands of metric tons are available each month. What a brand can do: Choose ocean-bound material for high-volume production.

Further inland, there are tens of millions of tons of improperly managed plastic waste causing significant environmental harm (averted plastic). This material is also cost-effective and has a compelling social impact story. What a brand can do: Be creative, source averted material, and promote the impact story.

Sourcing plastic waste floating in the ocean (deep-ocean plastic) is a laudable but limited option. This material is hard to access, usually degraded, and is only starting to be collected — only a few hundred metric tons to-date — and made into products. What a brand can do: Buy these “deep-ocean” products or donate to collection efforts.

There is always some waste plastic that cannot or will not be commercially recycled. This is the hardest to capture in a circular economy and a perfect opportunity for plastic credits or offsets. What a brand can do: Buy plastic credits and go plastic neutral.

Lastly, even waste plastic properly recycled in countries including the US contributes to the ocean plastic problem overseas. Now, the US stands alone in shipping this material overseas — some of which will be landfilled in emerging markets after a lengthy, pollution-generating journey. No consumer wants to be a part of that ocean plastic pollution story. What a brand can do: Buy local PCR and proudly tell the story of shortening supply chains and driving the circular economy

Make a switch, tell a story, change the world

When a brand incorporates recycled plastic into its supply chain, regardless of the source or method, it becomes part of the solution. Each ton means less pollution in the environment, reduced fossil fuel consumption, and ultimately less ocean plastic. 

The key to a successful ocean plastic program is providing transparency, so shoppers understand how their product fits into a circular plastic economy. Transparency may feel risky; but companies that have done their homework or found a partner such as Oceanworks or a certifier such as Control Union to validate their sources can move forward on their chosen path with confidence. 

The bottom line is that using any ocean, averted, reclaimed or recycled plastic is better than using virgin materials for the same purpose. Brands must stop worrying about which recycled plastic to choose and instead act now, disrupt the status quo, and celebrate each positive step. No one can solve this crisis alone. But together, we can change the trajectory on a global scale — as every brand’s actions and decisions add up to keeping plastic out of our environment and oceans. 

To learn more about how you can make a switch, visit oceanworks.co.

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