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More and more plastic is finally being recovered and recycled by companies that share Oceanworks’ commitment to ensuring that this feedstock
becomes — and remains — a first choice for the industry going forward.
Plastic has been a game-changer for society — facilitating the creation of new
strong, low-cost products; preserving foods; and slashing shipping costs, thanks
to its lightweight nature. It has gone from novelty to ubiquity within a single
But plastic’s ubiquity is also its biggest problem. There is so much plastic
being produced and quickly discarded, it’s now the single biggest issue in
There’s a whole lot of it — hundreds of tonnes of used and discarded plastics
generated annually, clogging the world’s landfills and degrading fragile
This raises an obvious question: How did this happen? Were we misled about
The answer is complicated. The petroleum companies supplying the plastics
industry saw the writing on the wall early on. They realized plastic waste was
hurting the image of this versatile product just as it was gaining steam, so
they banded together to promote recycling as the answer.
They spun a story that most plastic waste would be shipped off to recycling
facilities to find a new life. Triangle symbols for recycling began appearing on
plastic products; leading customers to believe that if they tossed their used
plastic into the right bin it would be sorted, cleaned, processed, and used
again and again. However, the promise of widespread plastic recycling was
certainly overstated and premature.
Even today, after decades of investment in technology and
for plastic recycling, only an estimated 20-30 percent of plastics are
And in reality, only a fraction of that is actually captured and sorted
appropriately. The ugly truth is that only 29 million metric tons of plastic
will actually be recycled in 2020 — less than 10 percent of the plastic waste
generated annually. The rest is piled in warehouses, dumped into landfills, and
littering our shorelines and
Plastic isn’t going away — it is far too beneficial and inexpensive to be
replaced wholesale; as it does provide real value in health, safety, food
distribution and other essential domains.
But it is critical to rethink plastic and its role in a circular economy our
planet so desperately needs. Consumers, businesses and governments are
committing to reducing and reusing, while plastic recycling rates rapidly
accelerate as a bridge to a more sustainable future.
Across a wide spectrum of goods, consumers have embraced more environmentally
sound alternatives — with brands such as Seventh
quickly gaining market share within their categories. Businesses and governments
are jumping on board with bold commitments to cross-border initiatives such as
the recent US Plastic
spearheaded by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
But structural challenges remain. Lack of investment across decades led to
lagging build-outs of collection, sorting and recycling
globally. New virgin plastic is cheap (driven by low oil prices). But despite
these headwinds, recycling is seeing an uptick as brands look to quickly find
and secure sufficient recycled plastics
to meet the demands of the blossoming sustainable economy.
Just like renewable energy a decade ago, recycling is gaining a foothold and
building momentum. In the early days, solar and wind power were viewed as niche
solutions unlikely to ever reach the unit cost needed for scale. Yet over time,
technologies evolved, prices dropped; and they’re now
with traditional, carbon-spewing incumbents. This didn’t happen in a vacuum,
however; as government support and aggressive corporate commitments helped drive
early adoption and level the playing field.
Recycling is now on the cusp of a similar breakthrough. Governments are stepping
up, companies are making commitments to both creating recyclable products and
incorporating recycled content. The technology now exists to create
high-quality, cost-competitive, consistent recycled plastic required to deliver
has seen this firsthand, amassing a network of regional suppliers eager to
access global markets with their collective hundreds of thousands of tons of
Now that recycled plastic is a dependable and reliable feedstock, more and more
firms are shifting — at least, partially — to using recycled plastic in their
products. While recycled plastic was once only used when it was the cheaper
alternative, it’s now becoming the plastic of choice. Consumers are demanding
it, governments are regulating it, and the planet is crying out for it.
Recycled content targets are expected to increase demand by 500
over the next five years, thanks to hundreds of brands making commitments and
high-profile moves — including Starbucks’ Circular
TerraCycle’s take-back programs,
to only use renewable and recycled materials by 2030.
Meanwhile, government initiatives — such as the European Union’s Single-Use
are creating incentives to radically transform how products are packaged, and
how much of the waste ends up getting recycled and reused. These steps are all
driving recyclers to invest in infrastructure and rapidly commercialize new
technologies to grow supply.
Plastic’s environmental footprint is significant; if the plastic industry were a
country, it would be the world’s fourth-highest carbon
Recycled plastic has one-third the carbon
of its virgin equivalent, not to mention the ancillary benefits of diverting
plastic from landfills and shorelines. Plus, it’s a job creator — boosting local
economies and transforming lives.
The recycled plastic of today is de-risked, high-quality, cost-competitive and
good for the world — leading us to a tipping point. There is no question the
rosy picture painted of plastic recycling in the early days set inflated,
unrealistic expectations. It got the world hooked on a cheap, versatile material
that feeds our consumerist cravings. For decades, the waste was pushed aside,
shipped offshore, dumped and forgotten. But it kept piling up and its impact can
no longer be hidden.
The tables are now turning. More and more plastic is being recovered, diverted
and recycled by companies; like those in the Oceanworks
that share our commitment to ensuring that this feedstock becomes — and remains
— a first choice for the brands leading this transition and those following in
their footsteps. It is time to act and society is stepping up; let’s move beyond
the symbolic gesture of tossing plastic into the recycling bin, and invest
together in a truly circular economy.
Interested in learning more about
and ocean plastic? Join us on October 7 for our 30-minute, free, live online
webinar that will cover what we've learned working with brands and their
journeys to the incorporation of recycled ocean plastic into their supply
chains. We'll also touch on best practices for working with recycled products &
materials and a sneak peek at what's coming soon from Oceanworks. Register today
Published Sep 21, 2020 11am EDT / 8am PDT / 4pm BST / 5pm CEST
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.