Brand commitments are the engine driving recycled plastic’s transition to scale. Making recycled plastic content part of your brand story is hands down the most important way to move the needle.
The world has a massive plastic problem on its hands; and unfortunately, there’s not a single source for this dilemma. It is overproduced, waste is mismanaged, and it’s not being recycled nearly enough.
Taking on this challenge requires a multi-pronged effort. As a planet, we must generate less of it, dispose of it properly, and maximize its reuse. Focusing on any of these elements is important — but without a holistic approach, those efforts are only chipping away at the problem instead of taking it on en masse.
Meaningful change is much harder than cosmetic, feel-good incrementalism. To truly make a major impact, we must view this as a market problem — laying out the market-driven solutions that can drive real change and putting some real effort into making them happen.
Starting at the source
To understand the root of this conundrum, we must start at the source and the underlying reason we’re in this mess: Plastic is cheap.
It’s no mystery why plastic has become so ubiquitous. Its inexpensive and versatile nature makes most alternatives technically inferior and cost-prohibitive.
One reason virgin plastic is so economical is that petroleum prices are incredibly low. Despite plateauing or declining fossil fuel demand in many sectors, oil and gas companies continue to extract more and more from underground and undersea locations.
The price of hydrocarbons unfortunately continues to exclude many true downstream costs to health and the environment. With no economic incentives or environmental impact-driven penalties, the low cost of hydrocarbons drives virgin plastic resin prices down, increasing barriers to switching to recycled.
The quality conundrum
Many manufacturers got a bad taste in their mouths during the early days of plastics recycling. The basic resins available didn’t meet the quality standards that many products demanded.
This quickly cemented the image of post-consumer recycled plastic as an inferior product. Even those that hadn’t experimented with it became hesitant, if not completely resistant, to the idea — thanks to its bad reputation. And who can blame them? Manufacturing operates on thin margins and committing the resources to reengineer processes to incorporate recycled plastic only to make a shoddier version of their typical product is a total nonstarter.
Throw in the fact that sourcing recycled was historically far more complicated — and even more costly — and recycled plastic products were relegated to the fringes. That image has unfortunately haunted the plastics recycling sector, discouraging many firms from giving it a second — or even a first — look.
But the times have truly changed. Our knowledge and technologies have advanced; and recycled plastic is now far more competitive with, if not equal to, virgin plastic in terms of quality, consistency and availability — the keys for scale.
To create a high-quality supply, it all starts with the sorting and washing stage. Removing contaminants and getting each piece of plastic into the right bucket is a crucial initial step. New automated processes using machine vision and sorting have made this more achievable at scale. You also need first-rate extruders. These machines are expensive, but once in place they can process and produce top-notch inputs for the manufacturing process. Finally, you must test on an ongoing basis to ensure the plastic being produced consistently matches the parameters spelled out in the technical datasheets.
Supply chain woes
It’s easy to source virgin plastic. It can be delivered in high volume anywhere in the world, from the same vendors, time and time again. In the world of lean manufacturing and just-in-time supply chains, reliability and consistency are valuable.
Sourcing recycled plastic can be more complex. But, once again, the reputation of the past continues to taint the present. Although the recycled plastic industry does still include many small, independent collectors and recyclers; it is now possible for manufacturers to establish secure, consistent sourcing relationships via networks like the Oceanworks Marketplace.
Here, manufacturers and brands can be connected with local suppliers that can deliver the required quantities of recycled plastic feedstock as needed, with the assurance of a high-quality input they can count on.
In a perfect world, recycled plastic meets or beats the cost of virgin alternatives to drive scaled uptake. Technological advances are driving down the costs; and what’s more, there are two key market trends accelerating the steady march towards cost competitiveness.
The first is sourcing recycled plastic from more local suppliers. Transportation costs and import taxes can comprise as much as 30 percent of the total cost of resin. If manufacturers can source closer to their factories, they can slash those shipping costs; get material quicker; and simultaneously shrink their products’ total carbon footprint. As an added bonus, they’ll be supporting the communities where their plants are located — boosting the local economy, creating jobs, and increasing the quality of life for their neighbors.
The second way recycled plastic can compete on price is by leveraging blending. While it would be ideal for every plastic product to be produced from 100 percent recycled material, that’s not always a realistic objective. Combining some recycled material with virgin feedstock still has huge environmental benefits at scale and helps increase the total market demand for recycled plastic.
Motivating responsible waste management
While the root cause of ocean plastic is plastic’s existence itself, the primary reason so much ends up in our waterways and littering our shorelines is mismanagement. In too many communities and countries, plastic waste isn’t being collected and disposed of responsibly — leading to it ultimately finding its way to our oceans, despite being consumed tens or hundreds of miles away from the nearest beach.
But market dynamics once again have a role to play in slashing the spread of plastic waste. When manufacturers increase their demand for recycled plastic, local governments and businesses will be far more motivated to collect and recycle plastic there’s a true financial incentive. Knowing there’s money to be made from every stray piece of plastic drives entrepreneurs to capture that valuable waste and get it to the recycling facilities where it can find a second life.
The pivotal role of brands
Brand commitments are the engine driving recycled plastic’s transition to scale. Making recycled plastic content part of your brand story is hands down the most important way to move the needle. The more brands demand recycled, the more manufacturers will try and adopt this material. As manufacturers become more comfortable with it, and experience the quality and capacity now available, they’ll become less resistant to transforming more and more of their product lines to this feedstock.
Offering longer-term volume guidance is also a huge leverage point. These forecasts flow throughout the supply chain and give recyclers the confidence to further invest in supply. Costs go down as volume rises across the network and the first movers maintain access to the most competitive sources.
Now is the time to lead and stop waste plastic before it reaches our ocean. The recycled plastic wave is picking up momentum and it’s time to paddle in.
Interested in learning more about Oceanworks and ocean plastic? Join us on October 7 for our free, 30-minute, live 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 at oceanworks.co/1year!