Forging a path that recognizes both the importance of recycling and the specific needs of manufacturers will enlist far more companies into the world of recycled plastic. The key to this happy medium is blending.
In a perfect world, virgin materials become an afterthought — as sustainable materials and the repurposing and recycling of waste of all kinds meet all of humanity’s needs. But we don’t live in a perfect world; so pragmatic, incremental progress is the only way to make real substantive change in the near term. This philosophy gave the world bridging solutions such as hybrid cars, and it can play a significant role in weaning us away from mass-produced virgin plastics.
Asking a manufacturer to switch wholesale to relying entirely on recycled plastic for every product is unrealistic. There are simply too many specific requirements that 100 percent recycled plastic can’t yet meet. This all-or-nothing mindset means brands too often hear a hard “no” from their manufacturers before the breadth of recycled or ocean plastic options have even been seriously considered.
The case for blended plastics
If “Made from 100 percent Recycled Material” is the goal, then “Made from XX percent Recycled Material” is the stepping stone that can get us there on a truly meaningful scale.
Forging a path that recognizes both the importance of recycling and the specific, legitimate needs of manufacturers will create incremental victories that enlist far more companies into the world of recycled plastic. The key to this happy medium is blending.
Compounding has been at the forefront of plastic innovations and is commonly used to create materials with specific performance characteristics. Different feedstocks are mixed to achieve the desired material properties; and while this has traditionally been a combination of virgin plastics, there is a huge opportunity to incorporate recycled and ocean plastics into the mix.
This doesn’t eliminate virgin plastics, but it’s an important step in a circular economy that reduces plastic waste along with the carbon footprint of these products.
Finding a role for ocean plastics in mass production
Ocean plastics alone often aren’t ideal candidates for higher-performance plastic products, but a blend of 10-40 percent ocean plastic “concentrate” with virgin delivered at a commercial-grade quality and price point is key to driving scaled material offtake. This scale is often unrealistic for a 100 percent ocean plastic, so blends offer a practical path to averting massive amounts of plastic from our oceans. A small percentage at scale makes a big difference.
Manufacturing some types of products, such as food safe containers, with 100 percent ocean plastic can be cost-prohibitive for many brands that rely on thin margins to turn a profit. Blending gives ocean plastic a chance to get into the mix for high-volume, price-sensitive applications where a 100 percent ocean plastic product would never compete. An incremental approach of using ocean-virgin plastic blends will eventually pave the way for a 100 percent recycled offering.
Getting more manufacturers into the club
Introducing products that are only partially made with recycled plastics or ocean plastics opens the door for greenwashing. A few flakes from an ocean gyre soda bottle mixed with a gallon of virgin plastic clearly doesn’t create meaningful change, so it is critical that brands that take a blending approach are transparent with their customers. But at scale, those 15 percent and 30 percent ocean plastic products add up to a real impact; and can be a critical driver for many brands and manufacturers looking to incorporate recycled plastics into their supply chain.
Blending will open the floodgates and allow recycled plastic and ocean plastic to be used in applications that were previously off the table. For example, TPE (a thermoplastic elastomer) has historically seldom been formulated as a recycled content blend; yet that can be done to offer new partially recycled compounds widely used in auto manufacturing, medical equipment and many other applications.
Many brands want to be more sustainable and make that part of their message. Blending lowers the barriers to beginning that journey and helps brands quickly start making a difference.
A dial versus a switch
It would be great to see more brands making recycled plastic their default, universal source of raw material. But very few, if any, are willing to — or can afford to — make that wholesale change.
Gradual progress is the path; and that means starting with blending and dialing up the percentage of recycled plastic and ocean plastic over time. It seems like it might be hard to get consumers excited about a product with 10 percent recycled plastic, but those baby steps are an important part of the journey; and taken together, that 10 percent can add up to meaningful impact.
Introducing ocean plastic to the commercial-grade mix — even in small percentages — is a sea change for the industry. Real gains can be made. Ocean ecosystems will be spared and local collectors will raise their standard of living. This begins with an openness to including blended plastic and considering these materials for a broader scope of applications.
Real, meaningful change takes hard work, perseverance and time. We are still in the early days of this race, and we should and will take all types of wins. Every metric ton makes a difference, so let’s bring more firms into the fold by welcoming blending as an important part of the solution.
Interested in learning more about Oceanworks and ocean plastic? Join us for our 30-minute, free 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. Register today at oceanworks.co/1year!