Sea Change

Jan 30, 2019, 15:43 PM
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January/February 2019

By Megan Quinn

G_ocean_trash_1Even while thousands of feet in the air, Khosrow Hallaji could see the problem clear as day from his airplane window. The swirls of discarded plastic floating in Port-au-Prince Bay in Haiti were so thick, he says, he could see them catching the current and flowing out to sea. Hallaji, multi-plant technical manager of Envision Plastics (Reidsville, N.C.), flew to Haiti in August 2018 to visit workers who collect the plastic and sell it to companies like his for processing into recycled resins. There, he saw firsthand how ocean plastic pollution happens. Haiti doesn’t have a formal recycling sector and has very little solid waste infrastructure; thus, open dumping is common. Frequent flooding pulls plastic and trash from the city streets into the ocean, where it harms ocean habitats and marine life. The country relies on informal collectors to gather discarded plastic before it blows or washes away. 

About 8 million mt of plastic enters the oceans each year, according to the Ocean Conservancy. In the past few years, recyclers, nonprofits, and other innovators have launched new efforts to stem the tide of plastic pollution reaching our world’s oceans and waterways. “The public has a better understanding of the scope of the problem than ever before,” and people are motivated to prevent more plastics from entering the ocean, says Sarah Teeter, a global project manager with TerraCycle (Trenton, N.J.). But the effort is far from simple. Some recycling organizations struggle with the practical issues of collecting, processing, and selling the plastics. Because it doesn’t come from material recovery facilities or other traditional sources, the volume and composition of the collected material is highly variable. Saltwater and contamination degrade the quality. Even if they have a steady, high-quality source of ocean plastics, recyclers still have to compete with other recycled feedstocks and convince brands to commit to using the resins for the long term. In other words, end markets for ocean plastics are hard to find.

Despite the hurdles, the recycling industry is bringing its expertise to bear on the problem on several fronts. Some companies are funding startups that build recycling infrastructure in countries where the bulk of ocean plastics originate. Others are finding better ways to collect the plastic from the ocean or gather “ocean-bound” plastics from areas adjacent to waterways and shores. Still others are processing the collected plastics into recycled resins for a variety of products, from sportswear to shampoo bottles. “We have to tackle it from all angles,” says Rob Kaplan, founder and CEO of Circulate Capital (New York), an investment firm that funds recycling infrastructure in Southeast Asian countries. “We know there isn’t a silver bullet. It’s going to take a variety of solutions to solve this problem. The main goal is managing more plastic in more ways. How many pounds can we move from mismanaged to managed?” 

Many recyclers and startups have dedicated research and manpower to getting plastic out of the ocean (See “Cleaning the Seas” on page 54). Others are mounting efforts to keep that plastic from entering the ocean in the first place. “We want to focus on the prevention side,” Kaplan says. The firm, which launched last summer, expects to leverage about $100 million from investors such as PepsiCo., The Coca-Cola Co., Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Dow Chemical Co. to build better recycling infrastructure in countries where little exists, especially in South and Southeast Asia. “We’re focusing on that area because a lot of research shows most of the plastic going into the ocean is coming from that area,” he says. A 2017 study from the journal Environmental Science & Technology reported that 88 to 95 percent of plastic found floating in the ocean originates from just 10 rivers in the world, eight of which—like the Yangtze and Ganges—are in Asia. Rivers with high plastic concentrations are typically near areas that are experiencing rapid economic devel-opment but have underdeveloped waste-management systems, according to a 2016 study in the journal Nature Communications.

Circulate Capital has looked at about 75 different investment pitches since its launch, and Kaplan hopes the firm will make its first investments in early 2019. Some pitches are from startup waste and recycling companies that buy plastics from local informal recyclers and want to scale up their efforts, he says. Other proposals come from small to medium-sized processing facilities that want to build markets for recycled material, including more challeng-ing-to-recycle plastics such as multilayer pouches, called sachets. These sachets, which look like ketchup packets, are commonly used in Southeast Asia to hold single-serving soaps or other products. The individual serving size is more affordable for people with limited incomes, he says. 

Circulate Capital also works with The Ocean Conservancy, SecondMuse, and corporate donors on an incubator network to help start more recycling projects, mainly in Indonesia and India, but also in Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. “The network will tackle one of the biggest challenges: There are not enough investment opportunities. Even though people are interested in solving the problem, there aren’t a ton of waste and recycling operations [in these countries] right now,” he says. 
Kaplan is co-founder of the Closed Loop Fund, which invests in new recycling technologies and new products that support the circular economy. The idea for Circulate Capital started as a request from major brands that worked with the Closed Loop Fund. The brands saw their packaging floating in waterways and asked for help finding recycling investment opportunities to stop it, he says. “The topic of ocean plastics has exponentially increased in interest around the world, and these companies wanted us to accelerate the program,” he says. Realizing the investment project would need a dedicated team that worked in Asia instead of in New York, Circulate Capital spun off to become its own firm. “We think we can help these large-scale, institutional investors understand that they are financing the future of infrastructure of all kinds, and that recycling infrastructure is as important as bridges and roads,” he says.

Better recycling infrastructure could benefit countries beyond Southeast Asia, including Haiti, which manages its waste and recycling with help from nonprofits, government programs, and companies that aim to turn the nation’s plastic into products. “Cleaning the ocean is the last thing we should be doing,” says David Katz, founder of Plastic Bank (Vancouver, Canada), which works with people in Haiti to collect plastic in their communities. “It’s like if you walk into your kitchen and your sink is overflowing—the first thing you do isn’t to clean it up. You turn off the tap. It’s the same with plastic,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. Plastic Bank participants who collect plastic in their communities can exchange it for cash or other goods, such as cooking fuel or vouchers that help families pay for school. Katz says Plastic Bank pays people above market prices to collect the plastic as an incentive to prevent the material from getting into the ocean. The company partners with plastics recyclers to process the material and sell the recycled resin to companies like Henkel (Dusseldorf, Germany), which uses Plastic Bank–certified resins for its brands’ laundry detergent bottles and other products. 

Making ocean scrap marketable
Capturing discarded plastic before it reaches the ocean is important for two main reasons, says Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of Envision Plastics. The most obvious is to keep it from harming the environment and marine life, but the other reason is practical: Plastic collected from oceans is often much more contaminated and degraded by seawater and sun. Plastic collected before it goes into the ocean can be sorted into higher-quality bales that make higher-quality recycled resins. Envision makes a line of recycled-plastic resin called OceanBound that is made entirely from HDPE collected from Haiti’s streets and shores by about 9,000 workers. The company is about halfway to its goal of processing 10 million pounds of OceanBound plastic by the end of 2019.

Envision educates its Haitian collectors on the types of plastics that it can accept for the OceanBound blend (yes to plastic jugs, no to plastic bags), resulting in cleaner bales that make further processing much easier. “They im-proved upon [receiving] our feedback quicker than any of our other suppliers,” Ettefagh said. “It is better quality than we get domestically sometimes.”

Envision sorts and processes the plastic at its facility in North Carolina or its Chino, Calif., plant. It first purges its processing lines to run only the material it collects in Haiti to maintain OceanBound’s promise that the material is fully traceable. Next it treats the material with a deodorizing wash. Shipping from Haiti and other processing costs mean the resulting resin costs about 30 percent more to produce than other recycled resins it sells. Companies that buy the resin typically only use a percentage of it in their products, in part due to the higher cost. In early 2018, ViTA brand hair care products became the first company to create packaging using 100-percent OceanBound content.

In addition to producing its OceanBound line, Envision makes a proprietary recycled resin out of low-quality plastics recovered from the ocean. The resin goes into a special gray soap bottle for Method, a cleaning products company that approached Envision almost 10 years ago for help recycling ocean plastic. The project was “a big learning experience” for the company on the benefits and pitfalls of working with material battered by the sea instead of collected on land, Ettefagh says. The feedstock for Method’s bottle comes from just one beach on the north-western tip of the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which receives a large volume of pollution from the nearby Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “It took us a year to develop the blended resin with this ocean plastic because it’s so degraded and it’s not predictable in color,” she says. Processing this type of plastic “is an ordeal,” she adds. Envision gets a shipment of between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds of ocean plastic a quarter—an amount the sorting line usually can run in about 30 minutes. For Method’s proprietary blend, it can take five to six hours of sorting and purging because the plastic is so degraded. Ettefagh says the company currently doesn’t make a profit from either OceanBound or Method’s proprietary blend, “but what it does is bring global attention to the fact that there’s all this plastic in our oceans.”

For TerraCycle, a company that specializes in hard-to-recycle materials, dirty and degraded plastics are nothing new. TerraCycle’s business model uses volunteer-driven collection programs and corporate partners that cover the costs of turning difficult materials into salable commodities. “In the case of our beach and ocean plastic supply chain, it is the purchase of the final recycled resin that allows the supply chain to work,” Teeter says. In 2016, Procter & Gamble asked TerraCycle to find a way to collect and recycle “beach plastics” to use in its packaging. The result was a Head & Shoulders–brand shampoo bottle made from 25 percent plastic recovered from oceans and ocean-bound areas. TerraCycle has worked with volunteer organizations around the world since 2017 on the project and has col-lected 300,000 pounds of beach plastic to date. The project is ongoing, but TerraCycle is working on processing this initial volume before actively collecting more material, she says. Workers manually sort and bale the plastic before sending it to processing partner SUEZ (Paris) for mechanical separation. Quality Circular Polymers (Geleen, Neth-erlands) washes, shreds, and pelletizes the HDPE fraction, which also goes through an aeration step to reduce odors. TerraCycle uses a similar process to create a PET bottle for dish soap.

The energy recovery approach
If they’re too degraded, polluted, or smelly to recycle, collected ocean plastics go to a landfill, or, in some cases, a waste-to-energy plant. Critics say the latter practice may hinder local recycling efforts or contribute to air pollution when not built and managed properly, particularly in developing countries. “Economically, it’s tricky to develop strong inte-grated waste management systems” that support both recycling and waste-to-energy components, Kaplan says.

Yet proponents say waste-to-energy schemes reduce the need for landfills and provide another source of energy for powering homes. In Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a small floating vessel called Mr. Trash Wheel collects trash in the waterways leading to the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the collected material goes to a waste-to-energy plant run by Wheelabrator (Baltimore), where it generates power for Maryland homes, says Alex Silverman, a spokesperson for the project. Volunteers who sign up for semiannual “dumpster dive” events catalog what the device collects and remove for recycling items such as plastic bottles, which are a significant portion of its haul. “Unfortunately, there is no infrastructure in Baltimore to sort plastics out before the incinerator, so at the moment, the only way to recycle re-cyclable materials is through the dumpster dives,” she says.

The Fishing for Energy program, which provides free drop-off locations for fishers to dispose of their old nylon nets and ropes instead of leaving them adrift in the ocean, gives the nets to waste-to-energy company Covanta (Morristown, N.J.). Paul Gilman, Covanta’s chief sustainability officer, says the process generates energy as cleanly as burning natural gas. Covanta only accepts material that can’t be recycled to make sure it doesn’t disrupt local recycling efforts, he says. “In the communities where we operate, they actually have recycling programs that operate higher than the U.S. average,” he said in an interview with NBC. In the case of the fishing nets and ropes, the material is too degraded, dirty, or unwieldy for recyclers to handle, he says. “Energy recovery is the step you take after you do your three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle.” 

Creating lasting changes
To make a dent in the ocean plastics problem, “we need more of everything,” Kaplan says—more recycling, reducing, and reusing. What about plastics bans? For example, the European Union voted in October to ban certain single-use plastic products by 2021. Critics say the ban won’t help stop pollution in countries with less-developed recycling infra-structure, but supporters see it as one small step to “turn off the faucet” of plastic consumption, Teeter says. 

Effective recycling efforts require better end markets for recycled plastic, recyclers say. Envision plans to keep producing recycled resins from ocean and ocean-bound plastic, but to be sustainable in the long term, “we need more demand, bottom line,” Ettefagh says. She worries the company won’t be able to afford the time, effort, and cost of collecting and sorting plastic from Hawaiian beaches and Haitian communities without more buy-in from brands that want to use recycled resin—and higher percentages of it—in their packaging and products. Of the 5.2 million pounds of OceanBound plastic Envision has produced in the past two years, it has only sold about 300,000 pounds. “Brands are saying they want to use this kind of plastic,” she says, but the company is still waiting for them to follow that talk with action. 

Thomas Müller-Kirschbaum, head of global research and development in Henkel’s laundry and home care unit, says consumers demand more sustainable packaging and products, and his company needs to deliver. Resin made with Haiti-based PlasticBank plastic is more expensive than other resins, but the company sees it as an investment in social responsibility. In a press release about its partnership with PlasticBank, however, he admits that ocean plastic “will only be a small part of the recycled material that we use.” 

Teeter feels confident that more brands will start hopping on the bandwagon in the near future. “We’re having conversations with a number of companies to incorporate [ocean plastics] in more products in 2019. We’re getting inquiries all the time, and the interest is there,” she says. 

Teeter and other recyclers say they are ready to do more to expand collection and recycling efforts while raising awareness of “this global epidemic,” she says. “Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of ocean plastic in the world. The material we’re collecting is just a drop in the ocean.” 

Megan Quinn is reporter/writer for Scrap.

Plastic in the ocean is not only harmful to marine and human life—it’s also tricky to collect. Innovators have stretched their imaginations with myriad inventions to accomplish that task with varying degrees of success to date. One team illustrating just how hard it can be is The Ocean Cleanup (Rotterdam, Netherlands), a nonprofit that has created a giant horseshoe-shaped device made of floating tubes with a 9-foot underwater “skirt” meant to corral plastic while allowing marine life to swim freely. Vessels will come periodically to remove the debris from the corral. The device launched last fall to collect plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of marine debris gathered by ocean currents that floats about halfway between Hawaii and California. When it is fully operational, founder Boyan Slat claims the system will be able to clean up to 50 percent of the garbage patch every five years. In its first few months, the device could only hold onto the plastic it collects “for a relatively short time,” he wrote in a blog post in November. The team will keep testing and slightly change the shape of the floating tube to improve its performance. “Because this is our beta system, and this is the first deployment of any ocean cleanup system, we have been preparing ourselves for surprises,” Slat wrote.

In November, startup company 4Ocean (Boca Raton, Fla.) announced the launch of its boat meant to clean, sort, and transport plastic removed from oceans and river mouths. The company, which pays fishers and others to collect ocean and coastal plastic for recycling, says its new ocean plastic recovery vessel can travel to locations with acute plastic pollution issues. “It has the ability to respond to any emergency situation to recover plastic, including heavy rains and floods that frequently cause mass amounts of plastic to head offshore,” says 4Ocean founder Andrew Cooper. The boat can deploy a barricade to corral plastics at the mouths of polluting rivers. Then, workers in small panga boats will collect the floating plastic using hand nets and bring the haul back to the vessel, where they wash it, sort out debris, and take the plastics to a recycling facility. The OPR is designed to collect up to 310,000 pounds of debris in one trip, the or-ganization says. 

Other vessels meant to collect plastic from the ocean that are still in the planning stages include the Manta, a ship The Sea Cleaners (La Trinité-sur-Mer, France) designed to collect and sort discarded plastic in rivers before it reaches the open ocean. Recycling firm MTB Recycling (Trept, France) is helping finance and design the ship’s collection and sortation system, which will be built into the bottom of the boat. The Manta aims to collect plastic in a radius of up to 300 km from the shore. The group hopes to launch by 2021 and collect about 1,200 mt of plastic a year.

Meanwhile, much smaller-scale vessels like Mr. Trash Wheel do the job of collecting debris at the local level. The googly-eyed floating sifter in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor uses a wheel and conveyor to pull debris from the harbor, then it deposits it in containers on a dock. The Waterfront Partnership (Baltimore), which aims to make the harbor “swimmable and fishable” by 2020, recently deployed two more wheels to patrol areas near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Though the trash wheels will never achieve tonnages like the planned Manta or Ocean Cleanup projects, Mr. Trash Wheel has pulled 848 mt of debris out of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor since its first deployment in 2014, including more than half a million chip bags and more than a million cigarette butts. Its “small but mighty” persona is so beloved in Baltimore that it has its own Twitter account and a beer named after it. 

While many of these projects rely on technology to do the heavy lifting, the Fishing for Energy program relies on manpower from fishers to collect fishing nets that would otherwise pollute oceans along the coasts of the United States. Fishers can bring old nets and ropes to collection points at about a dozen ports. The nets first go to a nearby Schnitzer Steel Industries (Portland, Ore.) location, where recyclers use mobile shears to cut the unwieldy nets into a more manageable size. Schnitzer pays to transport the nets to Covanta (Morristown, N.J.), where the company burns the nets for energy. Michelle Pico, marine conservation program director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which implements the program along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, says Fishing for Energy works well because it eliminates the cost fishers usually pay to properly dispose of nets. “What we’ve learned is that people are willing to make changes, especially if those changes are cost-neutral,” she says. “We’ve been able to do that because we work with nontraditional partners” like Schnitzer, which offers its mobile shears and other heavy equipment that’s hard for nonprofits to find otherwise. 

Colin Kelly, director of public affairs for Schnitzer, says the company is pleased to be a longtime partner. “We are strong believers in private-public partnerships. We had the equipment they needed to cut the nylon nets and rope, and we want to support the communities we operate in,” he says. “We’re not in the plastics business, but when you look around, with landfill space being so tight and ocean plastics becoming such a big issue, everyone needs to help out. This was another way to give back.”
Recyclers are finding their place in the global effort to combat ocean plastics. They’re focused on prevention, collection, and processing with the hope that end market demand will follow. 
  • 2019
  • Jan_Feb

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