What happens to the plastic removed from the ocean?
09 Dec 2021
We've all heard of the importance of ocean and beach cleanups. Removing discarded materials like plastics, fishing nets and metals from our oceans can help to prevent the degradation of coastal ecosystems, protect local economies dependent on beach tourism, save marine animals, among numerous other benefits. Several organizations have spearheaded the initiative to fight marine plastic pollution through small and large scale cleanups. But what exactly happens to ocean plastic waste once they are collected en masse?
What is upcycling?
Once ocean plastics are collected from the ocean, they are transported to a recycling facility and sorted according to plastic types and colors. The plastics are then rigorously assessed for additives, impurities and toxic contaminants to be prepped for either downcycling or upcycling. Whilst most plastic is downcycled into low quality and unrecyclable products like carpet fibre and polyester thread, others undergo a chemical recycling process called pyrolysis where plastic is thermally broken down into their raw materials to be upcycled into new usable products with a higher value than the original item.
While newly produced plastics, commonly called virgin plastics, are cheaper to produce and thus more economically appealing for businesses, the environmental impact is far worse and even irreversible compared to upcycled plastics. A 2020 study by The Association of Plastic Recyclers found that virgin plastic requires "up to 3x more energy to produce" compared to post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic. The study also found that PCR plastic production resulted in a 46-79% reduction in environmental impacts when compared to the production of virgin plastic. The environmental impacts assessed were Total Energy, Water Consumption, Solid Waste, Global Warming Potential, Acidification, Eutrophication, and Smog. Water consumption was the only impact that was 4% higher for PCR plastic.
Opting for upcycled plastics may not necessarily lead to a complete halt in virgin plastic production as virgin materials are still needed to produce blends of virgin and recycled plastic to improve the durability of PCR plastics. However, the evidence is clear: upcycling can help to significantly reduce environmental damage by diverting millions of virgin plastic production.
Here are 5 innovative ways ocean plastic have been upcycled to create sustainable and functional products:
Adidas, which produces over 400 million shoes annually, has found huge success in using ocean plastics in its manufacturing process. In 2015, Adidas partnered with the environmental organization Parley for the Oceans. Parley has collected plastic waste from coastal areas like the Maldives to be used as a polyester substitute for clothing and to form the upper parts of shoes. Each shoe is made using an average of 11 plastic bottles per pair. According to Adidas, more than a million pairs of shoes produced in partnership with Parley have been sold. The limited collection with Parley has now turned into a full collection, releasing "Parley" versions of their best-selling Booster shoes: the Ultraboost, Ultraboost X, and Ultraboost Uncaged. Adidas has also pledged to use only recycled polyester by 2024.
Other major sneaker brands like Nike, Reebok and VEJA have also hopped on the bandwagon to produce sneakers made out of recycled plastics.
2. Traceable clothing
The Danish clothing brand, Shaping New Tomorrow, known for their comfortable menswear pants, has partnered with REPREVE to incorporate upcycled PET bottles in their manufacturing process. The company has stated that it uses approximately 15 plastic bottles in a pair of pants and approximately 35 plastic bottles in a long sleeve shirt. What is unique about Shaping New Tomorrow's partnership with REPREVE is that they have made their materials traceable by weaving a chip into their garment. Customers can scan the material to verify that the clothing was made out of recycled PET bottles!
3. Planks made to resist typhoons and floods
The Philippines is the third most plastic polluting country in the world, discarding about 500,000 metric tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year. To combat this ocean plastic crisis, a group of recyclers, known as The Plastic Flamingo, or "The Plaf", have turned plastic waste materials into planks called "eco-lumber" to be used for fencing, decking, or to make disaster-relief shelters. The Plaf's mission is to give post-consumer plastics a second life and to educate communities about the ocean plastic crisis. Their sustainable construction supplies are made 100% from plastic waste materials and are intended to make communities more resilient to natural disasters by rebuilding homes that have been damaged by annual typhoons and floods.
4. Paving new roads with recycled plastic
PlasticRoad, a start-up based in the Netherlands, is paving climate-friendly roads made out of recycled plastic. But they are not just any ordinary road; PlasticRoad is designed to be climate-adaptive by mitigating flooding in urban areas, and it is 4 times lighter than traditional asphalt roads, 2-3 times longer expected life span, costs about 50% less and can be built 70% faster. The Netherlands has for centuries faced a flooding problem, as 26% of Dutch land surfaces lie below sea level and 59% of Dutch land is vulnerable to flooding.
Rising sea levels and increased rainfall due to climate change is further intensifying the Netherlands' flooding problem, as well as many other coastal areas in Western Europe. Thus, more than ever, making urban infrastructure resilient to flooding is pivotal as traditional infrastructure usually lacks the capacity to deal with heavier and more sporadic rainfalls. And what better way to make cities more conducive to climate change than by tackling two environmental crises at once!
5. Plastic waste is driving creative interior designs
Due to mounting pressure from consumers, civil society, and new regulatory obligations, more designers are taking on a new design approach, known as "eco-design", according to Innovation and Plastics Magazine. Eco-design is the practice of utilising resources in the most optimal and efficient ways such as upcycling. IKEA, which has pledged to only use renewable or recycled plastics in all their plastic products by 2030, launched their Odger chairs made out of reclaimed wood chips and recycled plastic.
Ninetyoneninetytwo is another socially conscious company that designs, develops and produces home accessories using 3D printing filaments made by recycled PETG or recycled PET. Their eco-designs are proof that creativity, quality and aesthetics do not have to be compromised when going green.
In Hong Kong, two designers, Howard Chung and Irene Cheng collected single-use plastic waste and upcycled them into a collection of twelve new benches for public use at Sha Tin Town Hall. The inspiration behind the serpentine benches is the Shing Mun River, a 7km-long river running through the Sha Tin District, which is burdened by over 17.5 million pieces of plastic dumped into the river every year.
Your used smartphone can support ocean cleanups and upcycling initiatives
There are many ways to support the global effort to upcycle marine waste plastics, such as directly participating in your local beach cleanups or upcycling your own plastic waste at home. At Worthmore, we've got another way that can help you contribute to the solution, and it involves your used smartphone. Worthmore will sustainably refurbish and resell your used smartphone, and 100% of the resale value will go towards ours partners RESEA Project, CleanSea and Nordic Ocean Watch.
RESEA is driven by one mission: "to end the ocean plastic crisis while making waves beyond the sea we work in."
For every 8 Euros donated, RESEA removes 1 kg plastic waste from oceans and rivers - the equivalent of 50 plastic bottles (500 ml). The plastic waste collected by RESEA's local cleanup teams in Greater Jakarta in Indonesia is delivered to local waste banks where the waste is sorted for recycling and waste handling.
However, not all plastics can be recycled due to extreme damage and high levels of chemical toxins absorbed by some plastics. This is why they've partnered with Plastic Change, a Danish environmental organization working to curb rising plastic waste in oceans through political and social advocacy. Their mission is to reduce the global usage of single-use plastics and to promote sustainable recycling habits and systems among civil society and corporations. RESEA donates money to Plastic Change for every kilogram of plastic removed from the ocean.
Are you based in Stockholm looking to support coastal cleanups to care for Swedish oceans? Then our partner CleanSea is the cause to support when donating your phone to us.
Since 2019, CleanSea has completed 148 cleanups and has cleaned nearly 200 bays along the Swedish coastline. Their team consists of just 6 people; however, their impact should not be underestimated. So far, CleanSea has collected more than 12,000 kilos of ocean trash, mostly consisting of single-use plastics and discarded fishing gear such as nets, ropes and gloves. CleanSea's goal is to "create a future of our oceans full of life, not plastic."
Nordic Ocean Watch
NOW strives to strengthen the public focus on the extent of pollution in the oceans and its consequences and to help create a future where marine pollution is reduced through the actions of the individual as well as volunteer initiatives.
One of NOW’s main activities is arranging clean-up events in coastal areas, where anyone can participate and get involved as a volunteer. NOW strives to motivate people to actively care for the ocean in their everyday life. For this, they organize knowledge sharing in the form of educational articles and blog posts, lectures and workshops. You can check out a list of their upcoming events here.
The action of Nordic Ocean Watch Denmark is governed by the Nordic expression TAVAHA. This means taking care of the ocean – “Tag vare på havet.” TAVAHA encompasses unity, understanding, and solidarity across borders, generations, and cultures. The ocean is what connects the world. It has always taken care of us and we cannot live without it. It’s time we return the favor.