There are two ways reusable packaging can play a powerful role in reducing plastic in the ocean. It comes down to increasing demand and reducing supply.
On the demand side, we see companies increasingly interested in buying reusable packaging with ocean-bound plastic content. Such an approach can increase the value of this waste material and stimulate interest in collecting it – before it ends up in the brine.
Then we have the supply situation. Research has found that even a modest uptake of reusable packaging usage could dramatically reduce expendable plastic packaging use and associated ocean plastic. First, however, let’s consider what ocean-bound plastic is, and why it is a topic of such concern.
Why does plastic in the ocean matter?
The importance of attacking plastic in the ocean is underscored by recent research. The projections for the growth of plastic pollution aren’t rosy. The level of microplastics in our oceans is set to grow 50-fold by the end of the century raising the risk of widespread extinction of marine life in the most polluted areas, according to a 2022 report.
Analysis for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that an ocean area of more than two and a half times the area of Greenland could exceed ecologically dangerous concentrations of microplastics by 2100.
“Plastic pollution is now found everywhere in the ocean, and almost every marine species is likely to have encountered it”, says WWF, adding that a total of 2,141 species have so far been found to encounter plastic pollution in their natural environments.
What is ocean plastic?
Ocean plastics can be described as plastic waste that pollutes oceans or is at risk of polluting them. “Ocean plastic consists of single-use plastic that is at risk of entering major waterways due to being inadequately disposed of,” explained Breana Herbert, Product Manager and Sustainability Lead at ORBIS Corporation.
“This single-use plastic waste is collected at the coastlines of major waterways and can be pelletized from its original form in order to be repurposed into useful supply chain packaging,” Herbert continued. “ORBIS sources coastline plastic waste from Haiti, the Philippines, and Egypt.”
Around 80% of plastics found in the ocean are believed to have migrated by means such as water and wind from land-based sources. This material is called ocean-bound plastic, and it is a crucial part of ocean plastic remediation initiatives. Ocean-bound plastic refers to at-risk plastic waste located within 50km of the shoreline.
Ocean plastics are recovered from various sources. These include, but are not limited to:
- Ocean bound – within 50km of the shoreline, along beaches
- Waterway – found in streams, rivers, and other waterways flowing towards the ocean
- Near Shore – shallow areas of ocean near the shoreline
- Coastal – material washed up onto beaches and coastlines
- High Seas – Far from shore and almost exclusively HDPE as it floats
Reusable packaging providers are developing ocean plastic offerings
A demand for ocean-bound plastic helps can help stimulate waste recovery, resulting in less material reaching the ocean. Such initiatives are tied to partnerships with various not-for-profits that aid local communities through revenue generated in cleanup programs.
Several reusable packaging vendors have developed products that incorporate ocean-bound plastic and even ocean plastic. “Schaefer has been working with multiple companies for about 24 months on this project,” explained Andy Schumacher, VP of Packaging Systems Division, SSI Schaefer.
“It was brought to our attention from the waste marketplace, but immediately our packaging customers also had an extreme interest in the solution. We’ve seen a huge increase in demand and conversations with electric vehicle companies, but almost all the major OEMs are showing interest.”
In September 2020, SSI Schaefer announced the Launch of its Clear Stream program. “At its core, this program helps preserve our oceans by transforming consumer plastic waste into reusable, viable products for material handling,” the company stated at the time.
“We’re having conversations with companies less concerned with cost and more concerned with their civic responsibilities,” Schumacher told Reusable Packaging News. “It’s a welcome change to talk about solutions that save the planet and how together we find these solutions.”
Meanwhile, ORBIS conducted its first material trials with one of its BulkPak products in 2019. It subsequently launched its Ocean in Mind program in early 2020. “We’re receiving a positive response from customers that have a keen focus on supply chain sustainability,” Herbert of ORBIS. “They already recognize the value of reusable packaging in the supply chain and this offers another level of sustainability.”
The challenges of processing ocean-bound plastic
The mixed nature of the ocean-bound plastic material, however, provides challenges for manufacturers of reusables, according to all of the companies interviewed.
“Because ocean-bound plastic comes from various single-use plastic products with different properties, the blended material must be set to a specific range in order to run through the injection molding process efficiently,” Herbert explained. “If not blended to the right specification, the material can take longer to process and cool while being injected into ORBIS products.”
However, through its in-house lab and technical team, as well as trusted sourcing partners, ORBIS states that it is able to meet the required material specification range to process the ocean-bound material.
Suitable products for ocean-bound plastic
According to Schumacher, this material stream works best with smaller products that require less strength, or reusables with larger, thicker walls such as bulk containers or pallets. In the latter case, strength characteristics result from thickness more than material strength.
Rehrig Pacific is also working with ocean-bound plastics in a variety of applications. In 2021, the company delivered its first OceanCore carts to the city of Boston. The OceanCore cart is made from a groundbreaking blend of 40% post-consumer recycled material, 10% of which is recycled ocean-bound plastic found in and near lakes, beaches, and waterways on the way to the ocean. Early in 2022, it delivered OceanCore carts to the City of Manchester, New Hampshire.
The cart is the result of Rehrig Pacific’s unique manufacturing expertise and investment in solving two specific technical challenges, the company stated. Ocean plastics are notoriously difficult to recycle, it noted, but has invested in an advanced engineering process that allows this type of global waste to be recycled.
Moreover, few carts are made of recycled material due to structural and aesthetic limitations. Rehrig Pacific, however, has developed a process that allows them to encapsulate the recycled material within an outer skin of virgin plastic, without sacrificing strength or appearance.
Herbert said that ORBIS has trialed coastline plastic waste material in totes, pallets, and bulk containers. The structural foam process commonly used for bulk containers permits thicker wall parts, which allows for maximum recycled content, including ocean-bound material.
In Europe, Schoeller Allibert also announced that it had succeeded in producing a new, high-quality plastic big box from recovered fishing nets. The new box was developed in cooperation with the Waste Free Oceans organization and named after it. The company states that the WFO OceanIX box is produced from a substantial number of recycled fishing nets and soon expects to only need a minimum of virgin or new raw material in the production of these boxes. The company also developed a reusable beer crate for Anheuser-Busch InBev that includes 91% recycled content, including a minimum of 20% maritime plastic.
There have also been positive reports on the potential for ocean-bound material in expendable consumer packaging. “Within this sector, ocean-bound plastic (OBP)—defined as plastic waste within 60 km (37 miles) of a coastline or waterway that is at risk of entering the ocean—is gaining small but significant traction within the packaging sector, particularly from those in the rPET market,” noted Matt Tudball in PackWorld.
How the uptake of reusables can dramatically reduce ocean plastic
The initiatives discussed above were focused on increasing demand for ocean-bound plastic to help keep it out of oceans while supporting local communities. The other crucial opportunity for reusables has to do with reducing the supply of plastic waste generated by single-use plastic packaging through the adoption of reusable consumer packaging. With the adoption of reusables, the amount of plastic material available to pollute waterways and oceans can be substantially reduced.
Currently, 50% of global plastic production is for single-use applications and only 14% of global plastic packaging is collected for recycling. It is possible to prevent almost half of annual plastic ocean waste generation by reusing just 10% of our plastic packaging, according to a study sponsored by the World Economic Forum, The Future of Reusable Consumption Models Report.
The report was a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and Kearney. It suggested that shifting from single-use towards a ‘reuse’ model of consumption can help society regain ground in the fight against plastic waste. It also outlined three scenarios, based on the uptake of reusable packaging, showing how much plastic waste could be reduced from ocean and landfills:
Scenario One: Between 10 and 20% of plastic packaging could be reusable by 2030. This equates to 7-13 million tonnes of plastic packaging, representing 45-90% of annual plastic ocean waste.
Scenario Two: Reusables make up between 20% and 40% of packaging, equivalent to 90–185% of annual plastic ocean waste or 25–50% of plastic landfill waste.
Scenario Three: If between 40-70% of all packaging is reusable, it would equal anywhere from 185% to 320% of annual plastic ocean waste or 50–85% of plastic landfill waste.
“We need to shift from merely “treating” or “handling” waste to simply never creating it in the first place, observed Beth Bovis, Project Leader, Partner, Leader of Global Social Impact & Sustainability at Kearney said at the time of the report’s release in 2021.
“But any shift towards reusable consumer goods will depend on the choices and actions of the three driving forces of our economy: consumers, the private sector, and the public sector,” she continued.
“When we talk of the three scenarios, it is worth emphasizing that any of these scenarios would represent extremely valuable progress over the present status quo,” added Mayuri Ghosh, Head of Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative, Future of Consumption Platform at World Economic Forum.
“The plastic waste challenge has grown too large for us to simply recycle our way out of. With no global agreement over an ambition level to target plastic waste, the sooner we can make systemic and meaningful advances towards reuse, the better.”
This story is still very much in progress, but the good news is that reusable packaging can play not only a crucial role in preventing plastic waste generation but also in stimulating demand for ocean-bound plastic that might otherwise find its way into the sea.
In general, there is a huge push for recycled materials right now,” Schumacher concluded. “Ocean-bound materials are extremely expensive, and for that reason, they are not for everyone.
“However, there are a lot of other post-consumer resins available that not only are lower cost but also have a huge impact on saving and or helping our planet,” he continued. “At Schaefer, we’re interested in talking with anyone serious about discussing their civic responsibilities and it’s a really awesome conversation to be a part of.”