The billions of tonnes of plastic in our oceans isn’t going away any time soon, but innovative companies here and abroad are working together to find silver linings to this daunting problem.
Fishing boats head out to sea and set their nets. They go back to shore. They head back out, the nets are pulled up, and the boats go back to shore with the day’s catch.
It’s a rhythm of daily life familiar the world over, one that’s barely changed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But since the early 1950s humans have created 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics, and a scary amount of that – an estimated eight million tonnes every year – has ended up in our oceans.
It’s a tragedy, a disaster on an almost unimaginable scale. And, of course, it’s changed things dramatically for many of those who work on the fishing boats. But humans adapt, because what else can we do? In the Java Sea, which lies between Indonesia’s four most populous islands, you’ll find an example of this in action.
A network of 300-400 independent fishermen set their nets in the afternoon and then go back empty, and then out again in the morning to collect their fish, as they have always done. “But now, they’re collecting trash on their way back,” explains Per Martin Mortensen, who heads up business development for Danish packaging company Pack Tech’s ocean waste plastic arm.
“And it’s not like they’re doing a detour,” he adds. “It’s all over the place. The trash they remove today is there again tomorrow.”
It’s depressing, yes, but this is the reality now – and the silver lining of this horrific trash problem is a new source of income has been created for these fishermen, some of whom earn as much or even more through collecting rubbish than they do from fishing.
What’s more, the rubbish they’re collecting – or a decent amount of it, anyway – is not simply going to landfill, it’s being turned into something of value. This is where Pack Tech, which has been working with ocean waste plastic since 2013, and now collects and reuses 1400 tons each year, come in.
The aim isn’t about getting rid of all the plastic in our oceans – a Sisyphean task is ever there was one – or even from the Java Sea. It’s about helping local communities to make a difference, and make a living while they’re at it, while at the same time creating a product for which there is demand: recycled plastic packaging.
“We can’t take it all,” says Mortensen. “We could send out big trawlers full of diesel but it’s not the way to go for us.”
Jason Hodson, Australia and New Zealand sales director for Pack Tech’s ocean waste plastics division, agrees. “Getting the infrastructure to collect the product on a big enough scale and on a sustainable scale is the hardest bit.
“The most important thing is now we’re putting a commercial value on waste plastic, and once you put a commercial value on something it becomes a commodity and a commodity will be traded and will have an industry built around it.”
After the waste is collected, it’s sorted locally into different plastic types and colours, then sent further afield for more sorting before being rinsed, melted down and processed into pellets. The process is long and involved, as the more sorting processes involved, the purer the resulting resin plastic will be. It’s a much more expensive process than making regular petrochemical plastic.
“The supply chain for virgin resin from crude oil has been around for a long time so it’s very streamlined,” explains Hodson. “It’s been tendered over the years to a very finite cost, but the price of this process will drop over time.
“We can’t say we’re going to set up a collection and distribution plan and set a base level of a million tonnes – you can’t do that without an industry supporting it, so it’s always an incremental step.”
Pack Tech supplies ocean waste plastic to companies all over the world, stipulating that they must use at least 25% of it in their products. The first New Zealand brand to get on board is ecostore, which has gone the whole hog with a limited-edition 100% ocean waste plastic bottle for its Ocean Breeze hand wash. Twenty thousand have been made using over half a tonne of ocean waste plastic, and they retail for the same price ($5.99) as ecostore’s other hand wash products despite the material being more expensive than what’s usually used – plastic sustainably sourced from sugarcane. Sugar plastic is already twice the price of petrochemical plastic, but ecostore believes it’s the right investment to make.
“People need to vote with their wallets,” says Tony Morpeth, ecostore’s general manager of operations and procurement. “Consumers’ behaviour needs to change – they need to be prepared to support and invest in change because cheap and nasty is done – we need to put that to bed and move on to something more sustainable.”
It’s tempting to think plastic-polluted oceans are chiefly an issue in far-flung, heavily populated lands. But the ecostore team is intimately acquainted with the problem here in Aotearoa, having partnered with non-profit organisation Sea Cleaners to build awareness as they developed the ocean waste plastic hand wash.
Hayden Smith, the founding trustee of the Sea Cleaners project, took the team out on an eye-opening clean-up mission in the Waitematā Harbour so they could see the reality. Since 2002, Smith and his team have removed over 8.5 million litres of rubbish from the ocean, using four vessels to get into hard-to-reach waterways as well as working with schools and local communities on education.
The bulk of the waste goes to landfill, says Smith. “The debris we’re collecting is so contaminated with mud, sand and silt that we’ve been told by multiple recyclers it’s just not deemed usable,” he says.
The future potential of working with innovators like Pack Tech excites him, but for now, the focus is on education. “We can’t just be that ambulance at the bottom of the cliff,” says Smith. “While we’ve got boats going out and doing the work everyday, we’re also working with schools on a weekly basis.
“We’ve had some very positive success come out of relationships with the schools – we’ve seen positive behaviour changes from the students, we’ve seen schools taking the lead to make sure it remains at front of mind.”
Smith has been running sea-cleaning projects of various forms since 2002, and while the scale of the problem remains huge and isn’t about to go away any time soon – the Sea Cleaners team regularly finds plastic waste that’s up to 40 years old – what has changed is people’s attitudes.
“Back in 2002, no one knew this problem even existed – it was an issue that was out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “No one had put two and two together to see the reality of what was happening with the quantities of rubbish in our oceans.
“But now, 17-and-a-half years on, everyone actually knows about the issue. I think we’ve seen a huge jump towards the mainstream in the last couple of years, particularly with the supermarkets kickstarting the banning of plastic bags, and now the government coming on board to legislate against those bags – that has absolutely helped bring this issue to the forefront, and everyone now understands the need for it.”
Now we just need to start acting on it.
This content was created in paid partnership with ecostore. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.