These days, you can buy sunglasses, running shoes, swim trunks and even surfboard fins made from recycled plastic and fishing nets that otherwise would end up in the ocean. Now Dell, General Motors and other corporations are launching an initiative to bring industrial scale to artisanal efforts to tackle the ocean plastic pollution crisis by building a supply chain to intercept plastic trash and turn it into everything from packaging and furniture to bicycle parts.
“The broad impact is how companies are coalescing around issues they care about, in this case environmental issues, and how you can start to hyper-scale these types of solutions,” said Oliver Campbell, Dell’s director of worldwide procurement and packaging. “Dell’s plastic use is literally a drop in the ocean, but by working together, we change some of the dynamics around the use of plastics. I can see this template being used in other environmental arenas as well.”
The consortium, called NextWave, will initially obtain recycled materials in Indonesia, one of five Asian countries identified in an Ocean Conservancy report as the source of more than half of the 8 million metric tons of the plastic that flows into the ocean each year. The report cited a lack of recycling infrastructure in Indonesia, China, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam for the countries’ outsize role in ocean plastic pollution.
“We’re taking mismanaged waste and turning it into managed waste – trash on the ground that nobody cares about or has no end buyer, so it just ends up getting washed into the ocean during a big storm,” said Dune Ives, executive director of The Lonely Whale, the ocean-focused nonprofit cofounded by actor and environmental activist Adrian Grenier.
Grenier serves as Dell’s “social good advocate” and had urged the computer giant to take on ocean issues, Ives and Campbell said. (The company’s first foray into marine recycling was a laptop-packaging tray that was made from 25 percent ocean-bound plastic collected in Haiti.)
Lonely Whale serves as the convener of the NextWave consortium, which was announced on Tuesday and also includes furniture maker Herman Miller, carpet manufacturer Interface, Trek Bicycle, design and manufacturing firm Humanscale and Bureo, which recycles fishing line into skate board decks, sunglasses and other products. The companies have pledged to test the use of ocean-bound plastics in their products and reduce consumption of virgin plastics in their operations and supply chains. (Dell provided the startup funding for NextWave and the companies pay membership fees and make other monetary and in-kind donations.) United Nations Environment, the 5 Gyres Institute, the Zoological Society of London and the New Materials Institute are also participating in the consortium.
According to Ives and Campbell, NextWave is currently considering several plastic trash hotspots in Indonesia that would serve as the source of ocean-bound plastics. The plan is for local organizations to collect discarded polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles and other plastics from roadways, riverbanks and beaches and take them to a collection center. There, the plastic will be sorted and shredded and then transformed into resin or possibly pellets at a recycling facility. Companies like Dell will buy the processed material and transform it into products.
“Much of our usage will occur in China and this links up with China-based manufacturing plants,” said Campbell.
Possible Dell products to be made from the ocean-bound plastics include packaging trays for laptop computers, package handles, cushions used in desktop computer packaging and other shipping materials.
“Any place we can use a plastic and get it from mismanaged waste and into a recycling stream, that’s how we believe we can scale usage and really start to tackle the problem of ocean plastic,” Campbell said.
NextWave estimates that it will prevent more than 3 million lb (1.4 million kg) of plastic – the equivalent of 66 million water bottles – from reaching the ocean over the next five years.
General Motors sees the potential to integrate recycled ocean-bound plastics in packaging, shipping bins and automotive parts, said John Bradburn, GM’s global waste reduction manager. “Working with Lonely Whale and Dell and many of the other partners is really exciting for the potential to leverage the volume and scale things up and be really very impactful,” he said.
Bradburn noted that recycling of ocean-bound plastics into products can be problematic due to contamination and sorting issues, but said that he believes new processes to make discards more widely usable will be developed.
“In doing so, we’re growing the economics, creating more jobs and using resources that are available as compared to extracting raw material,” he added.
Ives said the consortium is in the process of establishing environmental and social impact standards and certification for the ocean-bound plastic supply chain. “There will be no questions about where this supply comes from,” she said. “There will be a lot of open dialog from the companies themselves about what percentage of their products are made from ocean-bound plastic. This should give governments and consumers a lot of confidence so not only can you buy a product made from ocean-bound plastic, but you know that it’s truly from mismanaged waste.”
For all their good intentions, the bottom line for NextWave companies is the cost of ocean-bound plastics. “Our initial estimates are that we can do this at lower cost with the same quality and performance,” said Campbell. “That’s how you scale sustainable solutions and ocean plastic is no different. It’s critical to our business that we continue to drive costs and we believe we can do that with ocean plastic.”