New Orleans — Organizers of a beach plastics recovery campaign expect to greatly expand collection efforts in the coming months to locations around the world.
Recycling company TerraCycle Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. grabbed headlines earlier this year with a program that captured ocean-destined plastic for use in shampoo bottles being sold in France this year.
Now comes word from TerraCycle that this is only the beginning.
"This has become a long-term plan for TerraCycle and our partners, even though it's relatively new," said Brett Stevens, vice president of material sales and procurement at the recycling company.
The initial project collected about 15 tons of material in Europe, and Stevens said plans are to expand collection efforts to locations such as North America and Asia and significantly increase the amount of plastics captured from the environment.
"The collection goals we've set forth in total approach I would say probably 500 to 1,000 tons coming off beaches over the next 12 months. It is very much not a fad. I think that we're investing the staff and resources and building our programs with our partners, making this a long-lasting impact," he said.
TerraCycle will work with existing beach cleanup programs to divert collected plastics away from landfill disposal, Stevens said during the Plastics Recycling 2017 conference in New Orleans.
"What we have to do is layer our collection efforts today on top of everyone who is already doing beach cleanups. If you are any organization of any size that's doing beach cleanup, we want the plastic from your beach cleanup. We're already engaging them. We have a team that's reaching out in every market," Stevens said.
Ted Siegler, a partner with DSM Environmental Services Inc., looks at the ocean plastics issue from an economics perspective.
He said current estimates indicated that some 8 million tons of plastics enter the world's oceans every year. That's the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic dumping its load into the ocean every minute of every day throughout the year.
Siegler indicated that there's basically not enough money available in developing countries to deal with the waste management issues that lead to litter that ultimately ends up in the oceans.
So he's calling for the plastics industry to develop a funding mechanism on its own to help pay for proper management of the material.
"The problem is the collection infrastructure simply doesn't exist in most of those developing countries. And that's a real problem. Because if the collection infrastructure doesn't exist for solid waste, then we're not going to be able to solve the problem," he said.
He suggests a fee of 1 cent per pound of resin produced to help fund management of the issue.
"You would begin to stem the discharge of plastic to the environment," he said. "I think it's a lot less costly to do that than to assume someone else is going to solve the problem."
Siegler pointed to a program developed by the Ag Container Recycling Council to voluntarily fund recycling of crop protection, animal health and pest control product containers as an example of how a larger ocean plastics initiative could work.
"I'm suggesting that it's something we ought to be looking at on a broader scale to solve this problem," he said.
Stevens said there is no shortage of consumer packaged goods companies looking to use beach plastics.
"I don't see any issue at all on the demand side. We've gotten a lot of inquiries. Not just from CPG companies, but also from packaging companies for those CPG companies," he said. "Everybody loves the story. They'd love to be able to help and use this material in their finished products."
Make no mistake, however, that using beach plastics is much more expensive than virgin resin or even traditional recycled resin.
That's why a company has to leverage the story behind use of beach plastics to gain interest to help drive sales.
"In order for it to make sense economically, you as a brand need to be able to cover that expenditure somewhere else. So if you are getting incremental shelf space, it makes it easier to cover that. If you are just some generic company that's not going to leverage that it's beach plastic, it makes it hard to swallow when it's more expensive than virgin plastic," Stevens said.
TerraCycle, he said, is working to expand the program as quickly as possible.
"Our goal is to try to get this to critical mass as soon as we can and then keep it there. Some people will say there's only so much plastic out there. I say there's too much plastic out there," Stevens said.
"We will find those hotspots around the globe aside from developed areas like the U.S. and Western Europe. There will be areas that are collecting a hundred or two hundred or five hundred times as much plastic as we're seeing in developed markets. And it's just a matter of putting our finger on it and drawing that volume into our possession," he said.
The American Chemistry Council has been involved in a variety of efforts to bring attention to the issue over time, said Stewart Harris, director of marine and environmental stewardship at the trade group.
"In our view, plastics and other litter in the environment is unacceptable," he said.
While the use of plastics creates "significant benefits to society," he said, "the benefits are lost if the plastics end up in our natural environment.
"Waste management," Harris said, "is the key to preventing marine debris."