Stemming the tide of ocean plastic represents opportunities for everyone

Our oceans are no longer ‘at risk’ from plastic pollution – they are actively being harmed. Marine wildlife is suffering, and vital ecosystems are becoming unbalanced. If our appetite for new plastic continues to go unchecked, the annual flow of plastic entering the oceans will triple by 2040, to a staggering 29 million metric tons.

As those in the recycling industry are well aware, the environmental consequences of our obsession with virgin plastic are far-reaching. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet has made clear the devastating impact plastic waste is having on our oceans, and this material is harming life on land, too; with new plastic made from oil and petrochemicals generating five times the amount of CO2 emissions in its production and transport than recycled plastic.

However, as companies and industries increasingly look at the ‘S’ component of their ESG strategies, the social impact of ocean plastic cannot be overlooked. As waste and recycling continues to be shipped from richer to poorer nations, the locations most affected by ocean-bound plastic waste tend to lack basic amenities such as clean water, healthcare and education. There is little to no employment, and while plastic bottle collection provides income for many families, it is often ungoverned, unstructured and unsafe. Indeed, some 60% of recycled plastic is collected by the informal waste sector, which is traditionally largely undocumented and lacks standards. There is also minimal – if any – advocacy for the valuable work of bottle collectors and their potential to drive positive change.

The work of the Prevented Ocean Plastic programme aims to address all of these challenges. Prevented Ocean Plastic makes high quality, certified and traceable recycled plastic from plastic waste collected from coastal areas at risk of ocean pollution. Using old instead of new builds towards a circular economy in which plastic retains its value and doesn’t become litter, all while mitigating the carbon emissions associated with new plastic production. Our work has so far prevented nearly 10 billion plastic bottles from entering the ocean – saving the equivalent of over 61,500 tonnes of CO2.

Right now, the programme is operational in South-East Asia, Central America and South America, and, as of November 2022, Africa, which currently has little to no recycling infrastructure. In Africa, it will save up to 5,000 tonnes of plastic a year – or 220 million bottles – from entering the ocean from pollution from Swahili and North African coastal regions, including around the Nile. The expansion of the programme into Africa will mean the global programme will accelerate to stop over a billion bottles – enough to fill one of the great pyramids – from entering the world’s oceans in the next eighteen months. Prevented Ocean Plastic has a clear environmental win, of course, but it’s also helping to address the social issues of ocean plastic. Our business depends on our recycling workers in the areas in which we operate, and in Africa alone will provide fairly-paid, monitored work for plastic bottle collectors and those working in the recycling centre. We have seen the poverty that is experienced in countries at risk of plastic pollution and know that a safe, reliable income can be life-changing.

Alongside our launch in Africa, we are also rolling out new standards to formalise the way we work with our suppliers to ensure consistency, and to help us more easily make ongoing improvements to our programme. We have always undertaken rigorous evaluation processes and in-person audits to ensure fair and proper working conditions, no child labour and fair pay, but our new standards go beyond regulatory and compliance measures and will have an even stronger focus on workers.

The standards were developed in accordance with ETI base code and follow the Code of Good Practice developed by ISEAL, as well as Bantam Materials’ Good Manufacturing Practices and best-in-class traceability process. They set out the rules, guidelines and characteristics for organisations participating in the Prevented Ocean Plastic programme, and support two key aspects of the supply chain: recyclers and collection centres. Both standards naturally complement one another, but we recognise the need for separate standards to ensure the programme is fit for purpose within the unique supply chain dynamic. The first was launched at COP27 in Egypt, with the second to follow later in the year.

Together, they will be the most comprehensive set of standards in the industry and formalise ways of working across the Prevented Ocean Plastic programme. The Prevented Ocean Plastic logo, which appears on all our packaging, will indicate that these rigorous standards have been applied.

Packaging supply chains are complex and identifying raw material sources is difficult. It’s no surprise, then, that many retailers often don’t know the origins of their new or recycled plastic, or can only be sure of traceability for part of the plastic’s journey. This makes it harder to reach sustainability goals, meet the requirements of legislation (such as the Plastics Packaging Tax) and appease increasingly demanding stakeholders, such as ESG-conscious investors and eco-minded consumers.

For the recycling industry and companies dealing with plastic – likely within a packaging context – Prevented Ocean Plastic and its new standards represent a cohesive way of addressing these issues. By applying our new standards further down the supply chain to include indirect suppliers at collection centres, we will be able to influence historically hidden locations where data has not typically been gathered. This not only increases traceability, but raises both the quality of the product and the working conditions within the supply chain. It’s a win-win.

Driving meaningful change within the recycling sector – and throughout the wider sustainability agenda – can only happen with collaboration and knowledge-sharing, so we will be reporting all of our learnings back to the industry. What we do know for sure, however, is that plastic cannot continue flowing into the ocean at its current pace. Stemming this tide will bring with it opportunities for everyone, from a stable income for those in at-risk areas and improved sustainability credentials for businesses, to a cleaner planet for all.

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