In 2019-2020, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York held an exhibition called Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial to showcase prototypes, consumer products and architectural constructions that engage with nature in innovative ways, driven by concerns around climate change and ecological crises. Among the objects on view in this exhibition was a prototype of Adidas sneakers made from marine plastic waste collected from coastal areas by the environmental institution Parley. The collaboration between these two organizations, initiated in 2015, has been an inspiration for others to push boundaries on scaling up the manufacture of products from reclaimed ocean plastics.

Plastics accumulating in the oceans and on the beaches has become an international crisis. It is estimated than 8 million tons of plastics enter the ocean every year. There have been growing efforts by governments, non-profit originations, and industries to develop downstream solutions and policies to prevent leakage of plastic waste, at the macro, micro, and even nano level, into marine waters. In addition, several initiatives across the globe is now focused on collecting plastics, such as water bottles and fishing nets, that have been abandoned in coastal regions and ocean areas. Besides post consumer plastics collected through recycling programs, the reclaimed plastics from the ocean could provide a source of feedstock, in lieu of virgin materials, for production of plastic parts. However, these plastics are more challenging to recirculate into manufacturing processes.

Ocean plastics have been exposed to several harsh environmental conditions and stresses that are not typical of post consumer plastics. The deteriorating impact of these conditions on physical and chemical properties of plastics need to be addressed at several stages of processing from feedstock production to product manufacturing. As an example, let’s take the ocean plastic bottle introduced by Method to package its cleaning products. To alleviate the odor contamination of the ocean plastics, Method relied on the patented devolatilization process of its partner Envision to remove odor and absorbed chemicals. The degraded properties of the ocean plastics and its mixed plastic composition did not allow the bottle to be fully made from this feedstock and instead a blend of recovered ocean plastics and post-consumer recycled plastics were used. In addition, the final color of the bottle became grey, which could be a limiting factor in the packaging market that often seeks colors.

For the businesses seeking to make impact and create brand recognition through the use of ocean plastics in their products, the options are not limited. High-quality ocean plastic resins and yarns are now produced by several companies across the globe (for example, Oceanworks which is based in California). In addition, collaborative initiatives such as Nextwave has been launched with participation of multinational technology and consumer brands, including General Motors, Dell, IKEA, among others, to develop a commercial scale supply chain for ocean-bound plastics, defined as plastics found on the ground within 50 kilometers of a waterway or coastal area and have not yet found its way into the ocean.

The Method bottle, mentioned earlier as an example of an ocean plastic product, was first introduced in 2012 and since then the science and technology of processing and recycling ocean plastics, as well as logistical infrastructure and supply chains, have further advanced to facilitate the circularity of these materials. Such efforts need to be continued to encourage the collection of plastics in the oceans and nearby regions.