Plastic waste in the ocean is a significant problem. Many types of plastic which are used in common consumer products, such as soft drink containers, utensils, and water bottles, cannot be easily broken down by microorganisms. Because these products are frequently thrown away improperly by consumers, they often get into storm drains and enter the ocean, where they form huge clumps of plastic that pose a menace to marine life.
Consumer products companies know that many of their potential customers are aware of this issue, and refuse to buy drinks that are sold in plastic containers because of the risk they pose to the marine environment. These companies have attempted to solve the problem by designing plastic containers that can be consumed by microorganisms after a customer is done with them, but building biodegradability features into plastic products has remained a difficult engineering challenge.
One Bay Area company, Method, has decided to clean up the marine pollution that its competitors have caused, and use its cleanup efforts to market its own products. High density polyethylene (HDPE), the plastic that is used in many plastic containers, is recyclable, so Method decided to use the HDPE that was floating in the ocean to make new bottles. This was also a difficult engineering task, as Method had to collect plastic waste that was located far offshore, which had been exposed to the sun and salt water for a long period of time. Treehugger reported that Method partnered with Envision Plastics, which had experience recycling HDPE, to design its plastic recovery process.
Tests of the recovery process were successful, and Method managed to make new plastic bottles that contained ocean plastic. These plastic bottles were made from completely recycled material, with one quarter of the material collected from Hawaii beaches. The experiment demonstrated that using ocean plastic to make new bottles was technically possible. Whether using ocean plastic was financially lucrative, or at least cost neutral, was Method’s other concern, as Method is a private company. Envision explained the details of the collection process. Method collected plastic trash from Hawaii beaches to perform the tests. Method would gain some goodwill from environmentally conscious consumers, but it still had to deal with logistics and recycling costs.
Green Biz explained that Method had two main financial concerns: finding a cost effective way to collect the plastic and deliver it to San Francisco, and using the plastic to design bottles that had an attractive appearance. As much of the plastic waste washes up on the shores of islands such as Hawaii, Method could partner with organizations that already performed beach cleanup to collect the waste, and pay for it to be delivered to the Bay Area. Pure Branding does bring up a marketing ethics issue here. Technically, the bottles had been floating in the ocean, but the proposed collection process involved picking up plastic bottles off a Hawaii beach, which did not actually reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean, although it did reduce the amount of plastic on the beach, which was also a major environmental problem. As for design concerns, the ocean plastic bottles were dark gray, as Envision demonstrated on its blog, compared to the brilliant colors of the company’s other plastic bottles, but this gray color could still offer marketing advantages, since a consumer could easily see that the bottles were recycled products.