Scavenging from the Sea

Plastic on an Oregon beach. Image by CircleFace on Flickr.

Plastic on an Oregon beach. Image by CircleFace on Flickr.

Article first appeared on March 19, 2013 in Edinburgh University newspaper ‘The Student’, Science and Environment section

Belgian company Ecover has announced plans to scavenge plastic debris from the oceans and recycle it into packaging for their cleaning products. Ecover’s packaging is already made from Polyethylene derived from sugar cane—a process so efficient it requires only fifteen hectares of farmed land to make a year’s worth of Ecover packaging. This measure alone has reduced their carbon dioxide output by 120 tonnes since 2011. Ecover’s new plan is to start including both recycled consumer plastic and scavenged plastic in their packaging blend. In addition to buying plastic from fishermen’s catch, Ecover is also partnering with the organisation Waste Free Oceans, who are working to remove floating plastic debris from European waters with modified fishing boats designed to collect up to eight tonnes of plastic per trawl.

They won’t have to look far. Recent estimates put the average level of plastic in the oceans at 46 thousand pieces of plastic per square kilometre. In some parts of the ocean, currents collect the plastic into gyres, the largest and most famous of which is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Patch is estimated to be twice the size of the state of Texas, and surveys have shown that the weight of plastic particles in it is about six times that of zooplankton. This month, scientists released information about the dissection of a beached sperm whale whose gut was choked with industrial plastic waste. And that is far from an isolated incident: plastic debris has been estimated to result in the death of up to a million seabirds and a hundred thousand marine mammals per year.

Because plastic takes so long to degrade, the amount in the oceans is only increasing. The UK alone uses over five million tonnes of plastic per year, and less than a quarter of that is currently recycled. Whatever doesn’t end up in a landfill will almost inevitably be washed or blown out into the sea.

Ecover’s efforts are therefore a very welcome step forward. But the company still does not know exactly how much of this plastic will be useable and what percentage of its packaging will be made from sea plastic.

CEO of Ecover Phillip Malmberg told the Guardian, “…We are just hoping to get as much [sea plastic] as is possible and give fishermen an incentive to join the initiative and help clean the seas. We want to get the sea waste in as much of our packaging as possible – it will always depend on the amount and quality of the plastic they have managed to fish.” If the plan succeeds, Ecover will start incorporating scavenged sea plastic into its packaging by 2014.

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