Ocean Plastic: Pros and Greenwashing (cons)

When we first started seeing products promoted for their “ocean plastic” content we thought it would be a niche market. We were very wrong. It’s turning into its own trendy category in fashion and household products. Excuse us for just one second as our heads explode.

green method dish + hand soap made from ocean plastic being held in front of ocean on beach

Certain brands and retailers are seeking kudos for sourcing resins and threads made from plastic that is either removed from the ocean or, often, “at risk of entering the ocean.” Whatever that means. Substantial marketing muscle is invested in promoting these ecologically ambitious products that consumers are encouraged to believe are helping save our oceans. Presumably, these purchases can be rationalized by their downcycle benefits on our polluted seas and thought of as altruistic.

Cracks in the logic appear as soon as you pierce the surface of their claims. A pair of Adidas made with Parley Ocean Plastic yarns is just 41% recovered material yet would have you think it saved an entire pod of dolphins. Method makes a hand soap dispenser from ocean plastic which, because of its dark green color, cannot be recycled once it is used up! That’ll be a second chance at the ocean, perhaps.

In truth, most of the ocean plastic they recover can’t be used a second time. The quality is already pretty low and the best way to lock up recycled plastic is to turn it into something durable that will last for many years. Once it’s reached the end of its useful life as that product, it’s all done.

And that’s the thing about plastic; once it’s made it cannot be unmade. One of the great fallacies of our recycling system is that we can solve our disposal problem if more people would just do a better job of separating their waste. And the main fallacy of the ocean plastic product craze is that consumers are solving the problem by buying something that’s still made of (mostly) single-use plastic.

Materials for these recycled products tend to come from the top-quality beverage bottles that are still intact and, most likely, near shore. Coastal pollution is wretched and fouls complex marine environments, but a greater tragedy is gyrating in the middle of the five major oceans where trash islands comprised of millions of tons of decomposing plastic are toxifying continent-sized regions of the seas. The most pernicious aspect of these “gyres” is that most of the plastic has broken down into tiny, unrecoverable bits that sink into the water column where they are mistaken for food by sea life.

These trash islands are in no way benefitted by ocean plastic-based product sales, but the message to consumers that they’re helping “solve the problem” may confuse them into thinking the situation is under control and their plastic consumption is not a concern anymore. This sense that all they have to do is buy more ocean plastic and the seas will rejuvenate is massively self-defeating.

adidas black and aqua knit slide-on running shoes

This notion of “ocean bound plastic” is setting a dangerous precedent as well. Crediting yourself for protecting the seas by supposedly stopping the pollution from migrating to the water makes several dubious assumptions about how that material would’ve been handled. If they can source it for land-based purchase, odds are high it was well under control. Congratulations to them on not even picking up some beach trash.

If people wish to make purchase decisions that truly reduce plastic entering the oceans, they should redouble their efforts to buy products or packaging that entirely avoid it. And if manufacturers would like credit for helping save our oceans from becoming liquid landfills, they should design products that pose no threat to our seas rather than using their perilous plight as a marketing ploy.

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