Method, the makers of home care and personal care products, call themselves 'people against dirty.' “Whether it's fighting grime on the kitchen floor, taking out the toxins in the shower or pummeling the bad stuff floating in the world, we are people against dirty.”
It would seem that, according to company co-founder Adam Lowry, they have just taken that credo another step further, turning their attention to one of the dirtiest spots in the world, the North Pacific Gyre. Sometimes called the trash vortex, it is an area the size of Texas, where millions of tons of trash accumulate, borne by wind and ocean currents, only to be left in a swirling morass of plastic detritus that grows larger by the day.
Not only is it disgusting to even think about, it is also deadly to many fish and marine mammals that get tangled up in plastic shopping bags and six-pack rings where they either drown or starve. Worse yet, these plastics can serve to concentrate persistent organic pollutants which are then ingested by the animals. And this is only the plastic that floats. Scientists estimate that 70% of all plastics sink to the bottom.
So, Method, the people against dirty, asked themselves what if they could pick up some of that plastic waste and put it to some productive use, like making recycled plastic bottles out of it. Surely that’s a good thing right?
Working in conjunction with Envision Plastics, one of the leading recyclers of HDPE in the world, they have come up with a bottle that is 100% post-consumer HDPE, 25% of which is plastic collected from the Gyre.
In order to do this, they first had to overcome the embrittlement that most plastics undergo after long periods of exposure to UV light. They developed a number of new processes that ultimately led to a bottle with the same quality as one made of virgin HDPE.
The second problem was how could they develop a dependable supply chain for this remote and heavily contaminated source of material. This has been accomplished by working with numerous cleanup operations in Hawaii. Much of the debris from the Gyre washes up on the beaches in Hawaii, where crews work tirelessly picking it up to keep the beaches clean. This trash had previously been hauled to landfills, itself a problem, given the continual onslaught. Method now plans to divert this material and send it to Envision for processing.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson was on hand for the announcement in San Francisco where she said, “This innovation demonstrates what America, California and forward-thinking companies like Method can accomplish when they combine strong business principles with responsible actions to protect our health and the world around us. By transforming the trash in our oceans into usable products that are safe for our children, our environment and our future, Method has proven that green business can grow our economy and create jobs.”
Before these bottles can hit the shelves, Method will need to collect a large amount of material, which they hope will happen on Coastal Cleanup Day, September 17. When they do go to market, every bottle will have 15 grams of ocean plastic in it, straight out of the Gyre.
To Method’s credit, they acknowledge that the Gyre is simply too big and too remote, and the plastic particles too small to ever really clean up. “The goal," says Lowry, "is to raise awareness about the issue of plastic pollution, and to point us toward the solution already in front of us - using the plastic that's already on the planet."
I asked anti-plastic activist Beth Terry, of FakePlasticFish.com (now known as myplasticfreelife.com) fame, what she thought about this. First off, she shared my concern about the concentration of pollutants in this ocean plastic, and wondered what kind of testing Method has done to ensure the safety of this material. Secondly, she added that, “I'm glad Method is drawing attention to the problem of ocean plastic pollution. I'm glad the company wants to be part of the solution. But if we are going to mine the ocean for plastic to recycle, shouldn't we make it into products that are durable rather than more disposable packaging?”
I checked with Method about the contamination issue and they told me that, "we take steps during the recycling process that remove contaminants. The absence of the most problematic contaminants and additives has been confirmed through analytical testing of our first collections of ocean plastic. We will continue to test and validate batches of plastic on an ongoing and consistent basis."
I would like to commend Method for their efforts to confront this issue. I would add that for me, the goal should be, in order to satisfy the nine planetary boundaries, to ultimately do away entirely with the very concept of disposable packaging. To be truly sustainable, any approach that depends on recycling, unless 100% participation can be guaranteed, should be based on renewable materials that are designed to break down completely into non-toxic components, preferably as food for somebody, when released to the environment, be it on land or in the ocean.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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