How Ecover plans to create the Ocean Bottle

It is a world first for packaging: creating a bottle out of waste marine plastic, rHDPE and sugarcane-based plastic. But is plastic debris from the ocean still usable as a recyclate?

Copyright image: Ecover

By Lydia Heida

Chris Dow, CEO of Closed Loop Recycling, and one of the three partners Ecover is collaborating with on the Ocean Bottle project, says: “This plastic has been lying in the water for long periods of time, so it is slimy and dirty.”

Already the first tonnes of plastic fished from the sea have entered the premises of the company’s Dagenham recycling facility in East London. Dow adds: “Any floating object that you can imagine in plastic is coming here.”

Last March, Ecover pledged to develop the most sustainable packaging possible as part of their campaign ‘Message in our bottle’. At the moment, all of Ecover’s bottles are made out of rHDPE and sugarcane-based plastic, delivered by Braskem, the Brazilian specialist in sustainable plastic.

Now, Ecover is ready to take it to the next level and incorporate ocean-derived plastic into their bottle.

In the last years, marine litter has been rapidly attracting more attention, since Captain Charles Moore put this problem on the map after discovering a ‘Plastic Soup’ in the North Pacific gyre (i.e. vortex).

Over one million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals die every year from ingesting plastic waste, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme, while research from the Marine Conservation Society shows that 60% of all litter found on British beaches is made out of plastic.

Fishing plastic

To develop an ocean bottle, it is first of all necessary to fish the plastic out of the sea. “Waste Free Oceans organises the waste plastic collection,” says Clare Allman, Ecover’s UK head of marketing.

This foundation has been set up by the European Plastics Converters to reduce floating marine debris, as well as campaign against littering while emphasising the value of used plastic as a resource.

“They work with the fishermen in European waters to collect the plastic,” explains Allman. Boats outfitted with special trawls, that only catch plastic and not fish, collect between two and eight tonnes of waste per trawl. This is delivered to different ports in France, Belgium, Spain, The Netherlands, Cyprus and Denmark.

Ecover has chosen Closed Loop Recycling as it is the only facility in the UK that recycles PET and HDPE into food-grade plastic.

From there, it is send to Closed Loop Recycling where part of the waste marine plastic is turned into pellets. Logoplaste will perform trials with this material to get the right mixture of ocean plastic, rHDPE and sugarcane-based plastic for the new bottle.

Ecover has chosen Closed Loop Recycling because it is the only facility in the UK that is equipped to recycle both PET and HDPE into food-grade plastic, meeting EU and US FDA standards.

Normally, they take in discarded soft drinks and water bottles made from PET and milk bottles made from HDPE – in total about 35,000 tonnes of bottles each year. “The ocean plastic also contains lots of water bottles,” says Dow.

More cleaning

However, that seems to be the only similarity between normally collected plastic and what is fished out of the ocean since that plastic is covered with slimy algae. “It is not so much degraded, but it requires careful attention and a lot more cleaning than plastic that is collected through a kerbside system,” explains Dow.

Also marine litter consists of many different types of plastic. “Our job is to sort it out,” states Dow. “Of the ocean plastic that we have received so far, about 20% is HDPE.” He estimates that probably half of it is suitable for recycling. These will be turned into pellets and send to Logoplaste for trials.

Dow again: “The remaining part that is unsuitable, we sell to someone who makes products that doesn’t require recycled material of food-grade quality; such as a wheelie bin.”

So at the very best only 10% of the plastic trawled from the sea will make it into Ecover’s new bottle. That raises the question whether it will be worth the effort.

On the one hand, fishing the plastic out of the ocean costs fuel, as well as sending the plastic to the UK and processing it. This should be weighed against the importance of getting the plastic out of the ocean to prevent harm to animal life, making use of a recycled resource instead of a fossil fuel-based one and to raise awareness of the consequences of littering.

Fit for recycling

Over the last years, while attention for marine waste plastic has been growing, at the same time a rise in marine litter has been noted. Waste is still dumped at sea by ships and vessels to save the costs of proper disposal.

In ports and marinas, waste management systems are poorly maintained. Legislation is not adequately enforced. The list of problems that contribute to marine littering is long and, apparently, hard to battle.

Also, the question remains: Can ocean plastic really be used as a recyclate? Chris Clarke, product manager for the Logoplaste Innovation Lab UK, is responsible for the trials that will be performed with the recycled ocean plastic.

‘Plastic which has been left in the water for so long will be degraded in some way – by becoming more brittle for example.’

He says: “We can only anticipate that plastic which has been left in the water for so long will be degraded in some way – by becoming more brittle for example.”

Tests will show whether the melt flow index of the polymers has been affected, or that a decline in tensile strength has occurred through the impact of UV and oxidisation.

“As yet, we don’t know whether that has happened or to what point,” explains Clarke. “Recycled content can also change the colour of a bottle, although we don’t expect much problems in that area.”

Clarke continues: “Furthermore, we need to understand what the maximum concentration of certain migration compounds in the polymers will be. This to make sure that they don’t exceed limits.”

Life cycle analysis

More tests are scheduled, for example to experiment with the right blend of the three different materials for the ocean bottle.

“What that percentage is we don’t know today,” says Clarke. “For sure we are going to make comparisons between the ocean bottle and the ones that are made from virgin material regarding different mechanical properties.”

“At the moment, we are in the very early stages of making all these trials. What the outputs are going to be is very uncertain at this stage. I just can’t comment on that right now.”

After completing all the trials and having them analysed, Logoplaste will pass the results on to Ecover for them to make a decision in terms of where they wish to go.

Then, after Ecover’s go-ahead, all three companies have to agree on the final pellet production specification.

Last but not least, a life cycle analysis of the ocean bottle will also be made. A clear advantage is that, although all three materials for the ocean bottle are derived from different sources, they are still made out of HDPE.

“The plastic that Ecover is looking for should not have any impact on the recycling capability of the new bottle,” says Clarke.

As for Ecover, criteria for the new bottle will be high. “We have to make sure we maintain the functionality of our bottles,” emphasises Allman, who expects they will come back with more results early next year on where they are.

If all goes well, this new ocean bottle will be launched in the UK in 2014 before a gradual roll-out across Europe.

Published: September 2013 in Recycling & Waste World.

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