A decade ago, most discourse around marine litter involved turtles ensnared by six-pack rings and dead seabirds with plastic spilling from their bellies. Now, “ocean plastic” is the fashionable term. You can find bits of old soda bottles and fishing nets in sneakers from Sperry, handbags from Rothy’s, bikinis from Reformation, sunglasses from Norton Point, leggings from Girlfriend Collective and trench coats from Burberry. By the end of next year, Prada plans to phase out virgin nylon in favour of “regenerated” Re-Nylon, made in part from reclaimed fishing nets.
In the US, the number of products with “ocean waste” or “ocean plastic” in their name or product description is up 21 percent this year, according to Edited, a retail intelligence firm. The material has struck a chord with consumers at a time when plastic straw bans are the cause of the moment: a 2019 survey by Shelton Group found that 65 percent of US consumers reported feeling very or extremely concerned about plastics in the oceans. Only 58 percent said the same about climate change.
Ocean waste is the “perfect symbol to point out the global plastic problem,” said James Carnes, vice president of global strategy at Adidas, which has cranked out more than 35 million pairs of shoes using yarns and filaments derived from coastal plastic waste and illegal deep-sea gillnets collected by Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit.
But the question, sustainability experts say, is whether it can ever be anything more than a symbol, or if “ocean plastic” is destined to become another term that helps brands sell clothes but in practice does little to help the environment.
“On the face of it, it feels like a win-win: tackling pollution, recycling materials, promoting circular economy principles and raising awareness about plastic pollution and the state of the oceans,” said Rachel Horigan, sustainability analyst at Sancroft. “That said, I do wonder what extent the trend is driven more by consumer appeal than by actual impact.”
Plastic waste is a real problem. Some eight million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s waterways every year, according to the Ocean Conservancy. Over time, bottles, packaging, nets and assorted trash break down into tinier and tinier pieces, but can take millions of years to fully degrade. In the meantime, those bits of plastic can harm or even kill animals that eat them.
Plastic is theoretically better off in a pair of shoes than on the sea floor, then. But critics of the fashion industry’s adoption of the marine waste cause say the recent boomlet in ocean plastic apparel is a distraction at best. The US Center for International Environmental Law predicts plastic production will balloon by 40 percent over the next decade. Even if ocean plastic could eventually supplant half of the world’s apparel-related polyester and nylon, it would only scratch the surface.
“Of all of the sectors to use recycled plastic or ocean bound-plastic, the textile industry is probably the last place you want to put it,” said Anna Cummins, co-founder and interim executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit group that combines marine research with activism.
Of all of the sectors to use recycled plastic or ocean bound-plastic, the textile industry is probably the last place you want to put it.
In most cases, companies aren’t actually dredging up plastic from the oceans, since it’s often too degraded by the sun, waves or sand or fouled by marine organisms to be a useful polymer any longer. When brands say “ocean plastic,” they’re really referring to “ocean-bound plastic,” a term that could describe anything from a fishing net cast adrift in the Pacific Ocean to the bottle of soda you just finished drinking.
“No plastic starts in the ocean, right? It all comes from the land,” said Ian Rosenberger, founder and CEO of First Mile, a social enterprise that connects waste-picking microeconomies with brands such as Ralph Lauren and Puma.
Few third-party certifications can indicate whether “ocean-bound” material truly is headed for the sea. For the most part, consumers have to take brands at their word. Among the competing standards: Waste2Wear, which debuted the first traceable ocean plastic fabrics last year, says it can use blockchain to track a finished textile product to its source. Unifi, which works with brands such as Nixon and Mara Hoffman, says its Repreve Our Ocean line uses only plastic bottles collected within 50 kilometres of waterways or coastlines in developing countries and impoverished regions. Oceanworks, which supplies “ocean-bound” plastic buttons to Outerknown, differentiates between “ocean plastic,” which it describes as plastic litter harvested less than 51 kilometres from the shore, and “averted plastic,” which it sources from more than 51 kilometres away.
Some experts believe plastic litter might be better off channelled into larger-scale — if less-glamorous — industries that can recycle the material over and over, such as packaging. Turning plastic waste into textiles is nowhere nearly as efficient. While polyester can be recycled, the process typically shortens and weakens fibres each time (Aquafil says its regenerated nylon can be repeatedly recycled without ceding quality).
Ultimately, clothing made from marine litter is likely to wind up in a landfill; better than at the bottom of the ocean, but not a solution to plastic waste.
“There’s better infrastructure in place for sorting and cleaning soda bottles or water bottles, which we’ve been recycling for decades now,” said Krystle Moody Wood, principal at Materevolve, a textile consultancy. The fashion industry, she added, is “just putting more synthetics out into the world.”
Clothes and shoes made from ocean waste also throw off just as much microplastic as other synthetics. These tiny pieces of material slough off artificial fabrics in the wash, slip through wastewater treatment filters and end up in rivers and oceans. Once there, they are far more difficult to clean up than fishing nets or bottles.
If brands want to tackle plastic pollution, they should support legislation that encourages a reduction in single-use plastic items or push for extended producer responsibility so plastic doesn’t leak into the environment in the first place, said Cummins, with the 5 Gyres Institute. They might promote the use of recycled materials in products that don’t require washing or have built-in take-back programs, like computer parts and cellphones.
Some companies see a need to tackle the issue at both ends. While it’s important to focus on eliminating single-use plastics in the apparel supply chain, said Megan Stoneburner, Outerknown’s director of sustainability and sourcing, the industry also needs to shift away from virgin plastics “as quickly as possible so we’re not continuing to contribute to waste.”
Saskia van Gendt, head of sustainability at Rothy’s, described the brand’s use of ocean plastic as a “representation” to use plastic more responsibly than a solution in and of itself.
“We know we need to work upstream on the reduction side … and then couple that with high-quality recycling and waste infrastructure,” she said. “I’m hopeful that we can think about a holistic solution … the [marine plastic-derived handbags are] a reminder of the importance of that solution.”
Proponents of plastic collection — whether it’s specifically ocean-related or not — also note the social benefits to local communities in poor countries such as Haiti and Indonesia, where waste picking can provide a source of income. Tens of millions of people around the world earn a living in the waste industry, First Mile’s Rosenberger said.
“The last line of defence before [a piece of plastic] ends up in the ocean, is a person, usually in a poor neighbourhood, someplace far away, that is … going to pick it up and make some money to be able to feed their family,” he said.
Ocean-plastic materials, like all recycled materials, come at a premium, and the margin can vary widely depending on the prevailing price of oil. By most estimates, the cost increase can be between five percent and 30 percent. Economies of scale will push prices down and make it easier for brands to incorporate such plastics in their assortment. Most of these products are too new, however, to know whether they’ll remain popular with consumers over the long run.
“Unless this catches on, becomes super economic to produce and has properties that match up to current options or better, this will be a nice niche business,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group. “Desire only gets us so far; demand is what catapults products into household daily usage.”
Javier Goyeneche, founder and president of Ecoalf, which works with the fishing industry to trawl the ocean depths for waste, said he knows that his Upcycling the Oceans initiative won’t solve the plastic problem overnight.
“I’m getting 200 tonnes out of the ocean every year, but there’s a million tonnes coming into the oceans every year,” he said. “What I want to create is a lot of awareness. We need a lot of education to [teach people to] avoid that waste before it enters the ocean. Once it’s in the ocean, it’s too late.”