A couple of years ago, a report called The New Plastics Economy predicted that if humans continue to dump plastic into the world's oceans, by 2050 the amount of plastic-based garbage will outweigh the amount of fish in those waters. Although those calculations have been questioned—mostly by asking 'How do you count the fish?'—the current, more verifiable numbers are concerning. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, and at least 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.
But we seem to have finally figured out that single-use plastics are pretty much the worst, and everyone from small coffee shops to Golden Arched giants are trying to do their part to eliminate them. On the cleanup side, after almost seven years of tests and design tweaks, a Dutch-made 2,000 foot-long floating trash collection system was finally able to start catching plastic debris from the massive Great Pacific Garbage Patch this week. Everything it collects will be taken to shore in December so it can be recycled.
Although a number of companies from Patagonia to Adidas to G-Star RAW have made consumer products from recycled ocean plastic, it hasn't previously been used in food or drink packaging. But—and this is a bit optimistic but—that could change thanks to a partnership between Ioniqa Technologies, Indorama Ventures, Mares Circulares (Circular Seas) and The Coca-Cola Company.
On Thursday, the companies revealed that they'd made 300 sample bottles using 25% recycled marine plastic that had been pulled out of the Mediterranean Sea and collected from beaches in Spain and Portugal. This was made possible through "enhanced recycling technologies"—probably the proprietary kind—that can remove impurities from low-grade recyclables, allowing them to be reused. And, as a result, they can be turned into high-quality plastic that can be used in food and drink packaging. According to Coca-Cola, this is a first.
"This bottle is testament to what can be achieved, through partnership and investment in revolutionary new technologies," Bruno van Gompel, Technical and Supply Chain Director, Coca-Cola in Western Europe, said in a statement. "In bringing together partners from across our supply chain, from a community cleanup initiative in Spain and Portugal to an investment in technological innovation in the Netherlands, we have been able, for the first time, to bring damaged marine plastic back to food-grade material with which we can make new bottles."
Coca-Cola says that this batch of sample bottles was made to show what these recycling technologies might be able to do "in time." But starting in 2020, the soda giant will use enhanced recycling to turn previously unrecyclable or lower quality plastics into material for "some" of its bottles.
"Enhanced recycling technologies are enormously exciting, not just for us but for industry and society at large," van Gompel said. "They accelerate the prospect of a closed loop economy for plastic, which is why we are investing behind them. As these begin to scale, we will see all kinds of used plastics returned, as good as new, not just once but again and again, diverting waste streams from incineration and landfill."
We're crossing our fingers that we'll figure out the plastic collection side of this before we finish counting all of those fish.