Companies using OceanCycle certified material are responsible for recycling more than 1 billion plastic bottles, in what OceanCycle claims to be the ‘largest global certification program to prevent ocean plastic pollution.’ Suston meets with co-founder Ryan Schoenike to learn more.
For those who are unfamiliar, OceanCycle provides a 100% independent, third-party certification of ocean-bound plastics recycling supply chains to ensure that they meet international quality, ethical, environmental, and labor standards. Can you share how the idea for this business model arose in the first place?
The idea for OceanCycle essentially arose when the paths of myself and co-founder Robert Goodwin converged and was spurred by the mutual desire to make a real dent in marine plastic waste. I had founded a company making sunglasses out of ocean-bound plastic, while Robert had been actively setting up plastic collection centers in Haiti in areas ravaged by diseases caused in part by waterways clogged with plastic waste.
For all their strengths, the effects of our two approaches would only be a drop in the bucket with respect to the scale of the problem. And at the time, nobody had really cracked the code on how to scale up ocean-bound plastic collection and recycling. We saw that several large companies were actively trying to source plastic from these regions, but would invariably get bogged down with auditing many small operators, face supply crunches and risk exposure to forced or child labor in their supply chains. Meanwhile, a lack of consistent demand made it difficult for local recycling entrepreneurs to take their operations up to a level that would satisfy these larger players.
It was essentially this dual, unmet need of manufacturers and recyclers, which created the backdrop for OceanCycle, and in 2017 Robert and I joined forces with a solution:
Through audits and certification of recycling factories in areas at high risk for ocean-bound plastic, OceanCycle could make it easy for manufacturers to source verified ocean-bound plastic and at the same time incentivize recyclers to provide it in sufficient quantities while following strict labor and environmental standards.
Sounds like a solid business plan in theory. Could you provide a snapshot of what this actually looks like on the ground in practice to help clarify?
OceanCycle currently offers two certifications, the first being OceanCycle Certification for Recyclers. This process begins by first identifying the highest risk areas – studies show these are communities without adequate formal collection that are within 50 km of the coastline – and approaching actors there. Where municipal programs are insufficient or lacking entirely, you will often already find a whole ecosystem of recycling entrepreneurs. This usually starts with individual collectors who find ingenious ways of gathering plastic waste from their community. They in turn will deliver to collection centers who will sort and forward onwards to recycling factories.
Our role is to support these recyclers with various tools, audit the entire process, and offer digital transfer certificates for processors to provide to their customers. We are strict, and not all plants pass the audits. But those that do can become OceanCycle Certified suppliers. We currently have six certified recyclers in total based in Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, and China, and are working to add four more this year in India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Honduras.
The next certification is OceanCycle Certification for Manufacturers, and is for brands and other manufacturers looking to ensure full chain-of-custody of recycled ocean-bound plastic, enabling them to use the OceanCycle Certified label for that particular component of their product. We currently have 31 certified manufacturers – largely from textiles, food packaging and engineering-grade plastics industries – and aim to double this number by the end of 2023.
We see that this year several Outdoor brands such as PrimaLoft, Isbjörn, Patagonia, and Helly Hansen are now among those sporting OceanCycle certified materials. How do you view the potential in this industry?
The potential looks very promising on two counts: First, most cost-effective recycling is currently done mechanically. But this requires especially clean inputs, or the resulting recycled plastic may be of lower quality. This is a common issue even in developed countries with effective curbside collection systems in place, whereby the plastic is often mixed and contaminated with other rubbish. Similarly plastic retrieved from the oceans may be degraded by exposure to UV radiation and salt water. Our partner recyclers, meanwhile, employ source separated collection, meaning the plastic destined for mechanical recycling is of a much higher quality.
This enables high-value recycled materials to be made, essential for many of the performance fabrics used in the outdoor industry.
Second, brands are hesitant to invest in and integrate new suppliers if there’s a risk this will bind them to limited options. OceanCycle has many certified partners, providing flexibility and ensuring adequate supply.
It sounds like you have a business model that’s a win-win-win for manufacturers, recyclers, and our oceans. But what are some of the challenges OceanCycle faces in its mission?
We were the first to offer this type of certification, but today we’re not the only ones. I think this is actually a good thing, as it shows there’s a market and a need. And we’re not really competitors, but allies in the same fight. Our strength rests in “de-risking” the system for manufacturers through developing the most rigorous auditing programs and material traceability.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t gold we’re dealing with, but plastic waste. The presence of forced and child labor and more are very real in this space, so we err on the side of caution with multiple audits per year, all the way from the factory to the individual collector level.
But here it’s important to stress that it’s with the collectors that we find the real heroes to this story. They’re the ones doing the hard work! We’re committed to the communities where we operate, and especially to improving the livelihoods of plastic collectors.
Looking forward, where do you see the most work to be done? And what exactly is your ideal endgame?
Marine plastic pollution is such a multi-faceted problem, and even as we fully believe in OceanCycle’s mission and the role it can play in mitigating the issue, we remain just one part of the solution. We do our best to limit the amount of new plastic entering the oceans, but there’s still all the plastic that has already found its way into the ocean that is still retrievable at or near the surface, and the much more difficult to retrieve plastic that has already sunk to the ocean floor.
It is also important to recognize the need to turn off the tap to begin with using reduction techniques and investing in truly biodegradable plastics. We believe the bioplastics offer a lot of promise especially for the low-value plastics such as films in which the cost to collect outweigh their value. You’ll be seeing an announcement about a new initiative from us in relation to this in the near future.
Ultimately, our desired end game is that we won’t be needed any more, and dream that in ten years (and it’s always ‘ten years from now’), we will be able to finally sit down on a beach without plastic.