If you’ve bought a printer cartridge from HP Inc. during the past year, chances are its plastic came from bottles collected on the streets and beaches of Haiti.
Since March 2017, the company has purchased more than 550,000 pounds of ocean-bound plastic, or the equivalent of 12 million plastic bottles, that might otherwise have ended up in the Caribbean Sea.
HP joins a growing list of companies—including furniture retailer Ikea AS, General Motors Co., and Trek Bicycle Corp.—creating supply chains sourced specifically from ocean plastic, and perhaps burnishing their environmental images, as well.
“There is approximately one bottle’s worth of recycled plastic in each ink cartridge,” said Ellen Jackowski, director of HP’s sustainable impact strategy.
After years of devastation from hurricanes and earthquakes, recycling efforts in Haiti can prevent a huge amount of plastic and trash from entering the ocean, according to Jackowski.
“This is a direction that we think all companies should be moving in,” she said, “to take responsibility for their products’ transition from virgin plastic to recycled wherever we can.”
Stemming the Tide
HP and Ikea announced Oct. 22 their membership in NextWave Plastics, a consortium of businesses interested in developing the first global ocean-bound plastics supply chains.
NextWave defines “ocean bound” as any plastic within 50 kilometers of a body of water that would otherwise go uncollected by existing waste management.
The problem of plastic pollution is particularly acute in China and Southeast Asian countries, where rising affluence is allowing people to buy more plastic-wrapped food and drink than waste infrastructure can handle.
Ikea recently announced a plan to phase out all single-use plastics from its shops and restaurants by 2020 and aims to have a product prototype made from reclaimed ocean plastic by the end of 2019.
“Our goal is to make ocean-bound plastic a commodity for the future, and we want to take initiatives to prevent plastic from ending up in the ocean in the first place,” said Lena Pripp-Kovac, sustainability manager at Inter Ikea Group.
“We hope this membership will lead to new learnings and new innovations, and that we can inspire other companies to follow,” she said.
Is This Greenwashing?
Many environmental analysts have been critical of moves to source products with ocean plastic because such efforts validate the waste as a source for recycled plastic.
“The danger with this kind of messaging is that it makes the issue sound like it’s not that big of a deal, because now we have a way to deal with it,” said Lucas Harris, a graduate student and former senior policy analyst with the British Columbia Ministry of Environment.
Any solution to the plastic crisis requires producing less plastic packaging, Harris told Bloomberg Environment. But, he said, programs such as NextWave can play a role in funding individual cleanup efforts and creating local recycling markets.
Others say the entire enterprise amounts to little more than corporate greenwashing.
“It’s an easy way to get some good PR, without having to do the hard work of reducing the amount of plastic you use,” said David Pinsky, an oceans campaigner with Greenpeace.
“We don’t want to see companies creating new supply chains that continue to view plastics as a value-product and not waste,” he told Bloomberg Environment.
Phasing out single-use plastics is a good place to start and the next step is to create alternative delivery systems that eliminate plastic completely, Pinsky said.
A number of startups have launched to ride the oceans of waste by paying collectors a premium price to collect plastic from beaches and unregulated dump sites. That material, called social plastic, is then sold to a global network of companies.
HP’s Ellen Jackowski said the partnership in Haiti also has helped provide well-paying jobs, in addition to a temporary solution for to the lack of municipal recycling.
Whether the efforts amount to greenwashing, it could be too soon to tell.
“I think it’s a fair question to be asking, but I don’t know if it’s a fair criticism yet,” said Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale, the Seattle-based organization that manages the NextWave Plastics projects.
To be accepted into the coalition, companies have to have plans to eliminate all nonessential plastic from their business, Ives told Bloomberg Environment.
“It’s not just a one-and-done situation,” she said.
Ultimately, she hopes companies will reduce their reliance on plastic and increase recyclability to the point where ocean-plastic supply chains are no longer necessary.
“Whether that is in 10 years, 20 years, I can’t tell you, but the intent isn’t for these markets to exist forever.”