Ocean Cleanup breakthrough coincides with BlackRock’s new circular economy fund and Unilever’s plastics pledge.
The war on plastic pollution continues to gather pace, with battles taking place on several fronts.
Dutch group The Ocean Cleanup, started in 2013 by engineer Boyan Slat when he was still a teenager, has announced that, after a year of testing and three months at sea, its latest prototype – the second – is now successfully capturing and collecting plastic debris out at sea.
Engineers “have succeeded in developing a self-contained system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is using the natural forces of the ocean to passively catch and concentrate plastic, thereby confirming the most important principle behind the clean-up concept”, the group says.
The system Slat and his team of around 90 engineers and researchers have devised is a long, floating barrier that acts like an artificial coastline, enabling the winds, waves and currents to passively catch and concentrate the plastic. Once the system has been proven to work, Slat plans to deploy a fleet of the barriers across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a region where the winds and currents concentrate ocean plastic. That fleet should be able to capture more than 12m kg of plastic in its first year of operation, which will then be collected by ship and returned to land for recycling – enough to halve the size of the Garbage Patch every five years.
This is a big moment for The Ocean Cleanup, after its first attempt to capture ocean plastic failed last year. “In addition to collecting plainly visible pieces of plastic debris, as well as much larger ghost nets associated with commercial fishing, the latest system has also successfully captured microplastics as small as 1mm – a feat the team was pleasantly surprised to achieve.
“After beginning this journey seven years ago, this first year of testing in the unforgivable environment of the high seas strongly indicates that our vision is attainable and that the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of plastic garbage, which has accumulated for decades, is within our sights,” said Slat.
However, despite the success of the trial, there is still a way to go before a full-scale system is in place that can both endure and retain the collected plastic for long periods of time. The Ocean Cleanup is also working on processes that will be able to convert the recovered ocean plastic into valuable raw materials and durable products.
Meanwhile, there are important developments in the business community, where consumer goods giant Unilever has made possibly the most significant commitment to reduce the use of plastic that we have seen to date. The $150bn company, which sells to millions of people and has thousands of suppliers, says it will halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025, reducing its plastic consumption by more than 100,000 tonnes. It will also increase the amount of recycled plastic that it uses and has pledged to recover more plastic than it sells, making it the first global consumer goods company to commit to an absolute reduction in consumption of the fossil fuel-based material.
The move throws down the gauntlet to its rivals, which are also giant concerns such as Nestle, P&G and Reckitt Benckiser. “Plastic has its place, but that place is not in the environment. We can only eliminate plastic waste by acting fast and taking radical action at all points in the plastic cycle,” said Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever.
Crucial to its efforts will be taking a circular economy approach to ensure that plastic is reused or recycled. the benefits of the circular economy for business are clear. “More effective use of materials means lower costs and less waste. It means new sources of value for customers and citizens, better risk management of raw materials, and improved approaches to the supply chain.”
Unilever is not the only leader in its field trying to get to grips with the plastic pollution challenge. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, has just launched a fund dedicated to growing the circular economy.
Admittedly, the fund, developed as part of a partnership with the circular economy thinktank the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is a drop in the ocean compared to BlackRock’s $6.84 trillion of assets under management, at just $20m. But it’s a start and “provides a strong signal to other investors and companies”, the Foundation says.
The fund will invest three different types of company – ‘adopters’, which are looking to integrate the circular economy into their own operations; ‘enablers’, which help other firms to become more circular; and ‘beneficiaries’, which benefit from a more circular economy, such as those that sell feedstocks for recycled plastics. The fund’s investments include Tomra, a maker of reverse vending machines, Ball Corp, which recycles aluminium and Adidas, the sportswear maker that has committed to increase its use of recycled plastics in its products.
Further investments in food and drink, fashion and plastics are likely, with tech and mining companies likely to follow in the next few years. Co-manager of the fund Sumana Manohar,
“The circular economy, as a topic of business interest, is not new… and is very relatable…but it has been quite nascent as an investment theme,” Manohar said. “So, I think what we have here is very important.”
In addition to the public pressure to use resources more wisely, epitomised by the Blue Planet TV series, policymakers are starting to act as well, with countries such as China refusing to import waste from other countries, while countries in the EU tax waste going to landfill. There is a growing movement of governments introducing net-zero targets, which can only be met if the circular economy expands.
Just as Unilever’s move should accelerate progress in the consumer goods sector, BlackRock’s move should pull more funds into the circular economy, said the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s executive lead for plastics, fashion and finance, Rob Opsomer. “The fact that BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager and is engaging in this topic of the circular economy will send a strong signal to investors and to other financial institutions around the world – not just in addressing the challenges we are facing across the world, but as an investment opportunity.
“The engagement of finance in the circular economy is so important, because, at the moment, we are seeing some circular economy models emerge – there are hundreds of companies experimenting – but, given the extent of the challenges that we face, we urgently need to scale these solutions.”