Disturbing images and stories of how plastics have affected marine life are becoming more prevalent — a shark slowly cut in half by a piece of plastic it became entangled in, a pregnant whale washed up on a beach, starving because of the 50 pounds of plastic in her belly.
The headlines have sparked global outcry, prompting legislators to introduce bills limiting or eliminating single-use plastic items, such as straws and grocery bags, and inspiring businesses to get involved, whether through consumer demand or collective outrage.
Adidas, for example, manufactured 1 million pairs of shoes made from ocean plastic in 2017, and it expects to reach the 11 million mark this year. Morgan Stanley unveiled a Plastic Waste Resolution to prevent, reduce and remove 50 million metric tons of plastic waste in rivers, oceans and landfills by 2030. In 2014, Florida-based SaltWater Brewery gained international attention when it started making biodegradable six-pack rings that are edible for marine life.
Even Dow Chemical, one of the world’s largest producers of plastic, is helping lead a $1 billion global alliance to end plastic waste in the environment. And in July, Nestle’s bottled water division teamed up with the Canada-based nonprofit Ocean Legacy to clean up plastic pollution.
Unlike the marine industry, those companies don’t rely on the ocean’s health as part of their long-term business plans. Though it seems that marine companies have been slow to take action, some have been focused on the plastic crisis for years. Particularly at an international level, a growing number are focused on reduction of plastic internally, as well as on mitigation, cleanup and public education — or in some cases a combination of the three.
“It behooves anybody who’s concerned about our aquatic habitat to learn how they can eliminate or reduce the use of single-use plastics,” says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “Clean beaches, clean water and healthy fish stocks are all critically important to the future of the boating industry.”
Though several U.S. marine companies have sustainability programs, Dammrich says he isn’t sure enough are focusing on what can be done to reduce or eliminate single-use, or disposable, plastics. But he thinks that is changing and says that participation will be critical in slowing the rate at which plastic accumulates at sea.
A Daunting Issue
Between 4.7 million and 12.5 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year, and that number is expected to double by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The problem is so massive, it can be difficult for companies that want to get involved to decide where to begin, says Bridgid Murphy, head of global marketing and communications for North Sails. “If you look at all the possibilities out there, and all the things that need to be fixed, it’s pretty overwhelming,” Murphy says. “It took us a long time to wrap our heads around where wanted to start.”
The company’s long-term plan involves finding technology that will break down sails on a molecular level to make them recyclable. Right now, because they are made from high-tech manmade materials, sails often wind up in landfills.
For companies that are overwhelmed, it can be helpful to reach out to or partner with nonprofits, says Lia Colabello, the Kick Plastic cause ambassador for Costa Sunglasses. “We contacted the 5 Gyres Institute because they’re really well known for researching this issue, sailing from continent to continent collecting data,” Colabello says.
Appealing to Deep Pockets
For some companies, the path is clearer — especially, it seems, for those with a global presence. “As a brand, we wanted to lay a challenge down to the industry at large, but also more personally to our owners and clients to make sure they are using their boats in the environment they love to use them in, in a way that doesn’t damage the environment,” says Bryan Jones, marketing manager for U.K. builder Sunseeker International.
Sunseeker has made an effort to educate boat owners, tapping Blue Marine Foundation ambassador Simon Le Bon — better known as the lead singer for Duran Duran — to speak at a sustainability exhibition that Sunseeker held at last year’s Southampton Boat Show.
The builder also has held exhibitions at other high-end shows, such as Cannes and Monaco. Funds it raised at its local Poole Harbour Boat Show went to the Blue Marine Foundation, which Sunseeker has partnered with for its Project Menorca — an endeavor that seeks to preserve what it calls “one of the last unspoiled places in the Mediterranean.”
The company is hoping to raise larger amounts for the project, which employs divers to remove discarded commercial fishing nets from Menorca’s sea beds. Sunseeker also distributes plastic alternatives to local establishments. It is giving recyclable wrapping for fishmongers to use and has delivered 20,000 burlap bags to supermarkets. “We need funding to help achieve these goals,” Jones says. “If you can get one person to put a quarter of a million dollars down, or 10 people to put $25,000 down, we could see a substantial change over a two-year period.”
Outside the Box
Costa Sunglasses, which has advocated for clean water on several fronts with its Kick Plastics initiative, is looking to innovation to help solve some of the ocean’s problems, says Dave Bulthuis, Costa’s vice president of industry relations and government affairs. “Last year we introduced our Untangled collection, and the frames are actually made out of repurposed, discarded commercial fishing nets,” Bulthuis says.
That project came about when Costa’s product development team heard about a company named Bureo that recycles fishing nets in Chile and turns them into skateboards, Colabello says. It prompted Costa to wonder, Why not sunglasses? “The sunglasses are made from entirely recyclable material,” Colabello says. “Even the Costa aluminum was made from recycled aluminum. It seems small, but the idea is the entire team at Costa is thinking, How can we do better?”
Yamaha’s U.S. arm joined the fight against plastic under its Yamaha Rightwaters advocacy group. Its many initiatives include a partnership with Maryland-based Clearwater Mills, the creator of the Inner Harbor Water Wheel — also known as Mr. Trash Wheel — a contraption that has all but eliminated floating debris in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. To date, it has reportedly prevented 1,200 tons of debris from entering Chesapeake Bay and, ultimately, the Atlantic.
“The intention is to create a pilot to see if it works,” using products, controls and electric motors that Yamaha will create and incorporate into the device, says Martin Peters, communications and government relations senior manager for Yamaha Marine.
The device will first be deployed at a choke point for debris in coastal Georgia. The challenge is to ensure that the trash wheel operates efficiently where water flow is inconsistent, says Clearwater Mills president John Kellett. “If we can make this pilot project work, we will have created something we can use to keep debris out of marshlands, coastal waterways and off the beaches all along the Atlantic coast,” Kellett says.
Peters adds: “For us, the endgame is cleaner water everywhere. Debris transported by stormwater contributes to ocean microplastics pollution, injures sea life and is a hazard to navigation. We invite anyone who boats and fishes to get engaged in existing projects to keep debris out of our waterways.”
How did We get Here?
All plastic is made from fossil fuels, traditionally from petroleum byproducts, and most is produced by the same large companies that produce oil and gas. First developed in 1907, plastic began to replace natural materials such as cotton, glass and cardboard when they were in short supply during World War II. During that time, plastic production in the United States increased by 300 percent, according to the Science History Institute.
Plastic’s malleable qualities and lightweight, inexpensive nature helped spark the global shift to disposal consumerism because it was so cheap and easy to throw away. Soda companies began replacing glass bottles with plastic in 1970, and in the early ’80s, grocery stores adopted disposable plastic bags. Disposable plastics proliferated throughout the ’90s, growing yearly global imports of recycling that the United States shipped to China by 723 percent during the decade, according to National Public Radio.
Online shopping has sped up single-use plastic consumption — so much so that China, which had been buying 45 percent of the world’s plastics set for recycling, banned the material’s import in 2018. As a result, plastic is winding up in landfills, being incinerated or being diverted to countries that lack the infrastructure to deal with it, according to a study in the journal Scientific Advances. Malaysian officials said in May that the nation would ship 3,000 tons of plastic back to countries that sent it.
Now such shipping materials as padded envelopes and bubble wrap are piling up at recycling centers, prompting California to consider legislation that would require all packaging used by online retailers to be recyclable or compostable by 2023. “The convenience culture is driving this culture of disposability,” Peter Gallotta, a spokesman for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That convenience really has come, frankly, at the expense of the environment.”
By 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste is expected to be displaced because of China’s new law, and displacement creates more opportunities for single-use plastic to wind up in the ocean, where sunlight and salt water break it down into microplastics — tiny remnants found even in phytoplankton.
Change from Within
North Sails is reducing single-use plastic by switching from plastic tape to paper for the 50,000 boxes it ships a year, and by eliminating single-use plastic in its offices around the globe. “We have 1,200 employees in the world,” Murphy says. “If everybody doesn’t drink a water bottle a day or use a plastic fork, it adds up quickly. We’re saving 25,000 plastic plates a year and 34,000 plastic bottles. For the short term, we’re trying to be very practical and adopt things that may not seem like a huge deal, but when you build it into everyday practice, it adds up to huge numbers.”
Costa and Volvo Penta of the Americas are holding beach cleanups — Colabello calls this the “last line of defense before a piece of plastic ends up in the ocean.”
Miami International Boat Show organizers have taken steps each year to reduce the event’s impact. “We’ve eliminated plastic straws, eliminated all Styrofoam at the show and removed all plastic utensils from the docks and VIP lounge,” says Jennifer Thompson, vice president of NMMA shows. Discounted, reusable water bottles, through a partnership with Costa’s Kick Plastics, and water fill stations were available to attendees at this year’s Miami show, eliminating an estimated 83,500 single-use plastic bottles.
Volvo Penta continued that practice by giving away reusable thermoses at boat shows around the world, says Jennifer Humphrey, Volvo Penta’s global communications manager.
The NMMA is asking its show managers to evaluate how much plastic they’re using and where they can improve. “We want to see where we are with each show, and we’re creating three-year plans for reducing plastics at our events,” Thompson says. “We’d like to have that available this fall.”
Plastic will also be an area of focus in Thompson’s role as president of the International Federation of Boat Show Organizers and the group’s Rethink Plastics campaign. “There is a logo; we’re just trying to come up with the messaging to communicate,” she says. “We want to have that messaging at shows, followed up by, This is how we’re reducing waste at this event, so do your part.”
Several companies joined with the NMMA at the Miami show for a Sustainability Village, which created an opportunity to talk with competitors about shared issues. It’s critical for people to feel as if they’re part of a conversation, rather than being lectured, says Malin Schwartz, senior vice president of communication and marketing for Volvo Penta’s global operations.
“It’s important that we all pay attention to this — companies and journalists and private people,” Schwartz says. “We are going to continue the dialogue, but we need to be careful about that voice to make people engaged.”
Costa launched a Kick Plastic Guide and Outfitter Program to get charter fishing outfits — “critical influencers,” Colabello says — to buy reusable water bottles at a steep discount through Costa’s partnerships with Yeti and Klean Kanteen. Costa has 650 guides signed up throughout North America, and more around the world, who talk to clients on the boat about what people can do to reduce single-use plastic.
That type of outreach seems to be resonating with younger generations. “You can see the youth wising up about this issue — so much so that it’s more recognized as a worry among young Americans than climate change,” Colabello says.
As a result, Gen Xers and millennials are demanding that companies take action to conserve and improve the environment, Dammrich says. “Change is hard. It’ll be slow,” he says. “But the more we can just be cognizant of what we can do to reduce use of single-use plastics, I think the better off our industry will be. It’s another way to demonstrate the conservation-mindedness of the industry.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.