Upcycling is the new recycling

Method, maker of home care and personal care products, has figured out how to take plastic from the ocean and recycle it into new bottles for their products. This is cooler than it first appears.

Even though researchers predicted trash would collect in the north Pacific Gyre in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until Charles J. Moore, returning to California from Hawaii after finishing the 1997 TransPac race, sailed right through the Pacific garbage patch, that ocean plastic emerged in the public eye.

By now, the often cited “garbage patch twice the size of Texas,” is the well-known culprit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of marine animals each year, but scientists are just beginning to dig into the implications of plastic components like polymers making their way into our food supply through the sea animals that eat them. (Styrene monomers cause cancer, but that’s another story.)

There has been no shortage of efforts to remove the plastic from the ocean, and turn our plastic waste into constructive things before it hits the ocean. Moore and crew launched the JUNK Raft in summer of 2008, sailing from California to Hawaii, through the garbage patch on a vessel made of an old cessna fuselage and 15,000 plastic bottles. David de Rothschild and crew went one further and pulled off the brilliant Plastiki expedition in 2010, sailing a boat made of 12,500 plastic bottles – the amount consumed every 8.3 seconds in the US according to the website – from San Francisco to Sydney. Hug It Forward has leveraged kid power in Guatemala to build 12 schools out of plastic bottles. The City of Taipei went bigger and built the EcoARK out of 1.5 million recycled plastic bottles. The list goes on, and they’re all awesome.

Now Method has shown that creative use of recycled plastic is more than an attention-getter — it’s part of a successful business model. (They were in Target stores nationwide within 2 years of launching, and were the 7th fastest growing private company in the US in 2006.)  They’ve teamed up with beach clean up orgs in Hawaii to gather plastic that landed there from the Pacific Gyre, ship it to their recycling partner Envision Plastics, and recycle it into bottles for their products.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart, writers of Cradle to Cradle, said that recycling often is not really recycling but downcycling – giving an object one more go around on its way to the land fill. True recycling is when something can be reused at the same level without degradation, indefinitely, like when Patagonia takes your old clothes and makes…more clothes.

Upcycling – taking something and transforming it into a higher quality or function, is even better. I would say taking bits of plastic that have floated their way to beaches in Hawaii, and turning them into bottles for Method products — eco-friendly hand wash, fabric softener, etc — qualifies.

End note from Method: “The point, of course, is not to clean up the Gyre. The scientists who study this problem will tell you there is no practical way to clean it up; the area is just too remote, and the plastic too small. The goal is to raise awareness about the issue of plastic pollution, and to point us toward the solution already in front of us – using the plastic that’s already on the planet.”

Yes that is a diaper in your parking space

The new Refuse Redistribution plan is brilliant. And this Memorial Day was a testament to its success.

For those readers that haven’t heard, the leadership of Southern California cities have banded together in a heroic effort to reduce the immense amounts of trash going into our landfills. The plan: use well established travel and recreation patterns of Southern California residents to redistribute the trash to the streets, and more importantly, beaches, of coastal towns.

Memorial Day was the perfect day to launch the campaign, not only because it is the de facto opening of the summer beach season, but because of America’s strict adherence to keeping the memory of those who fought and died for this great country at the forefront of our awareness on this drunken holiday.

What better way to memorialize our country’s unsung heroes and patriots than by showing our commitment to being good stewards of the community and giving our all to the Refuse Redistribution plan?

I only have one complaint: we didn’t think big enough. Several pieces of trash per square foot across the entire coastline of Laguna Beach is not insignificant, but if we are going to keep up with our voracious, almost incomprehensible appetite for disposable products and their accompanying packaging, we are going to need to step it up. We are going to need our trash per square foot ratio to hit the triple digits. That’s right, hundreds of pieces of trash per square foot is the only way forward.

I know what you’re thinking – I forgot about recycling. Not so. A long walk on the beach this evening made it clear – your fellow citizens are doing their part to lighten the load on our compatriots at recycling centers across the region. There were water bottles, Starbucks to go cups, sunscreen tubes, sandals, buckets, balloons, Styrofoam cups and plates, plastic knives and forks, plastic bags, glass bottles, and other assorted plastic flotsam everywhere.

Heisler Park, gateway to our city's marine reserve.

I only have one other small complaint: most of the trash was too close to the waterline. As the tide comes in, which it did a few hours ago, our collective waste was mostly washed away, carried by the currents toward other beaches and coastlines further afield, and eventually to the great garbage patch in the North Pacific Gyre. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great method of disposal. Its mode of transport – ocean currents – has a low carbon footprint, and it’s far from shore where no one will see it. But that is actually the counterintuitive problem here. If all the trash is washed away within a few hours of it’s deposition at our shoreline, it won’t serve as a reminder to future beach visitors of our efforts. If we simply put the trash a little higher up from the water line, it will stay with us longer, and stand as a small memorial to the great work we all did on this Memorial Day.

So next time you come to the beach, please, remember those who fought for the freedoms we all enjoy, bring as much trash as you possibly can fit in your vehicle, and put it on the beach, but well above the mean high tide line.

It’s a cycle, not a stream










Shot today, just north of Main Beach, in the Heisler Park Marine Reserve.

Plastic bags and bottles. Bottle caps, forks, wrappers and packaging. Plastic lids of to-go cups.

We throw away tons and tons of them.

Wading through a plastic beach. | Photo courtesy 5Gyres.org

This CNN report shows the unaccounted for cost of plastic production, which is still going at full steam, despite free plastic bag bans in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Mumbai, Italy and…that’s right…China. Its funny it took us this long to figure out how to bring our own bags to the grocery store. What about that cup of joe this morning? Bring your own mug?

Photo courtesy mistersustainable.com

If you thought the North Pacific Gyre was an anomaly, unfortunately it’s not. High concentrations of plastic have been documented in all five major gyres: North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean. Plastic is out there, slowly swirling into floating dumps thousands of miles across. (Here’s what it does to sea birds.) And we are the source of it.

I know Laguna Beach is not responsible for the trash that has been washed down from up stream – our beaches would be a lot cleaner if it wasn’t for the recent flood. But we’re up stream from someone else. And it’s not a stream, it’s a cycle. The flood has shown us what other parts of that cycle, beyond our sight, look like.

Kudos to Zero Trash Laguna.

How cool would it be if organizations like that were obsolete?