Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Oceans apart: the case for plastic-free water

Apr 17. 2017
Kevin Brown, chief supply chain officer at Dell.
Kevin Brown, chief supply chain officer at Dell.
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WORKING in supply chain management for twenty years, much of my career has been marked by plastic. At Dell, we’ve scaled efficient methods of sourcing, and recycling plastic in both products and packaging.

In February, we reached our 2020 milestone of recycling 50 million pounds of post-consumer recycled plastics and other sustainable materials into Dell products. Despite this experience, I had minimal understanding of the negative impacts plastics have on our ocean health.    

Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy but are also likely to be used just once and then discarded. In places that lack recycling infrastructure, the plastic eventually makes its way to our ocean. As floating trash, plastic photodegrades into toxic micro plastic. These tiny pieces are small enough to mingle with plankton, the organisms at the base of the food web that support many fish and whale species. Marine life today is riddled with these noxious particles that will outlast them by centuries.

The scale of the problem is almost inconceivable. Each year, at least eight million tonnes of plastics find their way into the ocean – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If this carries on, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight). Consider that – more plastic than fish. 

Food chain contaminants: Like I have had to explain to my 10-year-old daughter, when birds or fish ingest the plastic in the sea, these little creatures die of starvation while their stomachs bulge full. Meanwhile, plastics travel up the food chain. 

The science shows that degrading plastics are more likely to attract contaminants and pass endocrine disruptors and carcinogens further up the food chain. Tests have already shown ingestion causes tumors in lab animals. The prognosis for people is also likely to be grave. 

There’s a financial price to pay as well. Plastic causes $13 billion of damage to the marine environment each year according to the UN, which affects the fishing, shipping and tourism industries. This figure doesn’t factor in the colossal financial implications for the health sector.

We all know that cutting out fish from our diet isn’t the answer. What is the answer is that this matters – to our kids and our economy – and we have the power to change this fate. 

Recycling ocean plastics: Asia is currently the global economic powerhouse that drives the world economy. However, the region also drives the world’s environmental problems where it is home to the most polluted cities and oceans. As much as 60 per cent of ocean plastics come from Asia, largely coming from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. According to a report by Oceans Conservancy in 2015, with a concerted commitment to reducing waste, the global ocean plastic leakage will reduce by approximately 45 per cent over the next 10 years. 

From a corporate standpoint, with sufficient intervention and collaboration across sectors, we can stem the plastic tide. At Dell, we undertook a feasibility study to determine if we could use ocean plastics in our consumer packaging. The success of that study has enabled us to create a commercial-scale supply chain dedicated to collecting and recycling ocean plastic for use as a packaging material.

To start, we are using recycled ocean plastics in our packaging for the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. This switch helps us fulfill our mission to keep packaging out of the waste stream and within the circular economy. We estimate that in 2017, the pilot will keep 16,000 pounds of plastic from entering our ocean. This figure will climb quickly as we develop and expand the supply chain to include other Dell products and it will continue to grow as we work across industries to scale our research with suppliers and customers.

Sharing best practices:Getting to this point has been a significant undertaking (ten months to be exact), but we’re happy to share our blueprint so others can achieve the same, if not more, with greater ease. Why? Because we will only make a real difference if other companies join the cause to reduce ocean plastics. Speaking candidly, we don’t care if in five years’ time no one remembers who shipped the first ocean plastics packaging – only that there was a 100th, 1,000th, 10,000th company to do so.

At The Economist’s World Ocean Summit in February, we joined world leaders across sectors to collaborate on what it will take to create an infrastructure in real hotspot areas, where plastics are being spewed into the sea at exponential rates. It will take a commitment on the part of businesses, governments, NGOs and the communities themselves to work on changing attitudes and behaviors related to the behaviors that create the trash problem. We will have to work together as well to find the resources and invest in the solutions that can bring the ocean plastics back into the economy. We hope you will join us.

Key learnings – how to build a commercial-scale supply chain in ocean plastics:

Strategy: When we embarked upon the initiative we wanted to clean-up parts of the ocean. Through talking with ocean researchers and scientists, we discovered we could be far more effective preventing plastics from entering the water and breaking down into microplastic pieces.

Intelligence gathering: We used global information systems (GIS) coupled with population data and satellite imagery to assess landfills’ geographic adjacency to rivers and coastal systems. This created a targeted list of locations where large quantities of plastic debris was likely to be entering the ocean. Hotspots included areas along the coasts of China, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and The Philippines. 

Sourcing: We concentrated our feasibility study in Haiti in part due to the dire need for intervention and its pre-existing network of trash collectors. We then educated the collectors on the types of plastics that we were looking for, how the plastics should be sorted by color, cleaned and compressed for export or shredded to create a denser material. 

Refining: We experimented with different blending ratios and discovered that mixing 25 per cent recycled ocean plastics with 75 per cent recycled HDPE plastics gave us safe, durable packaging conducive for molding. 

Labelling: We can control many aspects of the supply chain but once the packaging arrives in people’s homes and offices, we rely on them to recycle safely and responsibly. To try to prevent the ocean plastics packaging finding its way back into the water, each tray is stamped with a recycling symbol, and a website to educate customers about the packaging.

Business case: While there is a clear sustainability case for what we’re doing, to ensure long-term commitment, it has to make economic sense, too. In the case of ocean plastics, we are already seeing cost savings over other recycled-content plastics and anticipate costs to continue to come down.

KEVIN BROWN is the Chief Supply Chain Officer at Dell. 


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