Redesigning Plastics Initiative

The Problem 

Plastic can be found in thousands of products as a solution to basic engineering and technical challenges (lighter components in vehicles, planes, vessels, and packaging to reduce energy use and carbon emissions; medical protection and sanitation; reducing food waste and breakage of containers etc.).

Unfortunately, it is now found in snow fall in the Arctic and in the Alps, in the salt spray from the waves that crash on our shores, in agriculture soils, and throughout the water column in our ocean. Microplastic has been found in seabirds, fish, shellfish and even in corals and other animals. It fills stomachs and body cavities causing starvation that can be fatal. Some waste plastics become a source of entanglement or choking causing injury and death.

Despite this, investment in plastic production capacity is increasing, its uses are becoming increasingly more complex, and the problem of plastic waste is growing.

The Ocean Foundation’s Solution 

The Ocean Foundation will pursue science-informed national legislation in plastic-producing countries to require reengineering of the chemistry of plastic itself, redesigning of plastic products, and limiting what is made from plastic. Our Initiative will move this industry from Complex, Customized and Contaminating to make plastic Safe, Simple and Standardized.

We recognize that there are plastic applications of genuine value to society even though plastic is harmful in its manufacture, use, and disposal. We identify those uses that are most valuable, necessary, and beneficial and ask how to reinvent them so that they can continue to be used without harming human and environmental health.

We will Identify and Develop Original Science.

In the nearterm, The Ocean Foundation’s focus is set on informing this initiative by laying the best scientific foundation. We are actively seeking scientific partnerships to bring the following solutions to fruition.

 Together with policymakers, scientists, and the industry, we will:

  • RE-ENGINEER the chemistry of plastic to reduce complexity and toxicity–making plastic simpler and safer

Various plastic products or applications leach chemicals into food or drink when exposed to heat or cold, affecting humans, animals, and maybe even plant life (think of smelling plastic gassing off in a hot car). In addition, plastic is known to be “sticky” and can become a vector for other toxins, bacteria and viruses. And, new studies suggest bacteria may be transferred across the ocean via plastic pollution in the form of floating bottles and marine debris.

  • RE-DESIGN plastic products to reduce customization–making plastic more standardized and simple

Over 90% of all plastic is not recycled, or cannot be recycled. It is too complex and often too customized to contribute to the circular economy.

Manufacturers mix polymers (which come in a multitude of formulations), additives (such as flame retardants), colorants, adhesives and other materials to make different products and applications, or just to include advertising labels. This often means that products are made up of various layers of plastic film that turn otherwise recyclable products into unrecyclable single-use pollutants. These ingredients and layers are not easily separated.

  • RE-THINK what we make from plastic by choosing to limit plastic production only to its highest and best uses–making a closed-loop possible through reuse of the same raw materials at the end of use

Legislation will outline a hierarchy which identifies (1) uses that are most valuable, necessary, and beneficial to society for which plastic represents the safest, most appropriate solution that has near-term and long term benefits; (2) plastics that have readily available (or readily designed or designable) alternatives to replaceable or avoidable plastic; and (3) pointless or unnecessary plastic to be eliminated.

Together with policymakers, scientists, and the industry, we will set priorities through a Plastics Hierarchy:

The outline of a plastics hierarchy will identify three levels of plastics:

  • Essential needs–uses that are most valuable, necessary, and beneficial to society for which plastic represents the safest, most appropriate solution that has near-term and long term benefits
  • Limitations and phasing out of some products–plastics that have readily available (or readily designed or designable) alternatives to replaceable or avoidable plastic
  • Eliminate from production–plastics categorized as products of providing least benefit and/or causing considerable harm

For those applications of plastic that are harder to replace, we will look for applications that can be phased out over time by concentrating on research and development through the lens of simplicity, utility, and end of life. Ideally, these will be plastic products that provide a valuable function over decades, rather than years, and do not have equivalent substitutes or alternatives. These should be strictly purpose-limited and made with the greatest possible recycled content (ex: construction needs such as plumbing, wiring, rain gutters, window casements, furniture, and appliances).

The implementation of a hierarchy will include alternatives that do not exacerbate the problem, consider “Just Transition” strategies, engage Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), and recognize industry leads.

The Ocean Foundation’s solution will ensure…

  • Plastic is used only in products and applications that provide a benefit to society.
  • Plastic will be made from simplified polymers and ingredient mixtures using standardized formulations so that the products will better lend themselves to integration of plastic into the circular economy.
  • Green chemistry concepts will eliminate concerns about toxicity of plastic products.
  • The harm from production, use, and disposal will be minimized or eliminated and any plastics produced will not enter the waste stream and will be fully converted to usable resources.

Thus, we will shift the conversation from why plastic has become so problematic as harmful pollution, to how plastic is being made and what it brings to society.

Join The Ocean Foundation in redesigning the way plastics are made, and what products are made from plastic, and invest in a sustainable future.

Click here for more information on our Research page.

Additional Resources

Plastic trash on beach after beach cleanup

Redesigning Plastics Achievements

redesigning plastics initiative summary

The Ocean Foundation’s Redesigning Plastics Initiative Summary highlights our achievements to date.