This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Okay, an impact investor, a social entrepreneur and a sea turtle didn’t literally walk into a bar, but the way their lives intersected is no joke.
Three years ago this week, a Texas A&M marine biologist, Christine Figgener, uploaded a video of her team removing a four-inch plastic straw from the nostril of a sea turtle. The evocative video immediately went viral and now has 32.6 million views on YouTube.
The video not only inspired the current activism around plastic straws that has me carrying around paper straws and a law banning plastic straws in Seattle, but it has people thinking about all single-use plastic more critically. That movement has provided a catalyst for impact investors and social entrepreneurs who have solutions to ocean plastic.
Priyanka Bakaya, the CEO and founder of Renewlogy, a company that uses a chemical process to convert even the worst plastics into fuel and Rob Kaplan, the CEO and founder of Circulate Capital, which launched in July with the specific mission to invest in companies that will reduce the flow of plastic into the world’s oceans, joined me for a wide-ranging conversation about ocean plastic. You can watch the 27-minute interview in the video player at the top of this article.
The Ocean Plastic Problem
The problem of plastic in the ocean isn’t limited to an occasional straw up a turtle’s nose. On its website, Clean Water Action reports:
In the ocean, plastic debris injures and kills fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species. The impacts include fatalities as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement.
In 2010, a California grey whale washed up dead on the shores of the Puget Sound. Autopsies indicated that its stomach contained a pair of pants and a golf ball, more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves.
Seabirds that feed on the ocean surface are especially prone to ingesting plastic debris that floats. Adults feed these items to their chicks resulting in detrimental effects on chick growth and survival.8 One study found that approximately 98% of chicks sampled contained plastic and the quantity of plastic being ingested was increasing over time.
The problem is getting worse. Fast. The plastic debris in the Central Pacific Gyre increased five-fold in the ten years ending 2007.
Kaplan notes that this is largely a result of the rapidly growing economies in south and southeast Asia “exponentially” increasing their consumption of plastics without correspondingly increasing their waste and recycling infrastructure.
McKinnley Workman, chief operating officer and co-founder of Lakay Vet, S.A. in Haiti, works to improve waste handling in the Western Hemisphere’s most challenged economy. She says there is a lot of work to do. She explains anecdotally:
Yesterday, I was driving through the city as rain started to fall. It quickly began gushing through the streets and I watched as people made their way into the streets under the rain to dump their buckets or bags of waste. As a poor person, where daily life is a struggle, they gladly watch it wash away with a smile on their face as it’s one less thing they have to worry about. In their minds, they found a free solution to dealing with their waste. Ultimately, all of that water goes straight to the Port-au-Prince bay and eventually makes its way into the worlds global ocean plastic repository.
Workman is cooperating with Bakaya at Renewlogy to deploy the technology there, where all transportation fuel is imported and expensive and single-use plastic that can’t otherwise be recycled for quality reasons is ubiquitous.
Bakaya points to a study that suggests that at current rates by 2050, there will be “more plastic than fish in our oceans.”
“Ocean plastic presents one of the most urgent and fast-growing ecological and health challenges of our time. Our objective is nothing less than to become the leading force behind solving the capital gaps of companies and infrastructure that prevent ocean plastic,” confirms Kaplan.
The China Ban
Last year, China implemented new restrictions on imported waste plastic for recycling. Previously, 40% of plastic from the United States—and much of the plastic elsewhere—was shipped to China for recycling. The new restrictions constitute an effective ban, Kaplan and Bakaya confirmed. The rules require the plastic to be cleaned at a cost that exceeds the value of the plastic.
“It’s really opening up a lot of local opportunities to find domestic solutions to handle this material,” Bakaya says. One of those solutions is the Renewlogy solution that converts plastic to fuel or the feedstock for virgin plastic.
“There’s no question that China’s ban has is revolutionizing the recycling market globally in many parts of the Western world,” Kaplan says. He notes that any time a company or industry loses 40% of its market, a gaping hole is created.
One of the recycling problems that has developed is a lack of consumer demand for recycled products.
“If there were more consumers interested in using recycled content and choosing those products as part of their shopping experience that would build the market and that would increase the demand,” Kaplan says. “There’s a huge opportunity for consumers to incentivize brands and companies and parts of the supply chain to use more recycled material.”
He adds, “I work with many of the world’s largest brands consumer brands and when we ask them to use more recycled content their initial feedback is, ‘No, our customers aren’t interested in it.’”
“Even if you put all of your plastic in a recycling bin or in a recycling system if there isn’t an end market for it then it will not be reused it will end up either in the environment or in a landfill somewhere,” he says, reiterating his point.
Traditionally, recycled plastics are effectively downcycled. Much of the use of plastic is for food containers. Governments regulate what plastics can come in contact with our food and many recycled products aren’t considered safe. That means that recycled products are typically used in less valuable functions than the source plastics.
Although more expensive and energy intensive than other forms of recycling, by converting plastic into the naphtha to make virgin plastic using the Renewlogy process, consumers don’t have to choose recycled products. Better still, the resulting products aren’t technically recycled and can be used for food and medical purposes, allowing even the worst plastics to be upcycled into the highest value ones.
Kaplan points out that contamination of high-quality plastics is also a problem. After good plastics spend time exposed to the environment on land or in the ocean, they can no longer be recycled into top quality products.
The Renewlogy process, and other similar ones, can convert even contaminated plastics into fuel or plastic feedstock, creating an economic value for low-quality and/or contaminated plastic.
Workman says, “In Haiti, most of the plastic that we see every day in rivers, canals, and streets is this dirty plastic that is difficult to recycle and therefore sticks around to eventually be washed into the oceans.”
“Renewlogy has a great solution that makes sense particularly for Haiti because of the type of plastics found and also because fuel is an extremely expensive and unstable imported resource,” Workman says. She adds that implementation of the Renewlogy technology just in Port-au-Prince could prevent 60,000 metric tons of plastic from flowing into the ocean annually.
One of the reasons the Renewlogy technology holds such appeal for Workman is that it allows for the value-adding process to occur in Haiti, which should reduce imports of fuel and keep more profits in the country.
Technology Is Not the Problem
Both Kaplan and Bakaya point out the technology is not the problem.
You know one of the biggest challenges we see is less on the technology side but more on like who’s going to operate this on the ground in Indonesia. Here in the U.S., you’ve got companies that have been operating recycling businesses and waste businesses for decades. We don’t have that in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand and India. There isn’t the local expertise and talent that are ready to put that to work in a way that you know is going to be successful. So that’s a big part of our focus is how can we match our financing and capital with technology like Priyanka’s but also with operators on the ground who can execute it.
Workman is trying to address that problem in Haiti. “we have been working with Renewlogy in conjunction with the Plastic Ocean Project to get a pilot system setup at Lakay Vèt.” By partnering with a local recycling company to source plastic that can’t otherwise be recycled, the technology fills an important gap in keeping plastic out of the ocean. The key is to find a responsible recycling partner.
“I will be the first to say that it’s foolish to rely on just a handful of solutions for such a gigantic and multi-faceted problem like this,” she says. She recognizes the need to implement many different solutions to both clean up the mess “we’ve already made” and to prevent further damage to the environment.
Bakaya, for her part, says, “The technology is actually the easy part, and the real challenge is the logistics of both collecting the plastic and getting the end product to the right place.” She adds that with a ready waste plastic supply, Renewlogy’s technology can produce fuels for $30 per barrel.
Getting investors—like Circulate Capital and The Closed Loop Fund—to invest is another constraint she faces.
Circulate Capital could be described as a spinout of Kaplan’s last company, Closed Loop Partners, which does impact investing in recycling domestically. The Ocean Conservancy is also a partner in the new company, along with backing from 3M, American Chemistry Council, The Coca-Cola Company, Kimberly-Clark, Dow, PepsiCo, Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia, Procter & Gamble and the World Plastics Council.
Diego Donoso, president of Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics, says, “Circulate Capital is the type of active engagement we need to accelerate the implementation of waste management systems with effective recycling processes that keep plastics waste out of the ocean.”
Ron Gonen, Kaplan’s former partner at the Closed Loop Fund, which the latter previously ran, says, “Circulate Capital is the realization of many months of research and planning on the part of Closed Loop Partners and Ocean Conservancy to design a structure that can dedicate the time and resources necessary to tackle the complexity of the ocean plastic problem at scale.”
Steve Sikra, associate director of corporate R&D and global product stewardship at Procter & Gamble, says, “P&G is proud to be part of the Circulate Capital. Just like the Closed Loop Fund, this will address the root cause and help develop the right infrastructure to drive positive change. Working together, we believe we can halt the flow of plastics into the world’s oceans.”
Ben Jordan, the senior director of global environmental policy at The Coca-Cola Company, says, “We are excited to support Circulate Capital and their aim to prevent the flow of ocean plastic. We aim to be a driver of the circular economy as we continue toward our vision of a world without waste.”
Kaplan says, “Our goal is to remove capital as a barrier.” Bakaya sees capital as a constraint for her business. Perhaps there’s a sea turtle out there that could buy them a drink and help them see how they could solve both their problems.
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Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!