What happens to all that plastic shrink-wrap after your boatyard crew pulls it off and launches your boat in the spring?
That’s the question the Rhode Island-based nonprofit Clean Ocean Access wants boaters all across the United States to ask as part of its Shrink Wrap Recycling and Life Cycle Analysis program. The program started in April 2019 and just got a boost by way of a partnership with TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based recycler that collects waste and then partners with corporations or municipalities to turn the waste into raw materials and make new things.
“When we looked at it in 2019 in the United States, about 3 million metric tons of low-density polyethylene was made. That’s things like your bread bag, plastic bags—plastic you can stretch with your hands, more like garbage bags than bottles,” says Max Kraimer, project coordinator for Clean Ocean Access. About 4,000 of those 3
million metric tons is shrink-wrap used in the marine industry, he adds—a small percentage, but a tangible one.
“We think that by targeting the culture, we can better relay the information about the recycling industry and the issues of plastic pollution,” he says.
Clean Ocean Access is now deploying about $87,000 from an 11th Hour Racing grant to subsidize and incentivize the creation of a circular economy for shrink-wrap—meaning that used shrink-wrap gets recycled and turned into new shrink-wrap. The idea is to work not only with services that collect the used shrink-wrap, but also to work with waste haulers who pick up the discarded shrink-wrap, squish it into blocks that weigh about 1,800 pounds apiece, and then look to resell the raw material.
The cash injection is needed for this type of circular economy, Kraimer says, because right now, it’s a lot cheaper for companies making plastic products to use virgin materials instead of recycled ones. The program targeting shrink-wrap is intended to level out that economic imbalance as an example of how it might be done on a wider scale.
“About 10 years ago, one of those 1,800-pound blocks, they could sell it for about 15 cents per pound,” Kraimer says. “In 2017 and even today, you can sell it internationally for about 5 cents per pound. If you wanted to sell that in our country, you’re lucky to get 1 cent per pound. So we’re infusing grant money to these waste haulers, as an incentive. We’re helping to provide places where people can drop it off. And, we’re providing the incentive to the waste hauler to actually recycle it here domestically.”
Dave McLaughlin, the executive director of Clean Ocean Access, says that if the nonprofit can succeed where shrink-wrap is concerned, then the marine industry program could become a building block for bigger programs that involve other items made from low-density polyethylene.
“I think the best-case scenario is that we’ll have a prototype that demonstrates a circular economy for this kind of material,” McLaughlin says. “For that to go to scale for all of the material being used, we’re stitching different partners together.”
Kraimer says that nationwide, maybe 10 percent of low-density polyethylene products are being collected for recycling and reuse. A lot of what does get collected becomes composite wood materials that can be used to build things such as park benches, home decks and playgrounds.
The difference between the amount of material being recycled from a single plastic bag and a the shrink-wrap for a single boat is around 30 pounds, Kraimer says. And compared with collection sites at supermarkets for recycling plastic bags, there aren’t nearly as many recycling bins for shrink-wrap.
Some states, including Rhode Island, have had collection programs for more than a decade, he says. But while the collected material might have ended up changed a few years ago, that was not always the case when China stopped accepting plastic waste. Prior to that, China had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste. “The move was an effort to halt a deluge of contaminated materials overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem,” according to Yale School of the Environment.
The change in China meant that even U.S. locations with good recycling programs needed a way to actually recycle or reuse the collected materials.
“What we’re doing is kind of closing the loop, making sure the material that’s being collected is actually being domestically recycled, and then we’re taking it a step further to see how we can turn that recycled material back into shrink-wrap,” McLaughlin says. “In today’s day and age, a lot of what recycling means is ‘I’m not throwing it out.’ We’re trying to change that paradigm to one of responsibility. If you’re paying for it and you think it’s being recycled, it should turn back into the material that it started as.”
To help expand the program, Clean Ocean Access is asking boaters to let the organization know what happens to the shrink-wrap that comes off their boats this spring. Boaters can click on the “get involved” tab under “take action” on the group’s website.
“We want to collect as much information as possible about how these things are happening. Or, if you find out you don’t know—if you’re just paying somebody to take it off your boat, and you have no idea where it goes—we want to know that too,” Kraimer says. “If enough boat owners demand recycling and enough marinas want it, then some waste hauler will want to offer that service, and we can infuse it into our project.”
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.