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How Ikea and HP want to help keep plastic out of the ocean: make stuff from it

The two companies are the latest members of a coalition called NextWave Plastics, which is committed to finding uses for recycled plastics.

How Ikea and HP want to help keep plastic out of the ocean: make stuff from it
[Photo: HP]

If you buy an ink cartridge from HP, some of the plastic might have come from bottles collected on streets and canals in Port-au-Prince, Haiti–intercepted before they could end up in the ocean. Since 2017, the company has worked with local collectors to gather more than half a million pounds of plastic in the area, keeping around 12 million plastic bottles out of the Caribbean.

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It’s one of a growing number of companies incorporating ocean-bound plastic into its supply chain. Today, HP announced that it is joining a coalition of those companies called NextWave Plastics, founded by Dell and the nonprofit Lonely Whale last year. Ikea also joined today, and plans to make its first prototypes out of ocean-bound plastic by the end of 2019.

“Everybody needs to step up [to solve the problem of ocean plastic], including business, and I see no reason why business shouldn’t be leading,” says Ellen Jackowski, global head of sustainability strategy and innovation for HP.

[Photo: HP]
An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, or the equivalent of a garbage-truck-size load every minute. One piece of the solution is, obviously, putting less plastic on the market; earlier this year, Ikea committed to phasing out the single-use plastic items that it sells by 2020. But it’s equally important to find ways to capture the flow of plastic entering oceans now, particularly in China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, which dump more plastic waste into the sea than the rest of the world combined.

HP began working in Haiti in partnership with Thread, a company that works to turn plastic bottles into a material that brands like Timberland have used for making clothing and shoes. The process brings fairly paid jobs to the area and helps compensate for the lack of municipal recycling.

[Photo: HP]
This plastic, like the plastic that flows to the ocean in countries like Vietnam, can be challenging to work with, says Jackowski. “Most of the waste just lands on the ground,” she says. “It makes its way into canals and out into the ocean. It’s sitting outside in the elements. It’s filled with mud, there’s salty air, lots of sand–very different properties compared to what you might buy, for example, off the American recycled plastic market.” HP now plans to share what it has learned about how to work with the material in its supply chain with other companies in the NextWave coalition, such as Ikea, which is just beginning to explore how it might use ocean-bound plastics.

[Photo: Shawn Heinrick]
“We want to make sure that we test it all the way to make sure that it actually works, and not just look at the potential,” says Lena Pripp Kovac, sustainability manager, Inter IKEA Group. Ikea’s new prototypes will go through its standard design process. “It goes through all the steps–whether you can source it, whether the designer can use it, whether it fits all of our democratic design principles. That’s what we want to test.”

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Other companies in the coalition have used plastic headed for the ocean, or plastic already in the ocean, in products from skateboards to carpet tiles. Humanscale recycled old fishing nets from the ocean into an office chair.

“The key is for us as a society to see plastic as value, not as waste. Today everybody sees it as waste. How do we drive enough demand that people see plastic as value and not something that you want to throw away?” says Jackowski. “Plastic’s a pretty amazing material. We’ve gotten a little carried away with it. So how do we put in the right processes in place in our society so that there’s enough value that we continue to reuse it rather than create more?”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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