Recently I have had many people ask me about ‘ocean bound plastic’. What is ‘ocean bound plastic’ and what does the term mean? Ocean bound plastic is an interesting term and it is used a lot by plastic pollution organisations, in their efforts to combat plastic pollution.

According to online sources, the term ‘ocean bound plastic’ was originally coined by Professor Jenna Jambeck and colleagues in their seminal 2015 paper published in Science. Apparently, the term was used to describe the waste located within a certain distance of the ocean that had the potential to end up in the ocean – ‘ocean bound’. However, the article does not use the term ‘ocean bound plastic’, nor make an attempt to define ‘ocean bound’.

Ocean bound plastic

Empty plastic bottles and other ‘ocean bound plastic’ on a beach.

A search of the academic literature shows an earlier mention of the phrase in 2011 published in the UCLA Journal of Environmental Law and Policy. Article author Grant A. Harse, Associate Attorney in environmental law, wrote “there are also important economic considerations to consider, influencing repair and replacement costs for shops damaged by ocean-bound plastic…”

Although thematically relevant, this does not appear to be the same usage of the phrase as the contemporary iteration. There seems to be no prior use of the phrase in the public domain. So, the origin of the phrase remains a mystery.

What does ‘ocean bound plastic’ mean?

The phrase ‘ocean bound plastic’ has become somewhat of an industry buzzword in recent years. It has been a particular favourite for organisations purporting to clean the global oceans through plastic recovery. The term has come to be defined as the plastic waste within 50 km of the coastline. This number is presumably derived from the metric used by Jambeck et al (2015) to formulate an estimate of the amount of mismanaged plastic generated by global populations living within 50 km of the coastline.

Despite the apparent scientific origin of the phrase, there is, however, no regulation around how this term can be used, what it actually means, or in what context it is applicable.

Misuse of the phrase?

Environmentalist, waste reduction campaigner, anti-greenwashing activist and Chairman of Ocean Integrity Kieran Kelly has described ‘ocean bound plastic’ as having “nothing to do with the environment”, a “good story” and “scheme” backed by “massive marketing campaigns” aimed at deceiving conscious consumers.

Mr Kelly believes many organisations that claim to be collecting ‘ocean bound plastics’ are doing so in ways that most consumers would be appalled by, describing the tactics as “greenwashing”.

One occurrence during the COVID pandemic stood out as being particularly deceptive “they [the organisation] started getting all the bottles from the resorts, the ones from the rubbish bins, they sold the bottles on to get recycled,” Mr Kelly said.

“They charged three or four thousand dollars a tonne for this ocean plastic that was just bottles coming out of the resort,” he said.

Mr Kelly described the practice as “defrauding the general public”, and said “consumers are buying shoes and other products believing that they are made from ocean bound plastic when it is not”.

In another example Mr Kelly described the practice of organisations that sell “social tokens” to consumers that want to contribute to ocean clean-up, particularly in low-income countries. The idea being that each token corresponds to a certain amount of ‘ocean bound plastic’ that is recovered. However, pelletised poly-ethylene plastics that have been recovered from the municipal waste stream, or even recycled virgin plastic, are used in place of environmentally derived waste plastics.

“The customer is charged a premium price for it, they market it as ocean bound plastic, and put it on the package, but it’s not,” Mr Kelly said.

Smoke and mirrors

So ‘ocean bound plastic’ may not be what you think. A product of brilliant marketing and unchecked proclamations of environmentalism grandeur, ‘ocean bound plastic’ has taken a sharp turn away from its initial conceptual meaning. Sadly, many of us are being taken for fools, succumbing to slick marketing and falling for the perception that somebody else has done due diligence on users of the ‘ocean bound plastic’ branding.

For all the organisations out there making a legitimate effort to clean-up the global oceans, there are plenty that are trying to make a quick profit from the ‘ocean bound plastic’ bandwagon. It is time to rethink our relationship with plastic, and take a good look at the organisations that claim to be doing the right thing.