What is ocean-bound plastic and should you care?

To mark Earth Day 2024, Acer announced a commitment to collect the equivalent of 2.5 million plastic bottles from the coastal areas of Southeast Asia. To achieve this, Acer has partnered with Plastic Bank, a for-profit social enterprise that has developed innovative recycling ecosystems in locations blighted by ocean-bound plastic pollution. 

Should you care about a plastic bottle, potentially thousands of miles away? Are ocean-bound plastics a threat to life? Was Donald Trump the first man on the moon? Read on to learn which one of these questions has no as its answer.

Planet vs plastics

There’s no point in pretending otherwise: plastic is a problem.

Earth Day 2024’s focus was Planet vs Plastics, with a clarion call for a 60% reduction of plastic production by 2040 and a long-term goal to end plastics “for the sake of human and planetary health”. If that sounds a little dramatic, then allow me to give you an example of how far plastics have permeated our lives.

Earlier this year, researchers from the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences published a paper where the placentas of 62 women were examined for microplastics.

Every sample contained microplastics. A 100% hit rate. How did the plastic get there? Wherever you are right now, reading these words, consider that we share and consume the same global resource: water.

Related: A greener supply chain is possible, but it will take innovation

What is ocean-bound plastic?

Imagine standing on the shoreline with your back to the waves. By definition, any plastic discovered within 50km of your location could be classified as ocean-bound. A milk carton shoved in a hedgerow in the middle of an urban conurbation, 49km from the sea, is deemed to be ocean-bound.

It’s an imprecise term that marketeers use to imply that products have environmental benefits, making us imagine that they’ve rescued a mermaid trapped inside a bottle and turned the plastic into a product. It can have little to do with actual oceans. If an industrial plastics factory is within 50km of a coastline, that can also be deemed to be ocean-bound.

However, a bit of marketing twozzle should not detract from talking about the catastrophic amount of plastic that pours into the world’s oceans. In 2017, the UN estimated there were more microplastics in the seas than stars in the galaxy. Meanwhile the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is currently 1.6 million square kilometres – that’s three times the size of France.

Collectively, we’ve poisoned our water supply with plastic, which brings us back to Acer.

Is Acer wasting its time?

Acer’s partnership with Plastic Bank allows it to offset some of its eco-targets. Plastic Bank aims to give value to plastic by incentivising communities to gather plastic from beaches, rivers and urban areas and exchange it for food, health insurance, school tuition and many other services.

Plastic Bank believes that it is offering communities in vulnerable areas a way out of poverty. There’s no doubt that Acer’s commitment, through Plastic Bank, could benefit people who desperately need help.

However, 50 tonnes won’t make a dent in the 19-23 million tonnes of plastic which leaks into the world’s water systems each year.

Related: Samsung vs greenwashing: talk of a better planet needs real action

What happens to the ocean-bound plastic that is collected?

…is the million-dollar question. One of Plastic Bank’s revenue generators is Social Plastic. which is a feedstock of recycled plastic that’s sold to plastic producers. These producers make plastic products, many of which end up in our water systems, until companies like Acer pay for-profit social enterprises such as Plastic Bank to collect the plastic and sell it back to plastic producers.

This sort of recycling is not helpful.

A recent report by the World Resources Institute highlights how ocean health is critical to the health of life on our planet. As I’ve already mentioned, microplastics and nanoplastics which enter our water sources end up inside us. The New England Journal of Medicine’s recent study showed that people that have identifiable microplastics in their arteries are at double the risk of heart attack, stroke and death then those that don’t. Plastic pollution affects all of us.

What do big tech companies need to do?

By supporting Earth Day, Acer is staying true to its Conscious Technology principles and supporting Plastic Bank will improve some lives. However, committing to removing 50 tonnes of ocean-bound plastic is nothing short of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Acer, and all the big tech companies, need to commit to eradicating all forms of plastic from its range, as paying people in poverty to pick up its mess isn’t really something to celebrate.

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Lee Grant

Lee is a long-time advocate for sustainability within IT, with a fierce passion for everyone to have a right to repair. In his day job, Lee and his wife Alison run a computer repair shop, Inspiration Computers, near Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, UK. He's also a contributing editor and podcaster for PC Pro.