In this episode of NothingWasted!, we chat with Ryan Schoenike, co-founder of OceanCycle. OceanCycle is a social enterprise that is reimagining the circular economy through sourcing, certifying, and reusing materials to prevent ocean plastic pollution.
The company has developed an industry-leading certification to trace material from grassroots collection through manufacturing — and works directly with processors, material aggregators, and manufacturers.
We spoke with Ryan about the importance of policy in tackling the ocean-plastics issue, the challenges related to low-value plastic, extended producer responsibility and more.
Take a look at what was discussed:
Waste360: How did you get started with your efforts of taking plastics out of the ocean?
Schoenike: If I were to trace back my roots of being interested in waste and pollution, it would go back to the sixth grade. Back at that time, one of the major environmental issues people were worried about was that landfills would fill up with bags that never went away. So, some of my classmates and I started a reusable-lunch-bag program. We made and sold reusable bags, and students could use those instead of single-use bags. So I guess you could say I’ve always had an interest in environmental and sustainability issues.
With ocean plastics in particular, it began for me really around 2015. I saw the study from Jenna Jambeck about how much plastic was in the water, how it got into the water, and it got me even more interested in the issue. One of my first efforts was an eyewear company with a friend where we made sunglasses out of ocean-bound plastics. From there, I began to work in the industry more and more and ultimately ended up where we are at OceanCycle.
Waste360: Please tell me more about what OceanCycle does.
Schoenike: We’re a public benefit corporation, meaning we are a company established with a social mission. We have a double bottom line driving the core of our activities, and our main mission is to reduce plastic pollution flowing into the ocean. We have approached that problem in a number of ways, but what we’re most known for is our development and operation of chain-of-custody certification for ocean- and ocean-bound plastics.
The way the certification works is that we certify recyclers in developing countries; we work with them to trace their material down to point of collection and then develop a document and chain of custody from there up through production, processing, and shipment. We focus on plastic waste collected from within 30 miles of a shoreline, in areas that lack a formal waste-management system. So, everywhere we are working there is only informal waste management that’s not organized by a local or national government.
The other piece of OceanCycle is that we will interface directly with brands that are looking to use ocean-bound plastics in their products. We can help them with messaging, story development, engaging in the communities where the waste is collected and more. We don’t make or sell any products ourselves, so we are a third party in the space.
Waste360: How important is that work you do on the ground in these coastal communities?
Schoenike: It’s the most important. Everything starts with the people on the ground collecting the waste. Often times, those are people living on the margins or using plastic waste to make their entire living. So it’s really important that we know what’s going on in those communities, and also give back.
Waste360: What do you say to critics who say that ocean plastic is not a U.S. problem?
Schoenike: Well, the U.S. is the number-one consumer of plastic, and right now we only recycle less than 10 percent of it. And listen, plastic is important, especially in communities where there isn’t potable water. But it certainly is a U.S. problem. It’s something we’ve brought to the world, and we are responsible for helping them deal with the waste.
Waste360: How has the pandemic affected your work?
Schoenike: In many ways. We haven’t been able to travel to the communities we work with. And initially, the demand for material dropped, which means that people who collect the plastic to make a living didn’t have the opportunity to sell as much—or things were shut down for a while. We did our best to support them with food and protective gear. So it has been more difficult for the folks on the ground, but as we appear to be coming out of the pandemic, the interest in these materials is exploding for sure.