NextWave Grows Ocean-bound Plastics Supply Chain

NextWave members—brands, recyclers, converters, and other plastic supply chain stakeholders—have collectively diverted 20,479 metric tons of plastic since 2017. That’s equal to 2.27 billion single-use water bottles. The figure places NextWave at over 80 percent of its 2025 goal to divert 25,000 metric tons of ocean-bound plastic—which is typically defined as trash that’s within 50 kilometers (or 31 miles) from a water body.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

June 11, 2024

6 Min Read
Artem Evdokimov / Alamy Stock Photo

Ocean plastic pollution is projected to triple by 2040, but a collaboration of multinational companies called NextWave, founded by nonprofit Lonely Whale and Dell Technologies, aims to change that trajectory. NextWave members—brands, recyclers, converters, and other plastic supply chain stakeholders—have collectively diverted 20,479 metric tons of plastic since 2017. That’s equal to 2.27 billion single-use water bottles.

The figure places NextWave at over 80 percent of its 2025 goal to divert 25,000 metric tons of ocean-bound plastic—which is typically defined as trash that’s within 50 kilometers (or 31 miles) from a water body.  

Players who have joined the initiative have set out to put the material to use and grow a robust and far-reaching sustainable supply chain. NextWave members have made more than 330 products from would-be ocean-damaging trash that would be near-impossible to recycle even if it were pulled from the ocean—plastic begins to degrade in warm, wavy water fairly quickly.

Among sustainable innovations born from the program are products in HP and Dell’s PC portfolios, office chairs from Herman Miller, a water bottle cage sold by Trek Bikes, and packaging from consumer goods giants the likes of Unilever and Coca-Cola.

NextWave was formed to support companies interested in using ocean- bound plastics in their products and packaging but who were new to this work. The idea was for them to be able to confer with other corporations also drawn to this newly emerging concept, says Emy Kane, managing director, Lonely Whale.

The program provides a forum where they join forces to discuss shared challenges. They explore resin types; how to convert ocean-bound plastics for specific applications; and they contemplate responsible sourcing. Lately conversations have turned to policy developments, especially European Union laws requiring them to understand the whole supply chain.

It’s all about working together to get smarter faster in order to scale for meaningful impact, says Michael Sadowski, executive director of The Circulate Initiative. The environmental nonprofit stepped in June 2023 as NextWave convenor to manage the program with Lonely Whale. Circulate had some experience under its belt. Founded in 2018 its focus is on ocean plastic pollution and building equitable economies in emerging markets.

It takes an entrepreneurial mindset to push forward, but forging unchartered territory means that not every project plays out as envisioned. Maybe a resin bale does not work for its original intended purpose but ends up well suited for another member’s application.

“So even when things do not pan out as expected there could be an actionable lesson to share, and a win in the end. [NextWave members] are a group of people truly talking about how to put ideas into practice,” Kane says.

Globally, about 20 million informal waste workers are the driving force behind recycling.  In countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam these front-line workers pick plastic from dumps and city streets, placing their safety and overall welfare at risk.

With these concerns in mind, NextWave members developed a downloadable tool, the Social Responsibility Framework.

“This was members rolling up their sleeves to create guidelines to help brands and other organizations evaluate human rights conditions [in emerging economies] and to provide for the social responsibility of all workers. They recognize that you can’t solve plastic pollution unless you solve issues that are at the base of emerging markets. You have to take care of the people who are doing the work,” Sadowski says.

NextWave member Heng Hiap Industries (HHI) is a plastic recycling company in Malaysia. The operation converts plastic scrap into industrial materials for 38 export markets.

“When Malaysia was listed as one of the top ten ocean-polluting countries, our team decided to combat marine pollution by extending our integrated collection network to intercept plastic waste before it reaches the ocean. Our goal is to remove Malaysia from the top ten ocean polluters list,” says Kian SEAH, CEO of HHI.

“Instead of simply producing plastic products faster and cheaper in a linear model, HHI, as a member of NextWave, has gained a seat at the table where we and other members are putting the required thought and effort into designing circular and sustainable products for global brands,” SEAH says.

Humanscale manufactures chairs incorporating fishing nets pulled from the ocean.

“Mismanaged plastic can be found everywhere, but with the oceans having an outsized impact on all life, it seemed like the most urgent place to start.  And we focus specifically on fishing nets because they’re the most harmful kind of ocean plastic. They damage coral reefs and wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem for decades, maybe even hundreds of years,” says Jane Abernethy, chief sustainability officer, Humanscale.

Ocean plastic is proving more expensive than alternative plastics. There’s labor involved in recapturing and cleaning the material. But going this sustainable route is worth the investment in the company’s view.

“This project shows that if manufacturers can think about materials creatively and use otherwise damaging “waste” as the inputs to production, we can be a part of the solution to some of today’s environmental challenges,” Abernethy says.

Humanscale’s products have piqued other manufacturers’ interest; a few have followed suit and now make similar chairs.

“So, we are scaling up the amount of plastic taken out of the ocean. It’s exciting and rewarding to see the impact grow,” Abernethy says.

The concept of NextWave evolved from a vision of Dell. In 2017, the tech company started exploring potential uses of plastic waste otherwise headed for the ocean.  But it was clear that there was no established supply chain for the material. That gap was Dell’s impetus to team with Lonely Whale to set the wheels in motion to develop a commercial-scale supply chain for ocean-bound plastics. It was a natural fit, Dell was already working with one of Lonely Whale’s cofounders who served as the corporation’s social good advocate.

Oliver Campbell, director and distinguished engineer, Client Product Group Sustainability, Dell Technologies, points to four core elements that went into creating the collaboration:

1)Establishing a member-led organization to assure full support and responsiveness to company requirements as members worked to scale.

2) Prioritizing transparency and collaboration on technical topics such as plastics processing and alignment on supply chain topics like human rights and material quality standards.  

3) Building out a global reach since ocean-bound plastics impact every corner of the world.

4) Establishing a membership mix of companies of all sizes across multiple industries to accelerate learning and supply chain growth.  

Looking ahead, Campbell says: “NextWave’s partnership with The Circulate Initiative opens more collaboration opportunities to advance our sustainability goals. We are also excited about NextWave closing in on its goal of 25,000 tons of diverted ocean-bound plastic by the end of 2025. We are very close to reaching what is an ambitious and challenging goal. These are exciting milestones in NextWave’s evolution.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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