Adam Lowry: Can we put ocean plastic on the shelves?

Sensemaking / Adam Lowry: Can we put ocean plastic on the shelves?

The co-founder of Method shares his thoughts on packaging, aesthetics, and the 4x4 of laundry...

By Anna Simpson / 19 Jun 2013

Sacrifice doesn’t make for success

I used to be a climate scientist. I spent four years at the Carnegie Institution, and learned two things. First, that we were preaching to the converted. In the late 90s, the only people listening were already concerned about climate change. And second, that every ‘sustainable’ brand I bought asked me to make a sacrifice. The earth is dying and you need to save it, they’d say, so buy this inferior product that smells bad, is brown, doesn't work and is too expensive… I couldn’t think of a consumer brand in history that had been successful based on sacrifice!

We went for the ugliest and most toxic product

Before Carnegie, I’d worked in the business sector as a product designer, and my core belief was that people shouldn’t have to choose between their environmental values and their aesthetics. I wanted to set up a business that everyone could interact with: not luxury items, but everyday products for everyday people. So, when my friend and Method’s Co-Founder Eric Ryan noticed that the ugliest and most toxic products in the grocery store were in the cleaning category, we made changing that our goal.

PCR packaging is impossible, they said

Packaging is crying out for radical change. When it comes to plastic, there are billions of tonnes of it already in circulation, but other brands reject post-consumer waste as a material. For one thing, the consumer doesn't care enough about it, and it’s also hard to source. Coca-Cola used to have the world’s largest plastics recycling plant in South Carolina, but they shut it down and turned instead to virgin plastic from sugar cane. When we set out to design a bottle from 100% post-consumer recycled material (PCR), we were told it was impossible – especially if we wanted clear, high quality bottles in vibrant colours. True, when we first started looking into it, we could only get brown, dingy ones. We had to go right back to the plastics curbside collection systems and push for the contaminants turning it brown to be removed, and then help refine the recycling process, to get the right grade of resin to make bottles that are 100% PCR, and yet as clear as the virgin plastic ones.

Everyone gets overwhelmed by ocean waste

Recycled packaging isn't a very compelling story for consumers, though, which is why I started thinking about ocean plastic. Everyone who learns about this issue gets overwhelmed by it: these tiny bits of micro-plastic that gather in huge islands and get swallowed by birds and fish, then enter our food chain… What if we could take some of it out of the ocean and put it on the shelves of a national retailer? That would make a good come-back to any excuses: if Method can turn something that’s been floating in the ocean for a decade into a useable bottle, then PCR packaging isn’t impossible. So, in many ways, when we made a bottle out of ocean plastic, it was a device to get the conversation started. We don’t plan to make every bottle from it: that would not be the most sustainable thing to do.

Jugs are the 4x4 of consumer products

Laundry detergents are sold in big wasteful jugs, which I call the 4x4 of the consumer products industry: they’re very wasteful, and extremely profitable. Their makers want you to overdose on soap, and most people do. But if you could have a perfectly sustainable laundry detergent, it wouldn’t even be our highest concentrate. It’s more likely a system where a single load of detergent lives in your washing machine, and is separated from the dirty water after each cycle to go round again. The water gets recycled too, and the dirt is collected for compost… Ultimately, we'd love our business to be getting peoples’ clothes clean, not selling liquid laundry detergent in packaging of any kind.

Adam Lowry was in conversation with Anna Simpson, Editor of Green Futures.

Ecover is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: NL Architects

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