Seeking a Plastics-Free Ocean

By Lars Trodson : Friday 01/27/17

Peter Mitchell is the co-founder of a new non-profit called Ocean Notion, which is dedicated removing plastic from the ocean, as well as reducing its use in the manufacturing of containers.

Peter Mitchell is the co-founder of a new non-profit called Ocean Notion, which is dedicated removing plastic from the ocean, as well as reducing its use in the manufacturing of containers.

Fifty years ago this year, young Benjamin Braddock, the uncertain anti-hero of the movie “The Graduate,” was given one word that was presumably the key to his future: Plastics. 

The grandchildren of that generation are beginning to feel differently. Peter Mitchell, son of island residents Tom and Kathleen Mitchell, has co-founded a new initiative called Ocean Notion that is designed to not only clean plastic out of the ocean, but also to reduce its use.

Ocean Notion started, Mitchell said, with ocean cleanups that he and one other co-founder, Tristen Rodgers, undertook as undergraduates at the University of Rhode Island. (There is a third co-founder, Martin Naro.)

“We saw this as a huge problem, but every time we went back, there was as much trash — or more,” Mitchell said. “We weren’t making a large enough difference.” Even recruiting more friends for the monthly cleanups was deemed not enough. This led to the founding of Ocean Notion in January of last year. The company achieved its official non-profit status four months later. Since July 2016, Mitchell said, their efforts have raised more than $125,000, along with some important local and global corporate sponsorships. 

The list of trashed items found at the beach is almost too diverse to mention. “We’ve found tires, coats, shoes, gloves, a rusted bicycle, bottles, cans, marine plastics,” said Mitchell.

The problem with plastic specifically, said Mitchell, is that it breaks down much in the same way that a rock grinds down into sand. A plastic bottle can break down in micro-plastic particles that can not be retrieved by netting or anything else. Micro-plastics are a menace to wildlife, said Mitchell, citing Midway Island in the Pacific where the leading cause of death among the bird population is fine plastic.

That’s why, after starting as a marine cleanup effort, the company has switched gears to monitor companies that may use substandard practices when it comes to the use of plastic, or in its method of recycling the products.

Even with decades of public awareness campaigns on the harm that pollution causes, Mitchell said it was “definitely frustrating” that littering is still such a massive problem. It is one of the reasons why Mitchell is opening a branch in Germany to start working with companies there about their use of plastic. “We’re going to combat it at the source,” he said. 

Ocean Notion is also going to start what Mitchell called a “plastic points program,” which is similar to carbon credit programs that allow companies with a large carbon footprint to offset that output in other ways 

“Companies that use plastic will be offered a way to buy ‘plastic points’ from us to help clean up the ocean,” said Mitchell. 

But he also said we need to think differently about this product. It’s still cheaper to make new plastic containers than to create them from recycled products, in part, he said, because of lobbying efforts on behalf of plastic manufacturers. It will take a shift in current thinking to use different material for containers other than plastic.

“We’ll be working with these corporations to change this outlook, showing them that to spend their money on innovation is worth it even if it cuts into your profits,” said Mitchell. While plastic is recyclable, Mitchell said, the technology to do so is still substandard.

Still, Ocean Notion is not abandoning its roots. The group is planning a cleanup out on the island, including an effort to get rid of some of the large marine debris on the west side that will require an all-terrain vehicle to remove. Mitchell said they hope to bring out the ATV for the cleanup, which is not yet scheduled. The island receives marine debris in the Gulf Stream coming up from Maryland and New York, he said.

“This is why we want to make a difference. Ocean conservation groups don’t do well in targeting the young generation of people,” said Mitchell, who is 21. “We want to educate the generation that will be the next generation taking over the corporate fields.”

It isn’t a problem that will go away by itself.

“Once you create plastic, there really is no way to get rid of it,” Mitchell said.