Preserve on Purpose: Recycling Ocean Plastic into Products
By Polina Pinchevsky | March 5, 2020
Growing up in suburban Western Massachusetts, Eric Hudson always enjoyed the great outdoors. So although his professional life started in the finance and consulting industries, it’s no surprise that his love for the natural world inspired him to take a sharp professional turn toward preserving the environment.
It all started in the early ’90s, when Eric began to learn and understand the consumer recycling landscape. Right away, he noticed a gaping void. While a lot of people were recycling, most manufacturers were not taking the steps to turn those recyclables into new products. Eric saw the opportunity: to get people who were committed to recycling excited about buying beautiful products made from their recycling efforts.
So in 1996, Eric founded Preserve, a company (and Certified B Corporation!) dedicated to transforming the plastic that’s already out in the world into everyday necessities — toothbrushes, tableware, and more. Since the 1990s, Preserve has also forayed into compostable kitchenware as well as products for the food services industry — cutting boards, mixing bowls, measuring cups and more.
But Preserve isn’t satisfied to just hang its hat on the consumer and commercial goods success. When we chatted with Eric, we got to learn about his company’s exciting new project — two years in the making — Preserve Ocean Plastic Initiative (POPI).
POPI is specifically committed to protecting and preserving the oceans by rescuing plastic that is at-risk of entering the ocean from coastlines and waterways. We love witnessing how dedicated Preserve is to living its social-impact Purpose. Read on to learn how Preserve is staying the course to combat this enormous problem, managing limited resources, and finding Purposeful partners along the way.
Purpose-Driven from Day One
From the very beginning, more than 20 years ago, Eric had a clear Purpose and vision for Preserve. It’s known that plastic is harmful to the environment, birds, wildlife and even people, yet plastic continues to be produced and a major part of our daily lives.
When Eric found Preserve in 1996, he knew that stopping plastic use was impractical. But, the company could commit to making sure we reuse the plastic that’s already been produced, thereby cutting back on the need to make brand-new, or “virgin,” plastic. Preserve does this by transforming yogurt cups and take-out containers into well-designed toothbrushes and tableware.
Letting Purpose be the Guide
Preserve’s latest initiative, POPI, started at the beginning of 2018 when a small group of five team members began researching the plastic waste ocean crisis. This small team wanted to find out where Preserve might be able to help, and figured it out by asking three questions:
- What is Preserve’s origin?
- Where do we have the most expertise?
- Where should we focus?
The answers led them down a path of prevention (keeping plastics out of the ocean) versus remediation (what to do with plastic once it’s in the ocean). The team was inspired to take action when their research uncovered startling statistics like 150 million metric tons of plastic is in the ocean, and 8 million more tons are added every year and 93% of the plastics that find their way to the ocean from rivers come from only 10 major rivers. These facts made the Preserve team hone its focus on preventing plastic from entering the ocean (rather than removing it once it’s there).
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With over 20 years of experience in making products from recycled materials, Preserve is uniquely positioned to tackle this challenge: how to recycle plastic waste items that are making their way into oceans? The problem is, plastic that has been sitting in water is degraded, making it more difficult to repurpose into new products. And besides, Preserve’s vision is to do more than sell products. So when they created POPI, they made a commitment to selling sustainable products from ocean trash and supporting innovative organizations that have a positive impact on ocean health.
Preserve opted to donate 25% of profits from sale of its POPi razors and toothbrushes to their nonprofit partners. Why “only” 25%? Because Preserve wants to make a substantial impact and be sustainable. At this stage, donating more than 25% could jeopardize Preserve’s ability to invest in its longevity, ensuring that the B Corp will be here to keep making an impact, 20 years and more from now.
Enter: Purposeful Partners
POPI’s success can’t be separated from its partnerships. Thanks to organizations that share Preserve’s dedication to improving the health of and reducing human impact on the oceans, POPI is able to make an impact. As they say, it takes a village.
After extensive research, the Preserve team decided to financially support two nonprofits that are helping with the ocean crisis, Renew Oceans and 5 Gyres. They also have a U.S.-based material partner called Envision Plastics.
- Renew Oceans is a nonprofit partner based in India. Preserve was inspired to partner with Renew Ocean because of its focus on ocean health and practical application of technology to stop the flow of plastics into the ocean. Renew Oceans uses what’s called “catchment netting” or “surface level nets” to stop the flow of plastics down riverways.
- 5 Gyres is a nonprofit partner focused on advocacy to get more of the U.S. population motivated to make a difference when it comes to plastic in the ocean. Eric says he and his team have long been inspired by its work studying the harmful impact of plastics in the ocean and how plastics affect marine life.
- Envision Plastics supplies Preserve with ocean plastic to create POPI products. Preserve made a point to have a U.S.-based supplier that sources recyclable plastic from the Americas, because the logistics of shipping plastic recovered in India would lead to too many carbon emissions. Envision gathers its plastic via what it calls “pickers” — people who pick the plastics out of tributaries and small streams to prevent them from getting into rivers and oceans.
The Power of (B Corp) Community
We would be remiss not to mention this critical part of POPI’s success: the support from fellow B Corp Grove Collaborative, a key partner that distributes Preserve’s products. Grove Collaborative took a leap of faith and helped fund POPI by prepaying on orders and products – before the products existed and before Preserve knew how to make them!
Advance payment like this is super rare, especially in the retail world, which is known to be a cut-throat industry. But with Grove Collaborative’s support, POPI was able to launch without having to pour time, energy, and money into finding a funding partner or going the route of a Kickstarter campaign.
“What was exciting to us about the POPi line was the extension of our plastic reduction goals in not only avoiding and collecting ocean-bound plastic – but turning that plastic into durable new products that would also raise consumer awareness around the issue.” —Danielle Jezienicki, Grove Collaborative
Insights — and a Word of Caution — from the Field
Bringing POPI and its products to market was not smooth sailing. It’s been in development for over three years, and its future is uncertain. Will the products sell well enough to sustain the initiative, allowing Preserve to expand their impact and advocacy work? Will they be able to create all of their products using recovered ocean plastic as raw material? We hope so, but there are no guarantees.
This is what impressed us the most from our conversation with Eric: The Preserve team didn’t let the risk intimidate them, and they aren’t giving up. When they decided to tackle ocean plastic, they could have easily said, we are a small company and this problem is too big. Instead, they forged ahead — and this is just the beginning.
Eric ended our chat by sharing powerful advice for other Purpose-driven organization looking to launch a Purposeful campaign:
“Do what you are focused on from a mission-driven standpoint with laser sharp focus. Because someone else will come in and solve the other problems of the world. The more you try to solve several, multiple problems at once, the more likely you’ll be less effective.”
It’s inspiring to see a B Corp with an unwavering focus on its Purpose expand its impact through a brave new campaign. POPI is a great example from a company that has mastered using business as a force for good — to protect the land, the people, and now, the water.
Do you have a favorite company that’s using Purpose as its guide for new initiatives? Tell us about them in the comments below!
Credit: Top photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash