Testing the waters with ocean-bound plastics

West Paw, a U.S. manufacturer of dog toys, beds, leashes, collars and treats, launched Seaflex pet toys that incorporate 12.5 percent ocean-bound plastics.

West Paw's Seaflex product line
West Paw's Seaflex products feature 12.5 percent ocean-bound plastic.
Photo courtesy of West Paw

Sustainability is something most companies strive for today, but for West Paw, a Bozeman, Montana-based manufacturer of dog products, being sustainable “has been part of its DNA” since it began operations in 1996.

Today, the company focuses on dog products; but, when it started, Spencer Williams, owner and CEO of West Paw, says the business sold products such as organic catnip.

“We were ahead of our time, looking for the most sustainable materials,” Williams says. “At that time in Montana, you could hardly buy organic lettuce. Our sustainability and environmentally friendly credentials started then. We developed business practices to reduce [our] environmental footprint and generally promote the environment and social stewardship that we think every company should uphold.”

For instance, the company developed its Zogoflex material—a thermoplastic elastomer used into dog toys—to be recyclable, bisphenol A-free, phthalate-free, nontoxic and Food & Drug Administration compliant in the early 2000s.

The company also offers a recycling take-back program, called Join the Loop, for its Zogoflex products—consumers can either mail back Zogoflex products to be recycled, or they can take them to participating pet retailers' Zogoflex collection sites. These retailers will then mail the toys back to West Paw. To date, about 200 retailers across the U.S. participate in the program. The company offers a retail locator on its website to help customers find participating stores. 

Products recycled through Join the Loop are inspected for damage to help the company continue to improve the design of its toys. The end-of-life toys are sanitized and ground into 1/8-inch plastic pieces that can be recycled.

This month, the company takes its sustainability efforts a step further with the launch of Seaflex, a line of safe, nontoxic pet toys that include a blend of 12.5 percent recycled ocean-bound plastic and the company’s zero-waste Zogoflex material.

Ocean-bound opportunities

Williams says the idea to develop a dog product line that incorporates ocean-bound plastic came back to the company’s original vision to offer sustainable products. He says he wanted to come up with a solution to help solve the issues caused by plastic pollution.

“We were looking both for what would be ultimately the safest, most durable product that could be the best for the planet,” Williams says. “Ocean-bound plastics seemed like an opportunity.”

The ocean-bound plastics incorporated into Seaflex are recovered from within 30 miles of a coastline, beach or waterway, he adds.

Developing a line of dog products that incorporates ocean-bound plastics was challenging, though. Williams says West Paw had to ensure that the development of Seaflex was robust and safe. Through testing, the company determined 12.5 percent was the right ratio of ocean-bound plastics to be blended with Zogoflex into the product line.

“Materials we want to harvest from ocean-bound areas have slightly different chemical properties than our Zogoflex. So, for making a custom plastic that will be really safe and durable as a toy or home goods product like a bowl, it is important to have a certain amount of rigidity as well as elasticity and durability,” Williams adds. “When testing different percentages, we found a sweet spot on durability and flexibility at around 12 percent. That was the right blend.”

Another challenge in development was ensuring West Paw had a secure supply chain of ocean-bound plastics. To secure ocean-bound plastics for its Seaflex line, West Paw partnered with Los Angeles-based Oceanworks, a global marketplace for sustainable materials. 

“Oceanworks specializes in hard-to-access diverted plastic sources from around the world,” Williams says. “They supply our compounder of plastics with ocean-bound resins.”

Rob Ianelli, founder and president of Oceanworks, says his firm provides a network of suppliers—mainly independent scrap processors—to brand owners looking for ocean-bound plastics. “We work with processors to identify the waste streams to authenticate our chain of custody and tracking capabilities and software to help get materials validated so they can be presented to a global buyer. We focus on working with suppliers that have a large capacity and precise machinery and strong business that has chain-of-custody documentation,” he says.

Ianelli adds that Oceanworks also partners with Intertek to determine the quality of the material his suppliers are offering.

Although Oceanworks sources material globally, Williams says that firm secures material that came from coastal parts of North and Central America for West Paw because those locations are closer to West Paw’s facility in Montana.

Ianelli says Oceanworks has partnered with hundreds of other brands since his company started in 2016. He says the Seaflex product developed by West Paw is innovative because of its durability in addition to recyclability and use of recycled content.

“It’s an incredible innovation,” he says. “We give credit to West Paw for the vision and parameters for a successful rollout. West Paw was adamant that it was important for them and their customers to incorporate ocean-bound plastics in this product. That’s why they moved quickly, and their marketing of this has been excellent. They created a plastic product with a story—when West Paw presents [Seaflex] to consumers or retailers, it’s not just a dog toy with recycled ocean plastics; it’s a dog toy with measurable impact on the environment.”

Williams says West Paw has plans to increase the use of its Seaflex product line into other categories in the future. The company also plans to keep expanding the number of retailers and stores that are part of Join the Loop.

“We think it makes sense to take care of the environment with the products we buy,” he says.

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