How TOMRA seeks to combat ocean plastic

Beverage containers – produced and disposed

Working with beverage containers, TOMRA pays attention to what happens to them. And research shows that, every year, more than 1.4 trillion beverage containers are sold, where 500 billion of those are plastic. Of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced every year, only 14% is collected for recycling. A huge 40% of plastic packaging is simply sent to landfill, and 32% ends up in nature as litter.

The International Coastal Cleanup in 2020 surveyed 9422 tonnes of litter from 116 participating countries, and found plastic beverage bottles and caps in the top 3 and 4 types of litter collected. Research has found that plastic bottles release methane and ethylene – powerful greenhouse gases – when exposed to solar radiation or water. It is estimated that a plastic bottle takes 450 years to break down in nature, and the rate of production of these gases increases over time.

All this can be stopped: most plastic bottles are made of PET and HDPE, which are highly recyclable materials. Plastic should not be perceived or treated as disposable, but as a valuable resource.

The impact of plastic pollution

ocean plastic pollution

There are real reasons for concern about what happens when plastic leaks into the environment. At least eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, the equivalent of one garbage truck per minute. There is estimated to be more than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the oceans.

The plastic pollution ending up in the oceans is having a devastating effect on marine life. Plastic waste kills up to a million seabirds a year, and emaciated whales are washing up on beaches with stomachs full of plastic. Microplastics consumed by sea life – and the chemicals associated with those plastics – are working their way up the food chain to humans.

Reports suggest that roughly 80% of all plastic waste found in our oceans comes from land. Ocean and shoreline clean-ups can have an impact on the plastics and litter already in waterways and oceans, but ultimately the world needs to find ways to “turn off the tap” on land – to stop plastics getting into the oceans in the first place. That is why plastic pollution is particularly close to TOMRA’s heart, and where TOMRA seeks to contribute through enabling proven solutions to litter like deposit return systems.

Getting in the loop

A discarded plastic bottle is double waste: not only does it end up polluting nature or landfills, but it also loses its opportunity to be recycled again and again into a new bottle.

 image of kids with reverse vending machines

When a used bottle is returned to a TOMRA reverse vending machine for recycling, often as part of deposit return systems, it is kept separate from other kinds of waste and avoids contamination that might make it more complex and costly to recycle. With the container materials remaining pure and of a high quality, they can be turned back into another plastic bottle in a “closed loop”. This means the material can more easily stay in the loop rather than getting downcycled or thrown away; it also reduces the need to extract virgin oil resources to produce new plastic bottles. TOMRA calls the continuous cycle of bottle-to-bottle recycling “Clean Loop Recycling”, and we are striving for as many beverage containers to be kept in the Loop as possible. Currently only 2% of all the world’s plastic packaging is recycled in a closed loop.

TOMRA captures over 40 billion drink containers each year for recycling through its approximately 80,000 reverse vending installations across more than 60 markets. “Seven out of every 10 reverse vending solutions worldwide are produced by TOMRA – but our over 40 billion collected containers only represent 3% of global beverage packaging sold, so there is much more that we can do together to divert containers from landfill and nature,” explained Head of TOMRA Collection, Harald Henriksen. “This number has to improve to meet future demand for recycled material and to keep used beverage containers from ending up where they don’t belong.”

TOMRA also provides solutions for sorting mixed waste for recycling. This technology sorts all types of plastic materials, and can also sort the materials by color to provide pure sorting results and pure end products (such as PET, PE etc.). These sorted materials are then further processed and recycled by our partners.

How else TOMRA seeks to fight plastic pollution

The key way that TOMRA strives to fight plastic pollution is through the very work we do each day: our collection and sorting solutions that make sure these plastic materials are seen as resources that remain on land (and out of streets and landfills), where they can be put to future good use.
TOMRA also wants to go above and beyond “just doing business”, in order to truly have an impact on plastic pollution. Here are some of the further ways that all of TOMRA is seeking to raise awareness of marine plastic pollution and fight its spread:

  • Circular Economy division: The TOMRA Circular Economy team was established in January 2019. As the only company that can offer a holistic solution for waste management, TOMRA is strongly positioned to develop new methods, processes, technologies and business models, aiming at accelerating the transition to a truly circular economy, and making sure nothing goes to waste.

image of young women on a boat

  • eXXpedition sponsorship: Since 2018, TOMRA has sponsored and joined the science advisory board for “eXXpedition”, an all-female sailing voyage focused on researching and raising awareness of microplastic pollution in the oceans, including in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Women from the TOMRA team have also rolled up their sleeves and got on board as crew members to work on the mission.
  • World Cleanup Day and the All Together Global Cleanup: In September 2020, TOMRA’s 4500 employees in 80 markets organized clean-ups with their offices, reaching the company’s goal of picking up 50,000 pieces of litter from their communities. Clean-ups on land and in waterways can prevent litter from moving further out toward the oceans. Although they are not the only solution to marine plastic, clean-ups are necessary because of a much larger problem: how plastic is ending up in oceans in the first place. Designing packaging for recycling and having the infrastructure in place to collect and recycle can help stop the flow of plastic pollution into our streets and oceans.
  • Holy Grail testing: TOMRA Sorting Recycling is working with Digimarc to trial a new technology that could increase recycling rates, by scanning digital watermarks embedded in plastic packaging, invisible to the human eye. Both the quality and quantity of recycled material can be improved and lead to more plastics being brought back into the loop, instead of ending up as waste in landfills and nature.
  • Calls for plastic pollution treaty: In October 2020, TOMRA backed calls for a United Nations treaty on plastic pollution, as one of 29 businesses across the world signing on to an international corporate manifesto. The manifesto calls on governments worldwide to reach a global environmental agreement to address global plastic pollution. The call for action comes ahead of the fifth session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (February 2021), which offers a pivotal opportunity to adopt a formal negotiations mandate for an international agreement.


Awareness of plastic pollution has sky-rocketed and the world has truly woken up to the plastic waste crisis. Consumers are demanding action from brands, governments are introducing legislation to manage and prevent plastic waste, and business is rising to the challenge to reduce waste and meet targets. TOMRA is dedicated to reducing plastic pollution on land and at sea, both through our everyday work and exploring new ways to contribute. We seek to create changes in attitudes and behavior that motivate recycling, and raise awareness of the environmental consequences of plastic container waste. Join us by getting in the loop.

ocean plastic infographic