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Robert Goodwin

Emerson Collective Fellowship

Proving more sustainable consumer products are possible with a new plastic alternative.

Headshot of  Robert Goodwin

Robert Goodwin wants to solve the ocean-plastic problem—for good. He is an Air Force veteran who served in Saudi Arabia and Colombia. As a presidential appointee, he held senior government positions supporting humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, peace talks in Sudan, and reconstruction in Iraq. In leadership roles, at global nongovernmental organizations, and at a foundation, he focused on improving access to safe water, childhood education, and public-health programs. 

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he helped establish a nationwide recycling program to reduce the buildup of plastics that was causing flooding and disease. His programs helped clean more than 160 million bottles, and created more than 1,500 local jobs. 

In 2017, he started OceanCycle to replicate what he learned in Haiti to stop ocean-plastic pollution, and to make it easy for companies to scale up their use of collected materials in their products. 

We’ve been told that recycling is the solution for plastics. But that, Goodwin explains, is mostly a myth. Plastic recycling is problematic, with confusing markings for consumers, and improper collecting and sorting practices that ensure that plastics end up primarily in landfills. In poorer communities, many plastics are burned, or leak into the environment, harming animal and human health. Plastic is often collected from unmanaged dump sites that tend to be dangerous and prone to the use of child labor. 

As an Emerson Collective Fellow, Goodwin will build proofs of concept for the plastic alternative, “PHA,” a biopolymer made from used cooking oils that offers the performance of plastic, but without harm to the environment. PHAs are found in our bodies and in nature, and they biodegrade fully. They are home compostable, and marine safe.

Goodwin will work to show that replacing petroleum-based plastics doesn’t sacrifice product performance. By starting with the launch of a PHA filament for 3D printing, he will expose the potential of PHA to consumers and hobbyists, and create conditions for the successful replacement of petroleum-based plastics as PHA production scales.