How can something as small as a mouse make a such big impact in Microsoft’s commitment to sustainability? It all starts with plastic water bottles and the desire to make positive change.
According to the National Ocean Service, scientists estimate there is more than eight million metric tons of plastic found in the ocean. By 2050, one study estimates there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. The environmental impacts are staggering. For the product and engineering teams at Microsoft, trying to figure out how to utilize this plastic waste in a new way represented a major undertaking.
The start of what eventually would lead to the development of the Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse, which is now available for pre-order, sprang from a series of questions asked by a dedicated group of individuals across several teams determined to crack a difficult challenge.
“The team wondered, why couldn’t we make a resin out of plastic in the ocean and make a dent there?” said Patrick Gaule, senior designer on the Windows & Devices design team. “We started formalizing this idea. What type of resin? What kind of product? We came up with a plan to look into it. We were sure it was going to be very hard. We weren’t sure it was going to work.”
Plastic resins are made by heating hydrocarbons until they are broken down into smaller molecules. Synthetic plastics contain polymers as a backbone ingredient. Polymers consist of repeating covalent bonded units known as monomer residues. These polymers have specific characteristics that are utilized in applications like water bottles, caps, packages and other everyday plastic materials. Polymer resins in pellet or bead form are then put into molds to create products.
As part of Microsoft’s commitment to achieve zero waste by 2030, the group received an internal sustainability grant to begin developing the material, and quickly zeroed in on using ocean plastic as the material for the resin in the mouse’s external shell. There are several products on the market that utilize material made from ocean-bound plastic, which is collected from approximately 30 miles from a waterway or coastal area. However, it would be a groundbreaking step to use ocean plastic, which is defined as plastic that has been certified by a third-party as recovered from any ocean or ocean-feeding waterways, or where it washed ashore from those locations, to create the resin.
“We wanted to do something that’s different,” said Corinne Holmes, director of environmental compliance, Windows & Devices. “I don’t want the clean stuff. We wanted to push the bar. This plastic wasn’t from a collection bin sitting on the beach. It was recovered out of a river. It’s dirty. It was sitting there for six months, not three weeks.”
The collected ocean plastic presented a challenge for the engineering team attempting to create the resin because the material has already started to degrade due to heat, ultraviolet light, moisture and salt exposure. Water bottles are made from a resin known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), more commonly known as polyester when used in fibers or fabrics.
“We needed to provide an engineering solution for the use of water bottles,” said Tony Li, a principal mechanical engineer for Surface devices. “The resin used is polyester, which is good for water bottle applications but not a common material used for consumer electronics. That’s the challenge. All plastics have different behavior. Polyester has higher mold shrinkage, lower heat deflection and the material has higher moisture absorption than other resins more commonly used for hardware enclosures.”
Making the mouse from 100 percent recycled PET plastic was impossible from a chemical composition standpoint because it would not meet mechanical and reliability specifications, so creating a resin blend that combined PET and polycarbonate (PC) plastic was targeted as a solution.
As the project started in late 2019, Microsoft reached out to several of its suppliers to explore recycling options and technical solutions for creating the resin to be used in the mouse. Due to the complexity of the project, which required not only the development of the proprietary ocean plastic but also a complex supply chain to collect, clean and safely transport this ocean waste for upcycling, it was tough to find a supplier willing to take on the challenge. But SABIC, a global leader in the chemical industry, continued to move forward throughout the process, providing invaluable assistance to the creation of the mouse.
“They really bought into the whole project,” Gaule said. “They went out and took on the challenge to find the stock of ocean plastic. They were able to get their leadership to buy in and that shows the power of ideas. It’s about more than business. It’s about being a good global citizen.”
SABIC has been in the business of plastics for more than 50 years, but the nuances required in collecting and creating a resin from ocean plastic were new wrinkles.
“One challenge was what we called the ‘chain of custody,’ ” Director of Electrical and Electronics for SABIC, Mahari Tjahjadi, said. “How do you trace the supply (of plastic) from beginning to end? If we are getting it from the ocean, we want to have that source be certified, and not just by us saying that, but that it is certifiable by a third-party. That’s not something that has been done in the past.
“While the knowledge we have in respect to plastic is extensive, the ocean plastics do raise different issues. Chemical resistance is important. Mouse users may have just eaten something, so they have food traces on their hand. Or maybe they just put lotion on. We had to have the chemical resistance right. If we don’t, after a few months, the mouse would show defects. Then there’s the aesthetics. Getting the right look is easy to say but difficult to do, because when you put different additives in, the chemistry changes. We don’t want it to have a negative impact on the overall product.”
Ocean plastics had never been used in the creation of a product that would be used daily by consumers, at the high-quality standards of Microsoft devices. One wrong click or one fall off a table could spell the end of the mouse if not engineered properly. For example, one of the engineering puzzles was the levers inside the device. Those correspond to a user’s right and left clicks. The plastic must have enough “give” so that the clicks don’t break the levers but are strong enough to withstand even the most click-happy customers.
“It had to go through the complete Microsoft reliability process,” Holmes said. “There were no shortcuts. This was treated just like the regular development program and went through the full gamut.”
The original goal for the Ocean Plastic Mouse was to use 10 percent recycled ocean plastic. But after all the trials and the development of the resin, the exterior shell of the mouse contains 20 percent recycled ocean plastic by weight, or the equivalent of half of a 16-ounce water bottle.
“We’re really proud of the work that the teams have done on breaking through and challenging our assumptions,” said Donna Warton, vice president of supply chain and sustainability, Microsoft Devices. “The team led with purpose and they turned that purpose into intention by setting goals, and then into action. It says a lot about the passion of the people across the Devices business to make this real. It takes a lot of work, and our partners are a critical part of that journey as well.”
All parties involved in the development of the Ocean Plastic Mouse insist this is just one small step on the road to creating more sustainable products and developing a product lifecycle that eventually will lead to the better recycling of plastic materials.
The ocean plastic resin represents a significant development investment, which is usually made to create something exclusively for Microsoft use. In this case, however, Microsoft hopes other companies will use the resin in the creation of their own eco-friendly devices. The goal is pushing the innovation beyond mice and into larger devices. The spirit of competition can be a driving force for good as organizations around the globe seek additional environmentally friendly breakthroughs.
“There’s a lot of pride there, but also a lot of humility,” Gaule said. “This isn’t the be-all, end-all. It’s the beginning of a journey. It’s a moment we can take with our customers and say, ‘Hey, we are really thinking about this and working hard at it.’ This is one example, and we want to do more of this. What I really look forward to is the kind of dialogue with our customers who buy these. I want to hear why they did it, what was interesting about it to them. Because that’s only going to help us going forward.”
Top image: A resin made from recycled plastic water bottles was developed by Microsoft and SABIC and used in the creation of the Ocean Plastic Mouse, which contains 20 percent recycled ocean plastic. Image by Microsoft.