12 Jun 2019 - Last month, 162 people from very diverse walks of life boarded a boat to join the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit (OPLS) in the North Atlantic Gyre -a circular system of ocean currents. They were on an experiential research expedition to better understand the scope of plastic pollution and to develop cross-industry solutions and partnerships to solve this global challenge over the next decade.
Organized by SoulBuffalo, the immersive experience was designed to put decision makers where they could see and feel the consequences of the plastic scourge firsthand. According to the California-based Oceanic Society, Between 4 and 12 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year—enough to cover every foot of coastline on the planet! And that amount is expected to more than double in the next 10 years
But ocean plastic is a problem we can solve. We know how to pick up garbage, and we know how to recycle it. According to Ted Siegler, a resource economist who spent 25 years working with developing nations on garbage, the problem is building the necessary institutions and systems to do it before the ocean becomes irretrievably a thin, lifeless soup of plastic.
Not a fish in sight
The OPLS group included producers, manufacturers, brands, recyclers and waste worker representatives. There were financial experts, scientists, and storytellers like National Geographic, researchers, thought leaders and innovators ranging from C-level executives from companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Dow Chemicals to NGOs like Greenpeace, WWF, and Ocean Conservancy.
Whenever the ship approached clumps of sargassum seaweed in the gyer, the participants would stop their meetings and presentations and jump into zodiac boats with their snorkeling gear.
They didn’t see any fish all day. And at first, they didn’t see much plastic either. That’s deceptive because it’s not visible on the surface. Plastic in the ocean breaks down into small particles that are caught in seaweed and ingested by marine creatures.
“What you don’t see is the real problem,” says Michael Groves, CEO of Topolytics, a data analytics business for waste managers who was part of the expedition. He explained that while trawling over a distance of one kilometer, the boat picked up 76 pieces of microplastic just under the surface.
Multiply that by the amount of microplastic in the water column going down to a depth of 2.5 kilometers, and the immensity of the problem becomes apparent.
As Virginie Helias, chief sustainability officer at Procter & Gamble noted, “addressing the plastic problem in our oceans today is everyone’s responsibility – including the companies that produce and use much of the plastic in the world today.”
John Hocevar, Ocean Campaign Director at Greenpeace, agrees.
“The people on this boat represent companies that are responsible for a very large portion of the planet’s plastic footprint, so we have the people here who can really solve the problem of plastic pollution,” he says. “We already have quite a few companies that are focused on end of pipe solutions like recycling and consumer education, but what we need is more people, companies and governments taking responsibility for the production end.”
Hocevar believes we really can’t stop plastic pollution until we stop making so much of it in the first place and says that most companies aren’t even aware of how much plastic they are producing. A starting point for a company is to assess its plastic footprint, and then set targets to reduce it.
But there is some good news. A number of sustainable brands like Procter & Gamble are stepping up their circular economy initiatives to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic and other resources, and many more are taking steps to join the journey.
Dow Chemicals, one of the expedition sponsors of OPLS, recently announced it will help lead a $1 billion global alliance to end plastic waste in the environment.
Jim Sullivan, who leads SAP’s global sustainability innovation accelerator and helped organize the expedition, noted that in order to solve a global crisis such as this, we need open, occasionally uncomfortable, dialog with a diverse set of stakeholders. We also need a multi-industry systems approach which can identify trade-offs with other global challenges such as climate change to avoid unintended consequences. And we need common metrics to prioritize the most consequential activities and track progress towards aspirations such as zero plastic waste in nature by 2030.
Conserving versus consuming
But there is no one single solution or company that can solve this issue. Partnerships and scaled solutions like the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit are a crucial part of the future we need to invent.
As a first step, perhaps it’s worth harking back to “the original conflict of interest between Indigenous people and Industrial people which is stewardship of the earth, water, fire and air.” According to Patricia Anne Davis, Navajo Wisdom Keeper, that ownership conflict is still on-going today.
Indigenous people were stewards of these elements since the beginning of humanity while Industrial people trashed the planet within just one or two centuries. This disconnect is no longer sustainable and must be stopped in the interest of every human on the planet today.
“We need to switch from consuming to conserving,” says Damien Johnson who was at the summit representing the SAP Office of Innovation for North America. Johnson believes the solution is twofold: first, we must halt the introduction of new waste plastics and second, we must improve recycling processes of existing waste material.
“Plastic usage was driven by innovation in the field and a desire to improve the customer experience. Now we must use technology and innovation to maintain the experience but remove the single use plastics,” he concludes.
One of the problems with plastic waste is that is doesn’t have market value... yet.
In many countries like Brazil and India, traditionally, street collectors have been picking up metal, rags and paper to resell for recycling. But many plastics have been ignored because they had no resale value.
“The crazy thing is that companies that want to use recycled plastic are having trouble finding it on the market,” says Padmini Ranganathan, SAP Global Vice President, Products and Innovation.
That’s why Ranganathan and her team are onboarding organizations like Plastics for Change onto the SAP Ariba Network to help integrate the informal waste-picker economy into more formalized supply and demand systems for secondary materials.
“We need to integrate plastic waste into the supply chain system, so it doesn’t disappear in the illegal sector, as the waste workers work hard to segregate and convert waste to value,” warns Ranganathan.
The long-term solution requires a system change - both in the material flow system and the digital systems.
“The ERP and business processes, but as the plastics supply chain is transforming itself, we need to leverage digital systems that are agile and adapt to change,” said Ranganathan.
Tech and teamwork
While ocean plastic pollution is an enormous issue, these experts believes that if governments, NGOs, consumers, and businesses team up, it can be solved in ten years. That’s because most of the plastic enters the ocean through five rivers in Asia, so reducing plastic materials in rivers by just 20% over the next seven years would revert to ocean plastic levels to those of the 1990s.
The technology to fix this exists today. Companies that are sustainable brands play a huge role in the solution. They are transforming their businesses with circular models that enable consumers and producers to refuse, reduce, reuse, re-purpose and recycle. Bringing together business, governments, NGOs, and ocean conservancy groups, it is possible to create a holistic solution for a sustainable future.