A diverse group of experts have created a supply chain collaborative that could solve one of the biggest sustainability challenges facing the planet: ocean plastics.

“I want my music to create an emotional response to the current state of our oceans,” says Garth Stevenson, a Canadian film composer who was part of the recent Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit in the North Atlantic Gyre. “The music should underscore the devastation and urgency while still offering the public and those working in the field a sense of hope for solutions that will lead to healthier oceans for future generations.”

Stevenson goes on to explain that as a musician, the most important skill is being able to listen deeply to other musicians you are creating with. If a musician is a virtuoso but can’t listen to others, their growth and potential for new ideas will be greatly limited.

Last month, the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit brought together a large group of exceptionally talented individuals, true virtuosos in their respective fields.

We Can Solve the Ocean Plastics Crisis If We Work Together

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We Can Solve the Ocean Plastics Crisis If We Work Together

Video by Angela Klose

On Board at the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit

On board were corporate representative from companies including HP, GE, Colgate-Palmolive, and three of the top five consumer packaged goods corporations in the world: Nestle (No. 1), Procter and Gamble (No. 2), and Coca-Cola (No. 4). Three of the largest packaging companies in the world, accounting for $15 billion in annual sales, were also present: Berry Global, Sealed Air, and Novolex.

As John Hocevar, Ocean Campaign director at Greenpeace, noted, “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.”

For Hocevar, the crux of this issue is whether companies and governments will recognize that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem and must get serious about source reduction. “We can’t keep making trillions of items a year that we use once and throw away, out of material that essentially lasts forever,” he says.

We cannot recycle our way out of this problem

As these and other corporate representatives teamed up with scientists, visionaries, thought leaders, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to design solutions during the four-day summit, it became clear that no one company or person can solve the problem. The solution requires partnerships and a collaborative effort where many different points of view are considered.

“What impressed me most about this group was how they listened to each other with the same depth as a master musician,” says Stevenson.

That’s why there is hope that the plastics levels in the ocean could return to the level before the 1990s in 10 years. Most of the plastic trash in the ocean comes from seven rivers in Asia, and it travels around the world collecting in five giant ocean gyres. Just a 20 percent per annum reduction in materials flowing into these rivers could do the trick.

One of the solutions is to provide people living along these rivers with the infrastructure to collect and sell plastic to be recycled and integrated into the supply chains of producers and manufactures. That could reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean by 80 percent.

 All Players Present at the Supply Chain Collaborative

The Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit is a supply chain collaborative that was the brainchild of Dave Ford, CEO and founder of SoulBuffalo, a new model for collaboration that brings together business leaders, visionaries, and innovators to find solutions to big sustainability challenges facing the planet.

“Partnerships were critical to bringing the project to life,” says Ford. SAP and Dow Chemicals helped convene the expedition while media sponsors National Geographic and Outside Magazine; programing teams from Hatch, Ideo, the Meridian Institute, and Resilience in Action; the Government of Bermuda; and scientific institutions such as One Ocean and 5 Gyres all gathered around the table with the NGOs and corporate executives.

The idea of bringing an entire value chain together to solve a problem like ocean plastics came out of a conversation Ford had with Jim Sullivan, head of the Global Sustainability Innovation Accelerator at SAP, and Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability director at Dow, as they felt it could accelerate change at scale bringing all the players to the table. When a ship called the Resolute became available, the mission was a go.

“My favorite book became Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way,” says Ford, referring to the effort it took to pull this summit together. “We had 20 of the largest plastic purchasers and manufacturers in the world on the mission. We also had more than 50 Fortune 500 companies tell us no for a number of reasons.”

Some companies did not want to take the risk of being associated with a first-of-its-kind event. Others were shy of the media presence on board, and some were wary of activist NGO participation, including Greenpeace.

“While many companies said no when they found Greenpeace would be there, many others joined when they found out we had activist NGOs in attendance,” Ford explains.  “We think their participation helped give the summit authenticity. To pull off a truly authentic event we needed to have all perspectives represented, from industry to conservation.”

The floating design lab at sea had a clear agenda. Day one was dedicated to surveying current realities across the plastic supply chain to understand the entire ecosystem. Day two was for setting targets through partnerships and new connections. Day three was for charting the course ahead with key actions and personal and professional pledges.

Participants worked in teams on key concepts, including a database to house cross-sector plastic data, eliminating non-essential single-use plastic, minimizing plastic packaging, zero waste for retailers, chemical recycling, small-format recycling, material cycle management, community recycling, and new markets for plastics.

All these engagements involved a lot of listening and many discussions.

Serious Resolutions Come out of the Summit

At the end of the summit, major commitments were made, including a few that could have an enormous impact:

  • Some of the largest producers and sellers of plastic committed to using 50 percent recycled plastic in their products before or by 2030
  • Major brands and NGOs formed a coalition to engage retailers in eliminating plastic waste in packaging
  • A group of 20 brands, producers, recyclers, and NGOs – including the World Bank – will develop an economic policy to create incentives for using post-consumer versus virgin resins
  • Waste picker organizations will form a global alliance

Dow Chemicals and SAP are also deeply committed. Dow Chemicals is already leading a $1 billion global alliance to end plastic waste in the environment, and SAP has also revealed a bold new vision to help eliminate ocean plastics pollution by 2030, following the creation of a “Plastics Cloud,” first launched at the London Design Festival last year.

According to Stephen Jamieson, head of Sustainable Business Innovation for SAP in the EMEA North region, the issue in the emerging markets is the lack of waste management infrastructure and investment, which is linked to the dysfunctional supply and demand economics of secondary materials in emerging markets. Brands need recycled content, but they are not connected to the sources of supply nor are they set up to engage with the waste picker community in an ethical, compliant way.

Tools like the Plastics Cloud can help tackle these issues in several ways.

First, it can create a new marketplace for recycled plastics and connect big brands and waste picker communities in an ethical, consistent manner through Ariba Network, leveraging its 3.8 million subscribers. Second, it can drive best practices in responsible production, emanating from Northern Europe to all parts of the world. Third, it can connect startups and investors and help them understand the market opportunity for scale out into the markets most needing infrastructure. And third, it can engage consumer preferences for sustainable products and help encourage demand for recycled content in products.

Acting on the Urgency of a House on Fire

Musicians, executives, artists, and bankers all have the same gut-wrenching reaction when they see the plastic problem up close.

Ovie Mughelli, former National Football League (NFL) champion, environmental spokesperson, and founder of the Ovie Mughelli Foundation, puts it neatly in a nutshell: “I’m involved, because like everyone else who has kids, I want the best possible future for them.”

Plastic is so pervasive that if we as a society do not act collectively as if our house were on fire, our children will not know the wonders of a clean ocean and healthy, awe-inspiring marine life.

The leaders who gathered at the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit on the Resolute to address this burning issue have committed to delivering immediate and measurable impact. They developed a shared action framework to coordinate efforts, minimize negative impacts, and identify new opportunities. And finally, they are bringing hope to a situation that is not only breaking our hearts but threatening our very existence and the future of the planet.

Experts like Ford and others on the boat fear we are running out of time to reverse the negative impacts of ocean plastics and climate change. But they also hope that the momentum and outcomes from the summit will prove that this type of can act as a catalyst for accelerated change.

Review the full report from the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit here.