How to Create a Plastic-Free Ocean in 10 Years

Last month, 162 people from very diverse walks of life got on a boat to join the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit (OPLS) in the North Atlantic Gyre. 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 the right decision makers where they could see and feel the consequences of the plastic scourge firsthand.

Ocean plastic is not a problem we can’t 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, storytellers like National Geographic, researchers as well as thought leaders and innovators ranging from C level executives from companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, P&G, and Dow Chemicals to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Greenpeace, WWF, and Ocean Conservancy.

Whenever the ship approached clumps of sargassum seaweed in the gyre, 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 that was part of the expedition. He explained that while trawling over a distance of one kilometer, the boat picked up 76 pieces of micro plastic 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 more apparent.

Accepting Responsibility

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.

Adidas, for example, is now manufacturing shoes made from ocean plastic. They were invented by John Warner, a founder of green chemistry who was part of the expedition.

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.

Creating Value

One of the problems with plastic waste is that is doesn’t have market value. Yet.

Traditionally, in many countries, like Brazil and India, street collectors pick 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, global vice president of Products and Innovation at SAP.

That’s why Ranganathan and her team are onboarding organizations, like Plastics for Change, onto 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. She goes on to explain that the long-term solution requires a system change – both in the material flow system and the digital systems. “As the plastics supply chain is transforming itself, we need to leverage digital systems that are agile and adapt to change.”

Tools and Tactics

According to Stephen Jamieson, head of Sustainable Business Innovation for SAP in the EMEA North region, tools like the “Plastics Cloud” can help tackle the issue of single use plastic 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.

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 lastly, it can engage consumer preferences for sustainable products and help encourage demand for recycled content in products.

While ocean plastic pollution is an enormous issue, these experts believe that if governments, NGOs, consumers, and businesses team up, it can be solved in 10 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 percent over the next seven years would revert 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.