When envisioning oceans and beaches, many conjure images of pristine, sandy shores with tropical palm trees. Yet, the reality is that our planet’s oceans are far from the untouched paradises we imagine. They bear the burden of billions of pounds of plastic waste, a menace silently drifting through the vast expanse of waters with a lethal impact on marine wildlife and human well-being.

What most people don’t realize: tackling plastic pollution often starts at sea, yet the solutions begin on land.

I sat down with Emily Penn, sustainability activist and skipper, for the Let’s Talk Data podcast to delve into her personal journey and how companies, regardless of size, can initiate their sustainability vision and translate it into real-world impact.

Over recent years, I’ve seen a significant change occur in the mindset of business leaders as they make sustainability a core aspect of their operations. Companies want to make a difference, but many don’t know where to begin.

Start acting on a circular economy and eliminate waste

“Understanding your own carbon footprint and being able to access that data is crucial because we can’t change what we don’t know,” explained Penn while talking about first steps companies can take to reduce plastic waste.

One of the key opportunities for businesses is having visibility into the right data to make informed decisions. About 80% of data within a given company remains untapped. By leveraging the right technology, companies can uncover a bigger picture of their business – for example, transparency around waste and supply chains to make changes that will support them in achieving their sustainability ambitions.

In 2014, Penn co-founded eXXpedition, a community interest company and non-profit organization that runs all-women sailing research expeditions at sea and virtual voyages on land to investigate the causes of and solutions to ocean plastic pollution. To do so, eXXpedition set out to first collect data to better understand the composition of plastic in our waters.

“During one of our research missions of these ‘islands of plastic’ in the ocean, we quickly realized that the plastic breaks down into tiny fragments, called microplastics,” explained Penn. “These 171 trillion pieces of microplastic make their way into the food chain and, in turn, into our bodies.”

eXXpedition set out to define changes that people, governments, and businesses could make to curb the environmental crisis. But first, the organization needed to correlate the data it had collected to specific regions, products, and more. This process of cleansing the data to identify patterns of consistent and high-quality connections allows organizations like eXXpedition and businesses to better understand where issues or areas for optimization exist and simulate potential solutions.

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For example, Penn shared insights from her involvement in a project with a company that manufactures TV remotes. The project team unveiled that roughly five times the plastic used in a single TV remote was wasted during the production process. “You have to be able see the unseen waste that you’re creating,” said Penn. “Getting visibility across the whole supply chain is absolutely key.”

To share the learnings of eXXpedition, Penn created SHiFT, which offers a comprehensive collection of hundreds of solutions designed to address the issue of plastic pollution. “The idea of the platform is to encourage people to see that not everybody needs to do everything to tackle this global problem, we just need everybody to do something,” she explained.

This is one example of how data can drive sustainability. SAP Business Technology Platform (SAP BTP) can unify data and analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), application development, automation, and integration in one environment. Customers from around the world and varied industries have used SAP BTP to help drive sustainability initiatives. For example, a Belgian utility company uses SAP BTP to harness smart meter data and identify opportunities for more efficient and environmentally responsible water usage.

Small changes in behavior can have a significant impact when we unite our efforts. For companies, the first step is to address the data problem. Only with more visibility and improved data quality can they drive sustainability throughout the entire value chain.

Ragunath Ramanathan is chief revenue officer for SAP Business Technology Platform.

Top photo courtesy of SAP employee Angela Klose.

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