Plastics in the ocean: time to act boldly

Plastics ending their lives in the ocean is a subject that is getting more and more attention from all kinds of stakeholders in the chemical industry. It’s time to get out in front of this issue, rather than wait for the outcry over plastics stewardship to overwhelm one of the world’s vital industries. In this regard, there are some very positive signs from the industry, NGOs and true sustainability startups:

– The World Plastics Council is one of the few industry bodies able to develop both commitment and simple messages to stakeholders around the world. The group’s central theme of “No plastics to landfill, no plastics to water” is easy to understand and easy to sign up to. The keep element now will be to see how the commitment is translated into actions across the globe. The WPC is meeting in Dubai this week, and will be reviewing solid progress towards its aims;

– Among individual companies, Dow, Nature Works, Procter & Gamble, Nestle Waters, and Coca-Cola, stand out by joining the Nature Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance. It takes courage to associate yourself with such a venture, which tries to recover plastic from the seas and stop plastics from ever reaching the seas, when many of the stakeholders you will be talking to consider you to be the problem. It is very encouraging to see companies engage in open conversation to solve a problem, rather than hunkering down into denial that the problem exists.

But it may be that outsider startups with totally different perspectives from today’s major commercial companies, who end up having a profound effect on the aim to keep plastics out of the world’s waters. One celebrated example is a Canadian company, called Plastic Bank, which was recently shortlisted for a Sustainia Award. Put simply, Plastic Bank turns apparently worthless, discarded plastic into a currency that can be used by the world’s poor to help build wealth while tackling a major environmental issue. It is a perfect 3P approach to a growing problem. As David Katz of Plastic Bank put it:

“I’ve figured out our new business. It’s called The Plastic Bank. We make plastic waste a currency to help the world’s most disadvantaged people. I’ve come to realize that the problem with plastic waste is that people see it as waste. But if we can reveal the value in plastic, we can make it too valuable to throw away. If we can reveal value in people, we can unleash the potential of the world’s most disadvantaged and give them a platform to improve their lives. That’s my vision. It’s a triple bottom line social enterprise. We reveal value in plastic and it will have a domino effect on the world.”

There is clearly a message for chemical companies here. Can you invent a triple bottom line social enterprise like this one, or will industry efforts be limited by current models and thinking? The further the sustainable agenda develops, the more apparent it is that current business models alone are not up to the task of solving the world’s major challenges.