The statistics are staggering: At least 8 million tons of plastic leak into our oceans every year—the equivalent of dumping one garbage truck of plastic into the waters every minute. That’s expected to increase to two garbage trucks per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050, when estimates gauge that, by then, if left unchecked, there will be more plastics in the oceans by weight than fish.
The visuals are even more alarming: Indonesian rivers clogged with plastic bottles that empty into the ocean; sea turtles slowly strangled by six-pack rings; oceanic garbage patches that can be seen from space.
Currently, one-third of plastic waste ends up in nature, with plastic packaging estimated to represent a major share of that. And global plastic packaging production is on a path to potentially quadruple worldwide by 2050.
What’s worse—yes, it gets worse—since plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose, the problem won’t go away anytime soon. If anything, its impact has spread well beyond the coasts, as deteriorating microplastics enter the food chain through marine life (three out of every seven people in the world depend on seafood as their main source of protein). From the food we eat, to the water we drink, to the air we breathe, people could now be ingesting a credit card–sized amount of microplastics every week.
NO TIDY SOLUTION
Plastics have led to huge advancements in modern life and are particularly efficient in areas of food safety and security, shipping, and long-term durability. Therefore, it’s not as simple as just asking producers to swap plastics for glass or plant-based alternatives—options that aren’t necessarily sound solutions due to their own environmental tradeoffs. The weight and fragility of glass can result in increased transport emissions; bioplastics require air and sunlight to decompose and therefore won’t break down in landfills; plant-based alternatives negatively impact deforestation and require massive amounts of water.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” observes Alan VanderMolen, senior vice president and chief communications officer for SC Johnson, a family-run company that has taken a lead in seeking solutions to combat ocean plastics. “There are environmental trade-offs that generally are about carbon. You can cite the cost of shipping glass, but there’s also the cost and the environmental impact of recycling it. So, there is no neat and tidy solution.”
One area where VanderMolen sees promise is in decreasing our reliance on virgin plastic, which is markedly cheaper to produce than post-consumer recycled (PCR) material. “To do that, you’ve got to capture the plastic that’s going into the waste stream and get it into recycling and maintain its integrity so it still is effective for packaging,” he says. Closed loop recycling—where a material can be used and turned into a new product indefinitely without losing its properties—is the holy grail. “We’re big believers in creating zero waste—not eliminating one kind of waste, but creating an environment that is a zero-waste environment, a zero-waste economy. The key to doing that is scaling affordable and practical recycling.”
And that leads to a different rub as municipalities increasingly find recycling economically untenable, particularly in light of COVID-related budgetary shortfalls and unfavorable cost-benefit tradeoffs. (China stopped purchasing recyclables in 2018.) Nor can one rely solely on consumers to bear the brunt of this increased recycling cost, given that roughly 70% of consumers say they will purchase products that lead to better environmental or social outcomes, yet only 25% of them actually do it.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
While the ocean plastic crisis is relatively new in the public consciousness, the issue is nothing new for SC Johnson, which has a long history of environmental conservation and preservation (the company’s CEO, Fisk Johnson, is an avid scuba diver and has seen the effects of ocean plastic waste first-hand). “We need to lead as a corporation who uses plastic in its packaging,” VanderMolen explains. “We need to look at creating closed loops and innovating how we use plastics and plastics packaging, and make sure that consumers and municipalities are equipped to start to change the way they manage plastic waste.”
To that end, SC Johnson is pursuing a series of goals, including increasing the use of PCR plastic in product packaging, encouraging the reuse of trigger-handle spray bottles by selling concentrate refills (which use 80% less plastic), and making 100% of the plastic packaging in their products recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. They are also focused on getting virgin plastics into a closed-loop system where they can be recycled and put back into packaging, such as through their partnership with Plastic Bank in which they collect ocean plastics and turn them into packaging for Windex and Scrubbing Bubbles. SC Johnson is also building unique partnerships for closed-loop plastic recycling with professional sports teams, such as the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks, which sees plastic waste from stadiums upcycled into new product packaging.
SC Johnson is also focused on increasing awareness of the ocean plastic crisis through immersive educational efforts, such as the Blue Paradox experience (and symposium) in London. In partnership with Conservation International, the company seeks to bring people together over the course of 13 days (September 15–27) to explore the role plastic currently plays in society, alternative sustainable options to eliminate unnecessary waste, and the small changes anyone can make to protect the largest ecosystem on our planet.
Building relevance for people who don’t live on the coasts was a key objective. “It’s hard for a lot of consumers, governments, and regulators to imagine what ocean plastics is, how it’s impacting our ocean environment, and how that leads to environmental consequences down the line,” VanderMolen says. “The need to get everybody moving on multiple paths towards a solution is important. It takes a multipronged effort. But it’s got to start with pragmatic regulation as well as government and business coming together and partnering on solutions.”
Is the world up for the challenge? VanderMolen thinks so. “I think we finally are to a point where we’ve got a generation who can see a measurable impact. We see it with climate change. We see it with rising oceans. We’re beyond the science of a hundred years from now and into the science of our lifetime. I think that creates a sense of urgency and a desire for action.”