The ocean covers 70% of Earth’s surface and contains 99% of the planet’s living space. It is, without a doubt, our largest ecosystem. But with 245 kg of plastic entering our oceans every second, ocean ecosystems are drowning in plastic. The time to act is now.
This is a critical issue that we all have a responsibility to act on. Ultimately, it’s going to take everyone—companies, governments, consumers—to solve this important issue.
As is often the case, the ocean-plastic crisis is much more complicated than it first appears. Many of the readily available alternate materials have their own environmental challenges; for example, glass and aluminum can create more greenhouse gas emissions than that for plastic as they generally require more energy to manufacture, transport and recycle, and bioplastics require air and sunlight to fully decompose.
The uncomfortable truth is that plastic has become indispensable to our lives. Plastic has driven a boom of societal advancements in areas ranging from medical devices to food preservation, but our overdependence on it threatens our future.
“For years, plastic has played an instrumental role in delivering some of society’s most impactful advancements and helped to transform so many elements of modern life,” says SC Johnson Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson. “The consequence is that no matter what we produce in years to come, vast amounts of plastic have already been produced and just 9% of that has been recycled.
“The key to tackling this crisis is not to eliminate plastic, but rather to eliminate waste,” Johnson continues. “That’s not to say that the CPG industry doesn’t use an excessive amount of plastic that needs to be reduced, but at SC Johnson we have a vision for a waste-free world, and we believe it’s going to take all of us coming together to achieve that. We need to capture the plastic already going into the waste stream and make sure we recycle it, making sure we can protect its integrity and ensure it remains fit for purpose.”
THE BLUE PARADOX
The ocean-plastic crisis was the subject of a recent panel discussion hosted by SC Johnson and Conservation International on September 14 as part of the launch of The Blue Paradox, a 13-day immersive experience that opened in London the following day. The panel, moderated by the Financial Times, included marine biologist Tamara Galloway; the Managing Director of Iceland Foods, Richard Walker; the Chairman of the U.K. Climate Change Committee, Lord Deben; Member of Parliament for Truro and Falmouth, Cherilyn Mackrory; and the founder of Ocean Generation, Jo Ruxton; alongside Fisk Johnson and M. Sanjayan, CEO of long-term partner Conservation International. The group explored tangible ways in which this plastic “blue paradox” can most effectively be addressed.
The challenge ahead is complex. The answers aren’t straightforward and there is no single or simple solution. But what all of the panel experts agreed on was this: We need big action, and we need it now. Recent research from The Pew Charitable Trusts shows that around 11 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. On this current trajectory, which Pew calls the “business as usual” scenario, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean could nearly triple by 2040.
Perhaps more shocking is that even if all current major industry and government commitments are met, that 11 million metric tons would only be reduced by a mere 7%, relative to business as usual. With numbers like these it’s easy to feel helpless, but there is hope. The ocean plastic crisis was created over a lifetime, but it can be solved within a generation, if not sooner. “We’ve already seen great momentum building awareness around this issue, but it’s important not to give up,” Johnson says. “We’re at a tipping point and we have a collective responsibility to embrace change and act. We can’t afford to slow down.”
THE BUCK STOPS HERE
When it comes to sustainable packaging, consumers are calling out for innovation. SC Johnson wants businesses to help take charge. “As a company that uses plastic in our packaging, we know we have a responsibility to lead, but if there is one thing I’ve learned in the last 20 years of trying to address the plastic waste issue as a company, it’s that business cannot solve this issue alone,” Johnson says. “It’s going to take stronger legislation, more awareness and sustainable behavior on the part of individuals, building scale in recycling systems, as well as a large effort on the part of business to create more sustainable and more recyclable products. Key to all of this on the business side is looking at the entire cradle-to-cradle impact and choosing packaging designs and materials that can have the least environmental impact for the intended application.”
SC Johnson has been working with organizations such as Plastic Bank to help collect plastic waste that would otherwise end up in the ocean and reincorporate it back into new packaging for its products, including Windex, Scrubbing Bubbles and Mr Muscle, thereby closing the plastics loop.
Consumers all over the world are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, but consumers didn’t create this problem and the responsibility shouldn’t solely lie with consumers—brands, retailers, leaders and governments must do more.
NOT ONE SOLUTION, BUT MANY
Too often the debate focuses around “upstream” (before products reach consumers) or “downstream” (post-consumer, such as recycling) solutions, but solving the ocean plastic crisis requires integrating the two—a combination of manufacturing solutions upstream paired with downstream efficiencies in recycling, both at an industrial and an individual level.
The panelists were clear: We have the answers, and with the force and energy of global collective action, we can solve this waste crisis.
You can listen to the panel discussion, hosted by FTLive here.