Plastic bottles (Source: Creative Commons)

Plastic bottles (Source: Creative Commons)

Everyone agrees that plastic doesn’t belong in the oceans, but once it comes to solutions there is a Great Divide, like a rising rift between to tectonic plates. The producers and manufactures are on one side and environmental NGO’s, policymakers and scientists on the other, with a few exceptions on both sides.  It doesn’t have to be this way, but until a great shift occurs in the core values of the biggest petrochemical companies in the world, these two camps will persist.

One month ago, following our published estimate, the 5 Gyres Institute was invited by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to meet in their Washington DC headquarters to discuss where we stood on future research and solutions. Anna and I are the co-founders of the 5 Gyres Institute, and sat with 4 wonderful people, but quickly we had each other pegged.  The ACC is the largest lobby group representing the interests of over 200 plastic producers and manufacturers.  Akin to an awkward blind date, we let the conversation wander from one subject to another, identifying what we didn’t have in common, though there was some agreement over river systems that capture plastic before it reaches the sea.  Lines in the sand were drawn on recycling, product phase-outs and extended producer responsibility (EPR).



While the ACC says, “We represent plastic producers, not the product,” they actively spend millions of dollars to defend products, like plastic bags. They also repeatedly said, “We strongly favor increased recycling opportunities,” yet they do not demand their member companies design recyclable products.

Recycling is undeniably part of the solution, yet there are thousands of products that by design are either not recyclable or escape recovery. Though we agree we should increase recycling efforts, there must also be a design overhaul for hundreds of products and their packaging. Foamed polystyrene in food packaging is both a health concern and an unrecyclable material on all practical measures. Laminates of paper, plastic and metal are worthless to recyclers. Plastic bags, straws, plastic coffee stirsticks, cup lids, and a long list of single-use throw away products, are both costly to taxpayers to cleanup, and are poorly represented or non-existent in the recycled waste stream. They don’t get captured. These bad designs slip through the cracks of the most efficient waste management systems on the planet and become environmental pollutants.  If the ACC could commit to requiring their member companies “Design for recovery”, or choose environmentally harmless materials, which we call “Benign by Design”, then we would have plastic waste back in the loop and not in the sea.

Recycling only works when you build systems that incentivize recovery.


When I’m asked, “What can one person do to make a difference on this issue?” I always say, “Look at your grocery list and only buy what you can sort into compost and recyclables.” Waste diversion begins with commitments from municipalities and citizens to support the infrastructure to sort waste. Cities like San Francisco and Portland are witnessing lower costs to taxpayers and less hazardous waste to deal with, as their waste diversion rates increase.

On the other hand, some cities are choosing to co-mingle and incinerate waste as a short-term solution with big-picture and long-term higher costs. Waste to Energy typically begins with high-heat combustion of trash, resulting in the formation of hazardous compounds, like dioxins and furans, which are either captured by scrubbers or not. 5 years ago we sailed to Bermuda and asked the incinerator manager, “Why don’t you have scrubbers on your smokestacks?”  He explained that if he filled 55-gallon drums with the hazardous by-products captured from burning waste, what would we do with it?  Where would we put it?”  It’ the pollution solution by dilution, which doesn’t work with 7 billion people on a small planet. The long-term cost of Waste to Energy is the undesirable choice of either “release and pollute”, or “capture and store” those compounds.

The Big Picture cost is the loss of material from a circular system. Paper, plastic, other organics become atmospheric CO2 instead of recaptured materials, and metals are either lost as useless slag or a mixed metal alloy that’s more costly to separate than sorted cans. In the long run, building infrastructure for sorting pays off in cheaper waste management and cleaner, healthier communities.


In Oct. 2014 I joined Expedition Plastik departing from Bali, Indonesia, and witnessed a steady stream of large plastic objects, including bags, bottles, caps, utensils, straws and flip-flops drifting into the Indian Ocean.  Undeniably, there is a need for waste management here, including waste & recycling bins, modern MRF’s and landfills, and citizen education.  As one billion people living in China and India will join the middle class by the first quarter of this century, they want the same opportunity, comfort and convenience Western societies have enjoyed for the last half-century.  Improved waste management is essential, but the best waste management systems in the world today will not capture the worst designed products.

The company Unilever celebrated the ‘sachet pack’, which looks like two business card-size sheets of plastic with a small portion of product sandwiched in the middle, ranging from a pinch of coffee to a few drops of shampoo. The benefit of delivering product to a below-poverty market that cannot afford large quantities of anything, is overshadowed by the mountains of trash from billions of sachet packs in the rivers, gutters and empty lots in communities across Asia, India, Africa and S. America.  A great idea in delivering a product failed to deliver it in the right package, when considering its full lifecycle. This is a perfect opportunity for change, where a phase-out coupled with an X-prize for an innovative replacement would have a huge impact.

The ACC has a motto, “Plastic: Too Valuable to Waste.” To be true to this motto, they must phase-out product and packaging designs that evade capture in waste management and recycling infrastructure.  Last year in Delhi, India I shadowed a wastepicker on a bicycle all day to learn what he does and does not pick up.  We stopped when he saw a bottle under a bush, but rode past straws, chai cups, sauce packs, and sachet packs. The list of products that need to be phased-out is easy to assemble. He’s the sanitation engineer that can tell you what plastics are worth picking up, and which ones are “Too Wasteful to Value.”


You could say it began with a crying Native American, Iron Eyes Cody, the one in the Keep America Beautiful adds in the 1970’s, a program funded by the same companies who made the plastic stuff along roadsides he was crying about. The tagline in the print add reads, “People start pollution. People can stop it,” with the blame effectively placed on the citizen. The term, “litter bug” evolved here.  At the same time, soda companies began to centralize their bottling operations and switch to plastic. They began shutting down glass bottle redemption programs, while also shifting recycling efforts to municipal solid waste management. Instead of getting a nickel per bottle, the consumer/tax-payer now gets taxed that nickel back and more to manage city-run recycling and waste management programs.

5gyres3Today, despite the tremendous success of bottle redemption programs, Coca-Cola aggressively rises against bottle bills worldwide. Simultaneously, the American Chemistry Council fights EPR legislation, with their messaging focused on consumer behavior being the problem. Their descriptor of plastic in the ocean as “marine litter” and not pollution, is indicative of a perspective skewed toward diverting responsibility to the ‘behavior’ of the consumer rather than the ‘design’ of the product itself.

What ideal producer responsibility looks like is incentivized recovery. If you ‘Make It’ then you’ve got to ‘Take It’ back from your customer. This could be a subsidized refund, for example: 5 cents per kilo for mixed, dry and clean plastic of any kind. Or the product becomes the currency for the next same purchase, like an old shoe becomes a % discount for the next one.  Whatever the scheme, if it doesn’t work, then a commitment to environmentally harmless materials must prevail. That means no plastic in some design applications.


As companies begin to feel the squeeze, that’s the pressure from resource scarcity and public scrutiny of social and environmental abuse within their supply chain, they determine their fate by their reaction.  Andrew Winston says in clearly in The Big Pivot (2014).

“I’m not against markets, making money, or even making a lot of money.  But we can’t prioritize short-term profit maximization and an idealized version of markets over ensuring our prosperity and survival.  If we don’t make solving the problems of climate change and resource scarcity the core pursuit of business and society, we won’t be maximizing value, or even profits, at all – we’ll be ensuring a great deal of pain, scarcity, and human and financial loss.”

There is tremendous leadership out there.  Products like ChicoBag and Klean Kanteen show that heirloom products that replace the Throw Away culture can be thriving companies. Packaging 2.0, a producer of PET plastic products has put the health of the ocean at equal concern to the profit motive, and can also claim to be the first B Corporation (Benefit) in Rhode Island, with a mission to support innovation, education and prevention efforts that keep plastic out of the sea.  In 2010 Anna and I had the opportunity to meet with Robert McDonald, former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, where we learned that they were working with Brazilian companies turning sugar cane fiber into bioplastics in order to decrease their dependence of fossil fuels to make their plastic bottles for hundreds of products.  These are steps in the right direction.

What we ask of the ACC is to consider the changing values their member companies are aspiring to live up to and adopt them as the requirement for membership.  The ACC’s stated mission is “to deliver business value through exceptional advocacy using best-in-class member performance, political engagement, communications and scientific research,” but the definition of ‘business value’ is changing fast.  Nations and corporations are moving toward Zero Waste economies, carbon neutral, and even environmentally and socially restorative. Specifically, we ask the ACC to:


Will 5 Gyres meet with the ACC again? Why wouldn’t we? But let’s begin the conversation with core values.  It all starts there.

(This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reprinted here with permission.)

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