Retro Environmentalism: Is Plastic the Next Carbon?

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Back in the day, before Al Gore informed us about a certain inconvenient truth, before we started to calculate our commutes in carbon, and before people in the South Pacific had to start heading for higher land, there were beach clean ups. People walked along the sand — maybe sometimes only on Earth Day, like once-a-year churchgoers — but nonetheless they walked, fishing jellyfish-like plastic bags and cigarette butts out of the surf, and spearing weathered puzzle pieces of Styrofoam coffee cups. We knew it was only a drop in the bucket, but there was a sense that something was being done. For the 10 minutes after we motored off from the beach in puffs of diesel smoke, that little patch of sand was clean.

There are, of course, still beach clean-ups. But doing our part in a post-Copenhagen world can require a more intricate  grasp on the challenges the environment faces that tends to make eyes glaze over. These complex new problems aren’t actually new — the planet, after all, has been warming throughout the 20th century. But now we know about them — and even worse, we know that the best human minds can’t figure out what to do about them.

Meanwhile, the simpler problems we used to worry about — back when the ozone layer seemed good and fixed because our hair spray stopped coming in aerosol cans — have gotten lost. Remember the seals? The ones with the plastic six-pack rings wrapped around their necks? They’re still there. Plastic consumption has not got any better in the last 15 years — it’s gotten worse. In North America and Western Europe, individual plastic use is set to rise from 220 pounds every year to 308 by 2015; in fast-developing parts of Asia, plastic use is set to nearly double from 44 pounds a person to 80.

Douglas Woodring, a co-founder of the California and Hong-Kong based Ocean Recovery Alliance, is trying to get plastic back in the green conversation. So far, it seems to be working. In 2009, Woodring made his first voyage to the infamous “garbage patch” in the Pacific Ocean in coordination with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Also known as the North Pacific Gyre (there are, unfortunately, others), the patch is a massive swath of plastic-strewn ocean about 1000 miles off the coast of Hawaii. Scientists have never quite agreed its size, but some have estimated it is twice as big as the state of Texas. One of the goals of Woodring’s ongoing Project Kaisei, so named for one of the boats that sailed in the first expedition from San Francisco, is to explore the problems associated with the gyre and examine the possibilities of a large-scale cleanup. Fishermen and crews passing through the zone have remarked on it for years, but as it’s in international waters that belong to no one, it’s in nobody���s jurisdiction to do anything about it. “It’s a perfect case of the tragedy of the commons,” says Woodring. “It’s just like air. We all own it. We all use it. We all have to fix it, but no one country has the liability to clean it up.”

The gyre is important both because it has serious consequences for the marine life in the Pacific, and because it’s a tangible illustration of our failure to deal with the fact that we are producing some 300 million tons of new plastic each year — and recycle roughly 10% of it. After raking through the debris, Woodring came back to Hong Kong and started thinking about ways to solve the problem. A year later, at the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2010, he launched the Plastic Disclosure Project. Inspired by the Carbon Disclosure Project, an international effort through which over 3000 organizations now voluntarily measure their greenhouse gas emissions, water use and climate change strategy, the PDP aims to get companies to establish benchmarks for their plastic use and use plastic more efficiently by surveying them annually on behalf of the investment community. That might be accomplished through a company reducing its total plastic use, or it might be done by simply increasing the level of plastic recycling in its facility. The bottom line, says Woodring, is that “we want less plastic going into the ecosystem.”

Will companies realistically volunteer to measure their plastic use without the incentive of something like a carbon market? It’s still early days, but Woodring says the fact that investors are already interested means companies are too. The measurable benefits for volunteer companies could include direct savings by reducing their waste or gaining the attention of investors interested in socially responsible projects or looking for new opportunities in materials and waste processing. The intangible benefits are there too. Companies could get green boost for their brand, says Woodring, and “show their leadership on an issue that’s been aggregating over time.” The PDP, which is getting ready to send out its first plastic use surveys to interested businesses, will be operated by the Ocean Recovery Alliance in partnership with the Association for Sustainable & Responsible Investment in Asia (ASrIA), which runs the CDP in Asia.

Unlike some aspects of climate science, there’s not a lot of controversy hovering around the need to reduce our use of plastics. This year, the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) identified marine plastics as one of the most worrying problems facing today’s marine and human environments. Not only is the physical presence of the plastic in the oceans a continuing problem, the U.N. has flagged a new and growing concern that plastic marine waste is absorbing more toxic substances from seawater and sediments, including “a wide range of chemicals from polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) to the pesticide DDT.” According to a recent UNEP report: “Many of these pollutants including PCBs cause chronic effects such as endocrine disruption, mutagenicity and carcinogenicity… Some scientists are concerned that these persistent contaminants could eventually end up in the food chain.”

The simple problems of yesteryear, it seems, aren’t so simple. But then they never were. And without the confusing and at times painful growth spurt in environmental awareness that the last decade has brought, the concept that companies — and nations — be held accountable for their effect on the environment may never have come to be. It’s smart to use this framework to get back to basics that we had forgotten we cared about. And if companies are smart, they’ll start to care too.