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Our Insights 3 Aug 2010

Care for Some Plastic in your Soup?

By Frances Buckingham

A few years ago much of our time was spent convincing companies, or individuals within companies of the need to act on certain environmental and social issues. Much of this was centred on building the business case – analysing the extent and nature of the financial benefits that companies gain from sound environmental practice, social development and economic progress, as well as helping our clients anticipate what’s next on the sustainability agenda. Now the balance has shifted somewhat with much of our work helping companies develop strategic, actionable responses to sustainability challenges and integrating such responses into the fabric of their businesses. However, as I read of the Plastiki boat coming to the end of its voyage in Sydney last week I realised that whilst it is important for companies to anticipate and keep track of emerging issues and trends, there also need for checks and measures to be in place to ensure that the responses are proportional to the scale of many of the challenges we face.

Plastiki, the work of David de Rothschild, is a boat made of 12,500 plastic bottles that set sail from San Franciso in March to draw attention to our systematic pollution and overfishing of our oceans. Oceans are the lifeblood of our planet they govern our weather systems, are a source of food and livelihoods, adventure, exploration, recreation and tourism. Life within oceans evolved 3 billion years prior to life on land and yet we are turning them into the world’s biggest landfills – we have known this for over 12 years, it was anticipated over 20 years ago, yet our responses to date have been inadequate.

One of the specific aims of the Plastiki voyage was to draw attention to the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. First identified 12 years ago within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, the area is a floating continent of debris – a soup of millions of mostly microscopic tiny fragments of plastic suspended in the water. While this garbage tends to become concentrated in gyres according to UNEP every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, responsible for the deaths of more than one million seabirds a year. In some areas the amount of plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by a ratio of six to one and particles ingested by marine life are passed into our food chain. The Pacific Garbage Patch, some media reports claim could be twice the size of the United States, and while its size is difficult to predict it nonetheless dwarfs the no-less tragic yet far more visual BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to UNEP’s 2009 report Marine Litter: A Global Challenge some eight million tonnes of marine litter, the majority of it plastic, are thought to enter the world’s oceans and seas everyday. The very thing that makes plastic items useful to consumers, durability and stability, makes them a problem in marine environments, it just doesn’t go away it simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. According to the Plastiki website, “nearly every plastic bottle ever made still exists today”. As it is practically impossible to trawl the seas for the trash, we need to urgently stem the flow of the plastic from the land.

Is there a business case for such action? Probably not. Is there a need to act? Certainly. The Plastics 2020 Challenge, an initiative of British and European plastic trade bodies – I will hold my cynicism at bay – has taken the work of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) in the UK as a framework for action. It has failed to include on its website the MCS’s call for “individuals to avoid plastic shopping bags, bottled drinking water and over packaged good” – perhaps I won’t hold my cynicism at bay – but does provide a useful steer on the strategic actionable responses expected from companies. Namely, companies need to advocate for the creation and enforcement of legislation that ensures better management of waste on land and sea; increase the recycling rate of plastics so they come out of the waste stream through consumer education and investment in infrastructure; ensure that there is a high level of awareness through the supply chain about the need to tighten up packing, transport and shipping procedures to reduce the loss of plastic pellets to the marine environment; and work in close co-operation with all parties including customers, NGOs and governments to set the tackling of marine litter as a key objective.

Without these actions plastic in our soup will be a reality for a long time to come.

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