In January 2016, the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched “The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics,” a watershed report that provided a vision of a global economy where plastics never become waste. Contained within the report was this stunning pronouncement: “Without significant action, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050.”
The scope of ocean plastics pollution is staggering. Each year, 8 million metric tons of plastic leak into the ocean, which is the equivalent of dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. While it’s estimated that 20% of these plastics come from marine sources, e.g., fishing ropes, nets, and lines, during the Ocean Conservancy’s most recent International Coastal Cleanup program in 2018, nine of the top 10 most prevalent items collected were plastic packaging. Among them were single-serve plastic bottles and caps, foodservice items such as straws, stirrers, plates, cups, and lids, and plastic grocery and other bags.
Given the visible nature of the crisis, end users of plastics, such as Consumer Packaged Goods companies, foodservice operators, and retailers, along with plastic providers have borne the brunt of the blame. To stem the flow of plastic packaging into the world’s waterways, these companies, along with others up and down the supply chain, as well as non-profits, legislators, and academics have formed a number of alliances, initiatives, and programs dedicated to finding solutions. These include The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, the Global Plastics Alliance, Project STOP, the Plastic Bank, and Clear Blue Sea, to name just a few.
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Most of the strategies put forth by these organizations include a focus on at least one of the following: expanding waste management, consumer education, design thinking around single-use plastics to optimize end-of-life, research and development, and cleanup, among others. No matter the composition of its members or its focus though, all agree on one thing: global collaboration will be the key to solving the ocean plastics pollution crisis.
SoulBuffalo is one environmental impact organization that has made collaboration the keystone of its efforts, designing immersive experiences that foster a common goal among industry leaders and provide the setting for meaningful work toward solutions.
A Journey to the North Atlantic Gyre
If a picture tells a thousand words, then experiencing first-hand the devastation caused by ocean plastics speaks volumes about the scale of the problem and the need for immediate solutions. In May 2019, SoulBuffalo gathered 160 people from 60 organizations from up and down the plastics supply chain to visit the North Atlantic Gyre for an experience many participants called “life changing.”
Shares Ed Huber, Vice President - General Manager, Kingsford and Chief Sustainability Officer for The Clorox Company, who joined two of his Clorox colleagues for the four-day expedition, the boat had just set out on its first day at sea when the organizers from SoulBuffalo spotted a massive patch of sargassum, a floating brown microalgae where plastic debris is often entangled.
“They said, ‘We’re going to re-juggle our entire agenda so that every single person on the ship who wants to go out and snorkel and see for themselves what’s going on can do so,’” Huber recalls. “And literally, I don’t think there was a single person left on that boat. When we all got back and were sharing stories and the samples we had collected, there was a realization that, at that point in the journey, we were 70 to 100 miles from the nearest point of land. Yet, to see all the plastic debris that was captured in that floating sargassum that far away from civilization, it was moving. I mean, there was everything from toothbrushes to a toilet seat that had survived who knows how long out in the middle of the ocean.
“And so that created the motivation, which would have been hard to replicate if the starting point had been pictures on a PowerPoint. There was a crystallization that action is required, and we have some of the biggest brains in the industry across multiple spectrums of the total supply chain here on the boat, so let’s do this.”
Catalyzing that desire to find solutions to the ocean plastics crisis and facilitating an environment in which to do so was SoulBuffalo’s intention when they created the event, which they named the Ocean Plastic Leadership Summit.
SoulBuffalo was co-founded by Dave Ford, Jason Throckmorton, and Rick Fascina. Notes their website, “In 2015, after traveling the world, SoulBuffalo’s founders recognized the urgent need to create systematic change on a global scale. To do that, we brought a broad spectrum of leaders from across the value chain to the table. Our role in all of this: to control the chaos and navigate change through learning, collaboration, and action.”
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Before organizing the summit, SoulBuffalo had worked primarily with individual corporations, leading their executives and senior management on expeditions to areas with environmental challenges. When two very large CPGs simultaneously inquired about having them put together a trip to see ocean plastics, “the light bulb went off,” says Throckmorton. “What we realized was that this was a big opportunity to do a multi-stakeholder event. That was the first evolution of our business.”
To gather together as broad a spectrum of participants as possible, Throckmorton says SoulBuffalo invited “everybody.” He adds, “We have a very robust list through our advisory board and through our own research of all the companies in the plastics value chain, and we literally reached out to the entire industry.” Those who accepted the invitation included corporate executives from some of the largest CPGs and plastics suppliers in the industry, NGOs, scientists, artists, innovators, and students, among others.
Huber says Clorox had already begun working with partners across the supply chain to find solutions, so they saw the expedition as a great opportunity to learn more and engage more deeply. “We’re a big company, but we’re not a multinational,” he says. “So we’re very reliant on collaboration. And so we used that opportunity to take some of the partnerships we already had and extend them further up and down the supply chain.”
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Joining Huber from Clorox were Paula Alexander, Burt’s Bees Director of Sustainable Business and Innovation, and Matt Kopac, Burt’s Bees Manager of Sustainable Business and Innovation. At the time, Huber represented Clorox’s Glad and Brita brands. “At Clorox, we’re proud to say that we’re in 90% of U.S. households, but with so many brands, we have a lot of different initiatives that are at different stages,” Huber says. “The idea was that we wanted to have brands there that were already leading in the [sustainability] space and the ones that were motivated to do so, and then also brands that were newer in the space looking to get some motivation to be a bit more transformative.”
Close quarters lead to greater understanding
According to Throckmorton, coming across the plastic gyre on the first day of the expedition was an auspicious beginning for the trip. As he explains, most people’s understanding of the gyres is that they comprise “football field, after football field, after football field of garbage and plastic that you can see.” The reality is very different. “A lot of it is very, very fine micro and even nanoplastics,” he says. “So to even be able to find one of the gyres is a challenge.”
Because the seaweed in the North Atlantic Gyre acts as a natural trap for plastics, participants in the summit were easily able to reach down below the plants and pull up handfuls of microplastics. “I think for a lot of people, it was an emotional experience,” Throckmorton says.
While the ship was the literal vehicle that allowed participants to share the experience of seeing the gyre, it was also the vehicle through which they were able to form relationships and collaborate in ways that don’t typically happen outside of such a unique setting—especially where relationships are contentious. In one example of this “forced” interaction, an executive from Nestlé Waters and a member of Greenpeace were assigned a shared cabin.
“I was on that boat, and I can tell you, the cabins were maybe 150 square feet, so very tight quarters,” says Throckmorton. “One of the big Aha! moments for us [during the trip] was that when you bring people together who may have different viewpoints, especially in person in a very unique setting, the humanity of the experience can really bring them to common ground on some issues. Now there are obviously going to be areas where these groups will never, ever agree, and so we focus on that middle ground, where there can be some collaboration and some meeting of the minds where they can agree to disagree on some things and agree to agree on others.”
Says Huber, the lack of distractions from cellphones and e-mail also allowed participants to be more present and engaged. “We were in the middle of the Atlantic Gyre, disconnected from technology and otherwise. What we found was that even though during our day jobs we may have differing points of view on the how, everybody on that boat was committed to the what,” he explains. “It fostered an air of creativity and a kind of solution-first mindset in which everyone just kind of parked their egos and their current strategic plans at the door, and rolled up their sleeves, talked about the problem, and looked for different points of view.
“You learn so much more from people who have a different point of view than your own, but having the time to really invest and learn and listen is tough. The boat enabled that, and it was amazing, the energy on the ship, because of that. There were no clocks, and so we were steamrolling through meals, and next thing you know, it’s like, ‘Well, the sun’s going down, maybe we need to grab a bite to eat.’
“The environment created was very, very unique in that regard, and I’ve stayed in touch with multiple people that I met for the very first time on that ship. Now it’s been well over a year, so that’s a good testament to the power of that kind of event.”
Teams tasked with finding solutions
The work that summit members were steamrolling through meals to get back to included activities such as presentations, panels, and discussions. In addition, participants were divided up into teams of approximately eight multi-stakeholders and placed in one of 10 Design Labs. The labs each focused on a different issue—for example, chemical recycling, the elimination of (non-essential) single-use plastics, and creating a roadmap for minimal-to-no packaging in the CPG ecosystem.
The task of each team was to identify needs, come up with ideas for high-impact solutions, and develop action plans and roadmaps to support implementation. On the final night of the summit, each team presented the concepts they had developed, requesting commitments from other participants to pursue the concepts.
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The Lab Challenge for Huber’s team, Zero Hero, was that the retail experience is a significant driver for plastic waste in CPGs. The goal was “to incentivize both the public and industry to minimize negative impacts associated with consumption and waste and make zero waste mainstream.”
As described in the report published following the summit, the Breakthrough Idea for the Zero Hero team was “a transformative collaboration between big box retailers and CPG companies to create unified messaging, commitment, and support for zero-waste products and behaviors.”
Explains Huber, “Because of the timing of the trip, we didn’t have any retailers on the ship. So my working group was tasked with, ‘Okay, how can we take some of these ideas and see if they can get traction with key retailers and find ways they could be part of the solution.’”
As a result of the ideas generated from the working group, in Febuary, Clorox began testing concentrated cleaners with a major retailer. “Talk about examples of being holistic, right?” Huber says. “So you start with a bottle that lasts 10 years versus is one that is disposable. Therefore, you’re actually using 75% less plastic by using a refill cartridge instead of a spray bottle. And then because you’re not shipping water around, you can fit 70% more product on a truck. To put it another way, to ship the same amount of product, you’d use 70% fewer trucks.”
While he acknowledges that concentrated cleaners paired with refillable bottles is not a new concept, with several e-commerce retailers offering the solution, he notes that Clorox’s position as the largest manufacturer of household cleaning products will allow for their use on a larger scale. “We’ll continue to be inspired by competition and other folks,” he says. “But more importantly, controlling our footprint, coming up with ideas, and then working with major retailers, that’s where we can make the biggest impact.”
“Maybe the biggest takeaway [from the working group] was that meaningful solutions require collective action,” Huber adds. “We can’t rely solely on one thing. We’re going to have to do better at design—like the refillable spray bottles. We’re also going to have to focus more on consumer behavior, which is really more around reduce. So how can I get people to, instead of going for another single-use plastic bottle, just fill up their Brita at the tap, which is a behavior change more than anything else.”
Summit results in four funded initiatives
From those Decision Labs evolved what are now called Action Accelerators, or initiatives that have now been funded. Currently there are four, soon to be five, says Throckmorton, with Zero Hero being one. Another Action Accelerator he says has gained a lot of momentum is the Plastic Pickers Operational Working Group (POW), which since its inception at the summit has received more than $100,000 in funding from major organizations across the globe.
Explains Throckmorton, “There are 1.5 million informal waste pickers in the world. As you know, they’re all over, in developing countries in Africa, Asia, some parts of Europe—you name it. There’s no real representative organization or body that is looking out for things like quality of life, health and wellness, making sure there is fairness in pricing, and so forth.”
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POW has a two-pronged goal: 1.) to help waste picker communities gain access to healthcare, living wage training, and micro-financing loans, and 2.) to connect these communities with global market leaders to stabilize secondary plastics markets.
Another working group that has received funding is Zero Plastic Waste Communities, administered by Pyxera Global. The idea is to take best practices that look at how plastic is being introduced into local villages and communities, how it is being sold and distributed, and how it is being captured, and share the intellectual property around the world. Takoradi, Ghana is the first village earmarked for the initiative.
COVID-19 requires pivot to digital, expanded focus
The member organization that resulted from the summit, the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network (OPLN), managed by SoulBuffalo, was formed in January 2020. At that time, SoulBuffalo had three experiential events planned for the year, all of which have been postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19. Switching gears in order to keep the momentum from the first summit, SoulBuffalo moved the organization online. Every two weeks, it hosts a gathering that may feature a speaker on a topic—for example, green chemistry—or a virtual networking event for members to discuss a number of issues.
“We have panels and breakout panels and so forth,” Throckmorton says. “So it does start to look a bit like a virtual conference. But we found that people are adapting to the Zoom life, and they are looking to stay engaged, so it’s something that’s been very well received.”
When SoulBuffalo moved the network online, it created a half-dozen products. One, called SALT – Sustainable Action Leadership Training, comprises online courseware that many of its members are mandating that all of the employees in their company complete. In working with CPGs, SoulBuffalo found that many of them had just a few employees tasked with bringing sustainability to the entire company. SALT helps those in other departments, such as engineers, plant managers, R&D, and salespeople, to understand what ocean plastics are, why the problem is happening, and the ethical and financial impact for the organization in order to motivate them to work toward solutions in their own areas of expertise.
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Since COVID-19, Throckmorton says OPLN has become almost a “COVID-specific charter,” at least for the next 12 to 18 months. Each month, a specific OPLN taskforce comprised of advisors and members meets to look at all the issues related to COVID. “So it could be everything from policy, to bag bans, to packaging, to the amount of PPE that is being created, to just the amount of plastic that’s being introduced into consumers’ lives beyond what they were normally consuming, and try and figure out solutions to that,” he shares. “Our mission has always been to bring people together, educate, and accelerate. This has just expanded our mission.”
Says Huber of the postponement of SoulBuffalo’s immersive events, “I would love another engaging experience, but I’m fine just continuing to roll up the sleeves and work on the solutions. Hopefully, when this epidemic is behind us, we’ll get back together on something that looks like another physical summit. Until then, it’ll just have to be virtual, but we’re not going to quit working at it.”
Details on the COVID-19 Ocean Plastics Crisis Hub, the SALT Standard, OPLN, and Action Accelerators can be found here.