All Hands On Deck

A version of this post was first published on the LinkedIn page of David Tulauskas, VP, Chief Sustainability Officer at NestléWaters North America

Shades of Blue, Yellow, Red and Green

“Have you ever seen so many shades of green?,” asked Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, as we stood nearly 100 feet in the air on a wobbly platform atop the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest canopy. As I descended from the canopy, the forest seemed to come alive with darting specks of blues, yellows, and reds – colors of exotic birds I had never seen before. This was in 2012 when I was fortunate enough to participate in the Corporate Eco Forum’s annual Sustainability Leadership Development Program with representatives from nine other companies and several experts, like Tom, learning about the intricacies of the Amazon ecosystem and exploring solutions to climate change. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t think about any time there and all the shades of green.

Fast forward nearly seven years later, with no trees in sight, let alone land, I was asked a similar question: “Have you ever seen so many shades of blue?” But rather than finding myself atop a 100-foot platform in the Amazon, I found myself pondering this question while carefully navigating a wobbly gangway hanging off the side of the RCGS Resolute, a 400-foot expedition vessel, in the Sargasso Sea, part of the North Atlantic Gyre. As far as my eyes could see, there were more shades of blue than I could count. As I descended into the cold Atlantic water, I focused on a nearby clump of seaweed, which came alive with familiar specks of yellows, greens and reds – only these weren’t colors of exotic marine animals or fish. Instead, I was face-to-face with bobbing bits of plastics.

I was there participating in the inaugural Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit (OPLS) with over 150 people representing well-known global companies, tech and social entrepreneurs, investors, recyclers, academicians, public servants, visual artists, students, a variety of well-known global and local NGO’s, and even a former professional football player. The participants had come together to learn about the intricacies of the plastic value-web, plastic pollution’s impact on the oceans, and set participants up for action after the Summit. A day hasn’t gone by since where I haven’t also thought about the bobbing plastic, all the shades of blue, and the bonds created that leave me hopeful that there are solutions to this issue.

The Ocean Plastic Challenge

Nearly 8 million metric tons of plastics end up polluting the oceans every year. That’s equivalent to one garbage truck load of plastic being dumped into the oceans PER MINUTE. Approximately 80% of that marine pollution comes from land-based activities, and it’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. This plastic represents $80-120 billion of material value used once and not recovered according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Furthermore, consumer plastic and packaging is estimated by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) to cause nearly $140 billion in total environmental damage per year, including $13 billion to the marine environment. Plastic pollution is wreaking havoc on the environment and the economy.

Photo by Bryan Liscinsky
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(Top photo by Bryan Liscinsky; Bottom photo by Tom Gruber)

These facts, however, do not predestine society to a certain future. There are tangible steps that, companies in particular, can take today to help address the plastic challenge. For Nestlé Waters’ part, we are rapidly accelerating our use of recycled plastic, which is extending the life of existing PET plastic, and helping to keep that plastic out of landfills, oceans, and other places it doesn’t belong. Our iconic Poland Spring® brand is transitioning its packaging to 100% recycled plastic across its still water portfolio by 2022, and we have set our sights on achieving 50% recycled plastic across our U.S. domestic portfolio by 2025.But we can’t use that material without getting it in the recycling bins in the first place, and with U.S. recycling rates still hovering around 30%, we have a lot of work to do on this front. That’s why we are working with organizations like Closed Loop Fund to help increase recycling infrastructure, and Keep America Beautiful to improve recycling education.

While these steps and others being taken in our industry are encouraging, there’s still a lot of work to be done. For the OPLS participants, our collective vision for the future along with the current realities create the creative tension which is a driving force for system change and the framework from which we worked late into the evenings on the RCGS Resolute, developing our design lab action plans and implementation roadmaps. 

Where Do We go From Here?

Things are invented twice: once in your head, and once in reality. Whether it’s tackling climate change or ocean plastics, if people start by thinking that they’re doomed to fail, then they will. Solving the issue of plastic pollution is a big, complex problem, but the first step to solving it is believing that it can be solved. To start, a message of hope is needed, especially for our younger generations. They still believe that business can lead on these issues, but that may soon change if we, as business leaders, don’t give them reasons to believe that we will step up – and quickly.

Our conversations, as part of OPLS, certainly reinforced what the group already intuitively knew: ocean plastic is a complex issue. The thing about complex systems is that it is not easy to simplify them because you can’t disconnect pieces of a tightly networked and interdependent web. There are no “instructions” for fixing a complex system, but progress can be made by focusing on specific parts of the system. Furthermore, progress can be accelerated and more impactful when there is a common vision for the future along with a message of hope. 

Photo by Yarrow Kraner

Solving plastic pollution has to be a team sport. One country, one institution, one organization, one company, or one individual can’t solve this issue alone. The good news is that today, there are a lot of collaborations where these groups are working together and many of the necessary solutions are being devised, invented, implemented every day, and by many, many different players. But, more solutions are needed and we need to arrive at them more quickly. (Photo by Yarrow Kraner)

As I look back at my time, both in the canopy of the rainforest, and in the depths of the North Atlantic Gyre, coming face-to-face with some of the biggest issues facing the planet, my biggest takeaway is that the future is yours and mine to choose, right here, right now, grounded in current realities. When I returned from the Sargasso Sea, I committed myself to addressing ocean plastics by being a part of the ongoing transformation happening at Nestlé Waters and the bottled water industry. I’m excited to think about what else might be transformed over the years as I, and the other 150+ OPLS participants, work toward a future of plastic-free oceans. All hands on deck are needed. Will you join us?  

You can read more about the OPLS in its Mission Output Report 2019 here.

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(Photo by Brian Liscinsky)