We Need to Recycle Our Thinking

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By Doug Studer
Galvanizer, Livelong Learner, Thoreauvian Naturalist, Deskey CEO

I recently spent nearly a week in Boston at the Sustainable Packaging Conference. I heard presentations about new plastics, attended workshops about how to motivate sustainable behavior in consumers, and heard how companies are impacting the waste stream by lightweighting their plastic bottles. 

All good, all necessary. And then Dave Rapaport, Ben and Jerry’s Global Social Mission Officer, remarked in his on-stage interview that “we can’t recycle our way out of our plastic problem.” That is the crux to me. It underscores the urgency of everything else I heard that week. He called Ben and Jerry’s “a social justice company that happens to sell ice cream” (really great ice cream, I might add). He is 100% right on in his thinking. Until companies stop saying “our customers will never pay for that” and start doing the right thing because it is right to do, we will not be able to change consumer behaviors enough to make a difference.

It is scary stuff. Our favorite poster child for ocean plastic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, represents only 3% of all the plastic in the ocean. Removing it all would still leave an estimated 145.5 million tons of plastic in the seas, killing over 100,000 mammals annually and ending up in our food. Recent studies show we consume 10,000 particles of microplastic each year in the seafood that we eat. Human, land-based activity is responsible for 80% of the plastics in our oceans; all the waste in our rivers, if not removed, finds its way to our oceans.

Single-use plastics and ineffective non-global approaches are major offenders. Of the plastic going into the ocean, 60% comes from Southeast Asia, but the products themselves come from all over the world. It is everyone’s responsibility to push companies where feasible to use more recycled, bio-based or biodegradable plastic in the first place. 

The reality, however, is that is costs significantly less — nearly four times less — to use non-recycled, non-bio plastic in consumer goods. Plastics deliver significant societal benefits in energy, food storage and improving the quality of life. However, those benefits are lost when plastic litter harms our natural environment — our environment. We must remember that we, too, are natural beings. We are all part of nature, and we are fouling our nest.

Progress is and can continue to be made with legislation and goals being set, a focus on a vision for a circular economy for plastics, new technologies and infrastructures, and education to influence behavior. These are not options! If we don’t recycle our thinking and change our collective behavior, we may be the victims of our own inability to act.