Why we're still at sea on ocean plastics — the real reasons we haven’t solved the plastic crisis yet

iceberg plastic bag in ocean

This article was adapted from the newsletter Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

In the context of a circular economy, ocean plastics are a symptom of a larger, complex problem of unsustainable consumption and production. But with roughly 150 million tons of plastics circulating the world’s oceans and an additional eight tons being added each year, the symptom is getting harder to ignore.

I’ve just spent part of the week at sea. Specifically, attending the Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit, which took place aboard the RCGS Resolute, a 400-foot expedition vessel designed to navigate polar ice, passing through the Sargasso Sea en route between the Antarctic and Arctic oceans for the summer season.

Our four-day trip was in somewhat warmer climes: the North Atlantic Gyre, part of a system of ocean currents that stretch from near the equator nearly to Iceland.

The manifest: about 150 stakeholders from companies, NGOs, waste management firms, innovators and others. There were CEOs and other senior executives from some of the world’s largest plastic-producing and plastic-consuming companies. A "floating collaborative," as the organizers, leadership expedition company SoulBuffalo, called it.

Our mission: Come together to better understand the thorny challenges of ocean plastics, while literally surrounded by the problem.

As those who have been involved with collaborations aimed at solving complex challenges can attest, progress can be slow and hard to track. The journey gave me a chance to think about why.

As I pondered the week, I began to see three reasons we haven’t yet solved the oceanplastics crisis:

1. We don’t know exactly what were solving for. Three dominant and predictable narratives rise to the surface in discussions about plastics. For some, the problem is ocean plastics or marine debris. The primary solution: developing infrastructure to prevent the leakage of plastic into the environment, primarily targeting the 10 rivers in South-East Asia and Africa, the leakage point of roughly 90 percent of the plastic in the ocean.

For others, the issue is plastic waste more generally. Solving this challenge centers on ensuring all plastics are designed for recyclability, collected and recycled back into new materials. And for others still, single-use plastics is the culprit. This problem requires a sweeping elimination of all bags, films, takeaway food service items and other plastic items designed to be used only once. 

While it’s easy to write off these differences as semantic squabbles, their implications have real-world consequences. "We could call this building a circular economy for plastics, or this could be called keeping plastics out of the ocean. But the design briefs will be different based on how we frame the problem," said Martin Stuchtey, founder and managing partner of SYSTEMIQ, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Knowledge Partner for Systems Initiatives.

In other words, the path to getting rid of bottles, films and fibers in the ocean does not necessarily follow the same route as eliminating single-use plastics altogether. "This is about confronting the sometimes inconvenient trade-offs that we have to make," Stuchtey continued, emphasizing the need for common definitions, or at least shared understandings when it comes to building a circular economy for plastics.

2. It’s hard to get past talking points. Many of us have been trained to parrot pre-approved, thoughtfully honed and thematically "safe" phrases and ideas by our companies’ comms departments. Nothing wrong with that. However, sometimes leaning on what we’ve already decided is true means that were more interested in talking than listening, possibly missing some key points.

Take a conversational thread we had onboard about the threat of ocean plastics to birds and fish. According to National Geographic, 90 percent of seabirds are eating plastic, which poses a threat to vulnerable populations. As a solution to this stated problem, one executive from a large consumer packaged goods company advocated that we reformulate plastics to make them unappetizing to wildlife. While that might solve one symptom, wouldn’t it be better to eliminate the problem altogether?

"When working with people that we might disagree with, it’s common to worry that our curiosity will be misinterpreted as agreement," said Genevieve Ennis, who examines the relationship between neuroscience and bias and co-founded Implikit, in a presentation during the voyage. "That can hold us back from asking questions, which can get in the way of us seeking to understand others before we seek to be understood."

As we all know, it’s hard to listen as much as we all have things we want to share. But in practice, this can thwart effective collaboration, which usually requires a balance of both.

3. Collaboration is easy to say, hard to do. Indeed, collaboration was all most of my fellow passengers seemed to want to talk about. Which makes sense: In any multi-stakeholder context, it’s key that disparate parties work together, at least in theory. But collaboration only works when people have a common vision of the problem, and a common vision of what success might look like. With misaligned goals, incentives and understandings, collaboration may not be helpful, and actually could lead to everyone's paddling in different directions, going nowhere.

"We need to get a little more sophisticated about what collaboration means, and break it down into collaboration, coordination and communication," one of my shipmates, John Ehrman, senior partner at Meridian Institute, told me. "There’s different levels of the benefit to bringing people together. Sometimes, everybody uses that broad term of collaboration and has a different assumption of what that really means."

Still, coming together on a confined ship for several days can build shared understanding, a building block of collaboration. David Tulauskas, who recently moved to head sustainability at Nestlé Waters North America after a long career at General Motors, sat on a panel (and shared a cabin) with John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA, leading one attendee to remark, "Greenpeace on the same ship as Nestlé Waters is a huge win."

I asked Tulauskas, whose company is not currently engaged with Greenpeace, about the comment. He responded: "Regardless of the organization, it’s always better to establish a relationship and communication network before there is a problem. When you’re trying to solve a problem, you can’t do it unless you know everyone’s point of view. Maybe it’s emblematic that problems don’t get solved as quickly as they should because not all points of view are included at the table."

Back on terra firma, as we all regained our footing and caught up on email, it was easy to slip back into siloed routines, feeling resigned to the size and complexity of the ocean plastics challenge. But I believe the problem is solvable. As we all paddle together towards some version of the same goal, for me, it’s the connections, ideas and momentum that keep me engaged, inspired and committed to this work. And the passion and commitment of my fellow crew — on this journey and many others yet to come.