Sustainability is all about collaboration. To find solutions to the world’s most critical challenges, such as reducing ocean plastics, we need to work together and look across departments and industries to better understand our impact.
Enter Brian Lemoine and Val Bisharat, Community Project & Program Managers at Clif’s Bar’s In Good Company. In Good Company was founded in 2008 to bring companies together for a shared purpose, donating the sweat equity of their employees to help address food, housing and environmental challenges in communities across the country. Several times a year, In Good Company sends 15 to 20 employees from participating businesses for a week to work alongside local non-profits and residents on key community issues.
The Issue: River and Ocean Plastics
Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean — which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. The best research currently available estimates that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).
Brian and Val wanted to leverage In Good Company to learn about the issue, support inter-industry connections and, hopefully, make a dent in the massive pile of plastic in our rivers and oceans. This past fall, In Good Company brought Clif Bar employees and 35 volunteers from 16 companies across 11 states and 2 countries to rural Ripley, Ohio, to tackle the problem, including myself, Brianna LePiane, an account manager at Fairware.
It may surprise you to know the Ohio River regularly contends for first place in being the most polluted river in the United States. It’s a transport hub for tons of coal annually, and contains massive amounts of garbage underwater and on the shoreline. It’s also the drinking water source for more than 3 million people.
In Good Company paired up with Living Lands and Waters, the team with a plan and a seemingly endless appetite for hard work. Chad Pregracke and his crew were the hosts, the organizers, the heavy lifters, and the energizers. They lived on the water day-in and day-out, doing the hard work of physically pulling garbage out of the river. Everything In Good Company did for this project was in support of Living Lands and Waters larger mission to:
- Protect, preserve and restore the natural environment of the nations’ major rivers and their watersheds
- Expand awareness of environmental issues and responsibility encompassing the river
- Create a desire and an opportunity for stewardship and responsibility for a cleaner river environment
Living Lands and Waters has removed 10 million pounds of waste from America’s rivers – a truly stunning accomplishment, yet there still seems to be no end in sight. To fix this problem, we need to know where it’s coming from, why we are making it, and what we can do about it.
Where is all this waste from?
Did you know that 90% of the plastic in our oceans comes from our river systems? This is critical in understanding the problem so we can work toward creating a sustainable solution.
Plastic is everywhere, but it’s largely plastic packaging that’s the problem. We spent 5 days with In Good Company and Living Lands and Waters cleaning the Ohio River, and during this time our little team pulled out 29,133 lbs of waste by hand – 36,854 lbs including the waste pulled out by the excavator. The most common items were single use water and soda bottles. A few others key items made up about 80% of the waste: tires, plastic buckets, barge line and oil containers.
There is a tendency to point fingers elsewhere when it comes to the plastic problem. I like to think of this as the vacation effect: when you see the problem, you believe it. Reading about it or seeing images doesn’t have the same impact as seeing something in person. When we see plastic waste during our travels, we need to ask ourselves – Who is benefitting from this situation? Where does the investment come from for proper recycling infrastructure? What changes can I make in my local community and wherever I go to reduce my impact?
Think of it this way, if you live with the great privilege that comes with a first world society, you can look more deeply at your impact. Start with calling in, rather than calling out.
Why are we making it?
Plastic is cheap to make, and it’s a preferred material for packaging because it’s lightweight and durable. We create markets for cheap plastic goods and packaging, and then we off-load the responsibility of the waste to either infrastructure that isn’t able to adequately collect and recycled the plastic, or we ship it out to developing nations as a cheaper way to “deal with it”. Only 14% of plastic packaging is being recycled on a global scale. Even when it is recycled, it’s not being turned into a material of equal value.
We would like to think we are moving in the right direction, but we have doubled our rate of consumption of plastic in the last 50 years, and we are on track to double it again in another 20 years. Manufacturers are going to continue to make plastic products until they get clear market signals that conditions are changing. Given the gaps in the system, much of our waste is bound to end up in our oceans.
So what can we do about it?
Refuse, Reduce and Reuse
If you have a reusable straw, that’s great! Using reusable straws can help raise awareness about plastic and prompt people to think differently about their choices. We can use reusable snack pouches instead of plastic bags, and refillable water bottles and cutlery instead of single use ones. We can push our favourite brands to create products and services that support our lifestyle choices.
But there is so much more that needs to be done. These behavioural changes are not of great consequence as a single act, but it’s the behaviour change that’s key. If you reach for something that is going to last less than 1 hour in your life, stop and think about what you can replace it with that you’ll use again and again.
Write your local representative to tell them you care about the environment and are interested in better policy, infrastructure and extended producer responsibility programs. Then share that letter with your network so others can easily copy and paste, making political engagement quick, easy and connective. It will get your values in front of the people who care for the health and wellness of your community and will help you feel engaged with a solution. Consider uniting with organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation to create change together.
Get in touch
Stay engaged. Our communities are full of smart, fun, high energy people who share your concerns and will lift you up. Make sure you take self-care seriously. Your health and wellness is paramount to stay the course.
Check out these great communities and get involved
Living Lands & Waters | Support people doing the hard work of cleaning up our rivers
Zero Waste Vancouver | Learn tips and tricks to reduce your impact
B Corp | Discover companies using business as a force for good
UN Sustainable Development Goals | Learn what you can do to reduce your impact, specifically goals 11 & 14