The Voyage of the Resolute and the Evolution of a Plastic Standard
When Charles Darwin set off on his voyage of discovery in the Beagle, he little knew the ramifications that journey would have. Afterwards it took him 28 years to get The Origin of Species into print, only to stun and, in many cases, to offend, the scientific world and the public with his ideas.
When I boarded the plane for Bermuda in May 2019, for a voyage of discovery on the RCGS Resolute, I also was unaware just what the result would be. All I knew was, I’d been invited to be part of an expedition to examine plastic in the North Atlantic Gyre, one of a number of places where we’re finding more and more plastic in the ocean.
Making the trip with me were over 150 stakeholders from all sides of the plastics question—sustainability executives from giant corporations, CEOs, scientists, major recyclers and some household-name environmental NGOs. We were going in search of plastics and, more importantly, solutions.
I brought to the voyage four things:
- First, the results of a year of working on a framework for the impact of plastic on the environment
- Second, days-old research, by my colleague Dr. Miguel Fernandes, into the plastic that’s washing up on the beaches
- Third, a new website, PlasticStandard.com, to share publicly the True Plastic Impact framework and research with others working on the issue
- Fourth, a desire to see what others had done and how we could learn from each other and combine our efforts
The fourth, the desire to work together, was the most important—and was an attribute everyone on the expedition shared. Darwin himself would have found it difficult to classify just what species of voyage this was. Neither a cruise nor a conference, exactly. It was not a purely scientific expedition, though there was science going on, and the Resolute has full-time research lab. Rather, it was an amalgam of all of these. It worked because many who might, in their daily jobs, be working on different sides of the plastics question put all that aside and spent four days working intensely, side-by-side, to build structures and frameworks and working groups and models to figure out what the heck to do about ocean plastics.
This was all part of the 2019 Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit, an event organized and led by Soul Buffalo which hosts, in their own words, “invitation-only gatherings that unite esteemed stakeholders to translate sustainability commitments and goals into meaningful action.” In this case, the stakeholders were united in their commitment to create sustainability commitments and goals. Despite the clear and pervasive issue of plastics in our waters, there isn’t the comprehensive set of goals and plans we need as a planet to tackle it. So for four days, we worked on exactly that.
I’m not sure what Darwin’s schedule was like but in our case, it was 12 hours a day focused on ocean plastics. We had plenary presentations, spent more than a dozen hours in our working groups, and snorkeled in a sargassum patch with the seabed almost a mile-and-a-half below, dodging Portuguese Man-o-Wars in search of microplastics. We trawled for a mile or more in each direction and had the contents analyzed for plastics.
The issues raised and work done showed the true breadth of the issue. For more than a year I’ve been working on a specific aspect of the plastics issue: plastic neutrality. Up to now, plastic neutral has been measured using weight—a ton used, a ton recycled. This doesn’t make sense, and it’s not a solid foundation on which to build our efforts to combat plastic in the environment.
Consider greenhouse gases (GHGs), where we now know and account for the fact that some are far more powerful than others. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) of the various gases must be taken into account before a company can claim neutrality. Remediating a ton of carbon dioxide, for example, with a ton of SF6—which has more than 20,000 times the warming potential of CO2—is clearly inappropriate.
In the same way, all plastics are not created equal, and we need a broadly accepted standard for plastic neutral to allow us to deal with this problem much more quickly and appropriately. We need to ask, for example, how large the particulate is, since small plastics can be eaten by fish, replacing actual food in their stomachs and reducing the survival rates of fish populations. On our voyage we found hundreds of pieces of microplastics loose in the open sea, just in our very small patch of ocean, along with larger fragments and complete forms (for example, an intact toilet seat).
Similarly, we must also ask whether the plastic is buried in a landfill, or loose in a river system on its way to the open sea. And in terms of measuring impact, it matters greatly what the plastic’s level of toxicity is.
Before the Resolute left the dock, my company had a working framework of no less than twelve metrics – including weight – that must be taken into account in a realistic Plastic Standard (see picture above). In our Metrics working group sessions at sea, we batted around a bunch more that may need to be accounted for, and we talked about implementation, data structures, and how to organize all the information we need.
Because of the time we were able to spend working, and the time available for small groups to talk, we were able to collaborate far more closely and at length than any typical convention would allow. Further, Soul Buffalo’s unique formula for bringing potentially adversarial stakeholders together in an intimate, escape-proof space, gave room for truly wide-ranging conversation and eliminated the echo-chamber effect single-issue conferences can create.
We had perspectives in the room who believed plastics are good, they just need to be kept out of the oceans. We also had those who wanted to remove plastics from the world altogether. And, we had them talking and working together on the problem. How cool is that?
In the end, the group agreed that a realistic standard for plastic impact is needed, one similar to carbon’s Global Warming Potential (GWP). I agree, and I believe that such a metric (we call our version True Plastic Impact, or TPI) will allow companies to target the most critical plastics, to prevent them ever reaching a sensitive ecosystem or a waterway, and to prioritize the most important ones to remove first.
For me personally, this was a chance to get in a room with many of those who can decide how plastics are going to be dealt with and make it stick. One day, for example, one of the participants from a major multinational corporation went to make a call. He returned later and announced, “Just talked to the CEO and he’s on board!”
That is the appropriate metaphor, of course, given that we were on a ship, but it is also a harbinger that this concept, and the incredible importance of getting plastics permanently out of our environment, is becoming the common wisdom.
In the end, it was bracing to see the scale of the problem, but also encouraging to see the scope of the response. By the time we docked four days later, I was part of a committed working group from the ship, one of more than a dozen such groups that sprang out of the voyage. And I had a deepened understanding of, and commitment to, grappling with and beating the ocean plastics problem. Such is 21st century exploration.
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