I had lunch today with Pam Marcus, the founder of Lifefactory, a company that makes reusable glass water bottles and baby bottles. She is also one of the organizers of the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s “Think Beyond Plastic Innovation Competition.” There is a $50,000 prize at stake for the best idea for reducing plastic pollution, whether it’s the invention of a new material or a technology or a process or… whatever. And I got to thinking… what will it really take for us to reverse this mess we have gotten ourselves into?
Look, it’s all well and good for us to reduce the amount of plastic we personally use in our daily lives. And that has been my project for my own life, and this blog, and my talks, and my book for over 5 years. But are our personal actions enough to stem the tide of new plastic that is being dumped onto the earth every day? Are they even enough to keep each of us safe from toxic chemicals if so many chemicals are still produced every day and escape into the environment? I believe that the actions we take every day–bringing our own containers, mugs, and utensils; buying from bulk bins; refusing single use disposables; finding alternative products–are vitally important. But they are not enough. We do have to tackle this problem from all angles because the truth is that not everyone is going to change.
That is why I have made a point of interviewing entrepreneurs for this blog and for my book–people who have gone beyond personal change to invent new products and new ways of doing things. The store in.gredients in Austin, TX, is a good example. It is a bulk food store where you bring your own bags and containers. But they are not simply concerned with what we as consumers see when we walk in. They are also doing what they can to reduce the disposable packaging throughout their supply chain, working with local vendors who deliver their products in reusable containers and take them back to refill with each delivery–the packaging behind the scenes that most of us never see.
Or companies like Life Without Plastic that started out because a mom and dad were concerned about feeding their baby from plastic bottles and ended up turning that fear into a whole business dedicated to plastic-free alternatives.
But what about the huge amounts of plastic in cars or airplanes or buildings? What about all the incredible amounts of plastic used in the healthcare industry (which Pam witnessed firsthand working at Kaiser Permanente, which was the impetus for her to start Lifefactory in the first place)? What about all the walls we run up against when we are trying to reduce plastic in our own lives and realize that the system makes it nearly impossible?
We do need innovation. And not just innovation that deals with part of the problem. It’s not enough to develop a new way to recycle plastic when the stuff is made from fossil fuels with toxic chemicals and is hazardous at all stages of its life cycle. It’s not enough to add a degradable additive to make fossil-based plastics break down, or to remove the BPA and replace it with something equally as harmful, or to call your new plant-based plastic safe and refuse to disclose all the ingredients in it. I would love to see some truly green chemistry. And I hope that contests like the Think Beyond Plastic Competition will help to encourage that kind of thought.
So what do you think? Are you an entrepreneur or know someone who is? Have you been secretly working on a new product or material or process to help seriously reduce plastic pollution? Or if not, what do you think we need? What, in your wildest dreams, would you like someone to invent? And why not invent it yourself? If you’re just starting out, it might be too late for this year’s competition (the due date is January 6, 2013.) But the organizers hope to hold it every year. So why not get started now? Leave a comment with your wish list for what a perfect plastic-free world would look like. I’d love to hear your ideas!