11/17/2011 05:14 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2012

Finding Fortune in Plastic

In a remote part of the Pacific Ocean just 400 miles off the coast of California sits the world's largest congregation of our wasteful consumption patterns. Commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, it is a large body of floating debris trapped by the current of the North Pacific Gyre. Most alarming, the debris consists mainly of plastics. The bulk of it is not large pieces but barely visible and microscopic fragments. For years, environmentalists, scientists and researchers didn't think it was possible to clean up. In 2009, Project Kaisei turned the tide and began expeditions into the polluted gyre testing ways to capture the debris and recycle it into diesel fuel and other secondary products. Recognized as Google Earth Heroes for their use of an interactive voyage tracking mechanism that makes it possible to follow their expeditions in real time, the team hopes to raise awareness on how just 60 years of waste has caused environmental damage and created debris that will stay in the ocean for centuries.

Recently Project Kaisei's co-founder, Doug Woodring, has joined forces with the Clinton Global Initiative to create the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP), which is an investor led initiative that will ask corporations to measure and reveal their production and use of plastic and waste practices. The book Cradle to Cradle has a philosophy -- rooted in design principles -- that posits the notion that industry needs to rethink the product lifecycle. For example, recycling alone is short-sighted, instead the way forward would be to think in terms of the reuse and repurposing products. All the worlds ants have a higher biomass content than all the worlds humans yet over thousands of years ants have never destroyed their environment as humans have done in a mere 100 years.

Challenges of Raising Awareness

Unlike air pollution which we can see and smell, most think plastic is harmless, or merely an aesthetic eyesore when seen on the ground or in the water, Woodring says, and is perceived of as less of a planetary problem by the public. What many don't realize is that plastic does not biodegrade. It can stay in the environment for up to 400 years breaking down only to microscopic sizes and contaminating the food chain with toxins.

With thousands of types of plastic, and waste infrastructure that has not kept pace with our consumption, it is little wonder then that roughly 90 percent of plastics are not recycled. Woodring belives that mass scale recycling would be more surmountable if this number were reduced worldwide to 50-100 (types of plastics) by legislation and industry cooperation. Plastic use around the world continues to grow as wealth rises. He points out that the problems of plastic are then magnified in countries that do not have environmentally friendly recycling or disposal systems such as the Philippines where garbage is burned and plastic toxins subsequently end up directly into rainwater and the ocean.

The Plastic Disclosure Project

Point of purchase marketing, displays, advertising and labels do not need to be plastic. Essentially, too many items are plastics that simply do not need to be. The Plastic Disclosure Project is an opportunity for corporations to measure their plastic footprints in their daily operations. For companies akin to the current carbon footprint framework, and carbon disclosure requirements imposed on manufacturers, the Plastic Disclosure Project, with the ecological issues that Project Kasei is highlighting, attempts to serve as a uniting force. For example, through this project, the group can help corporations eliminate some R&D costs by making introductions to new solutions and materials that they may not have previously come across. This will help make "sustainable designs" become a broad-based reality in a shorter period of time.

Role of Government and Corporations

Woodring says that governments needs to incentivize and enable consumer and commercial re-use and recycling. They could play a role in strengthening the product-consumer relationship so consumers are aware of their product's life cycle and the effect it has after disposal. Legislation in the vein of this philosophy, for example, is "life cycle assessment" in Europe, which set up manufacturing standards and requirements for companies. We don't need trillions of government dollars to solve the brunt of this problem. Better design vis-à-vis reduction and new materials can lead directly to innovation, jobs and environmental betterment. Companies need to have leaders at the helm who see beyond upfront costs, recognizing the positive loyalty that can be generated from a strong focus on the environmental impact of their products. Simply put, incremental 2 percent changes at this point are not sufficient to effectively curb the negative repercussions of an over-abundance of worldwide plastic production and use.

Barriers Moving Forward

Woodring explains that there are financial barriers to really make this a reality. For example, Coca-Cola devoted R&D to develop a fully recycled bottle but has not yet been able to scale this up for all of their global demand simply because of capacity constraints. He sees the opportunity for a large company to take the lead and make a single huge stride. He uses the example of Europe's electronic waste laws as a good step, but if a company like Wal-Mart, for example, which has annual sales bigger than GDP of 144 countries, exerts their clout to pressure the entire industry to change, that would result in true progress. Small changes can make a big difference says Woodring who uses the example of how products come from China in bags that get thrown away. A company like Wal-Mart could fairly easily make a large-scale precedent-setting effort to figure out a way to remove these pointless polluters from the supply chain.

This story was previously published in Penn Elements, the University of Pennsylvania's first online environmental journal.