The classic 1967 film The Graduate is famous for the advice given to the character played by Dustin Hoffman. A middle-aged neighbor sums up an important future with great career prospects in one word: plastics.
In the movie, the quote reflects a generational divide; to a 1960s graduate, a staid career in something so ordinary as plastics is anathema. However, 50-plus years later, the statement can be seen as prophetic in another way. Plastics were designed for durability and literally to last forever, yet they are overwhelmingly used for single-use, throwaway applications. Thus, generations of items have now piled up with no end in sight. Asuggests that even at business-as-usual rates, “the scale of plastic entering the world’s oceans will triple by 2040, to an average of 29 million metric tons of waste, per year—equivalent to 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds, of waste per meter of coastline, globally.”
Many of the strategies to address these issues focus on consumers and governments. Governments should ban plastics, for example, straws or bags (and some have). Consumers should responsibly carry metal straws, non-disposable water bottles and their own bags when grocery shopping. But such reforms mainly affect the use of plastics and don’t address the underlying problems with how plastics are created. As a result, when crises such as the COVID pandemic occur, such changes can easily be rolled back.
Any talk of plastics reform should start with the companies that make and sell products that use them. Currently, companies have very little incentive to take responsibility for the plastics they put into the world. The way the economic system is set up, certain aspects of production don’t carry a price and so most companies have little incentive to change. The recent attention to pollution and carbon taxes and credits illustrates this. Such systems are putting a price on what is not normally priced, and forcing businesses to be accountable. Witness the scores of companies, including, , and who have recently committed to carbon neutrality.
The same type of system – and company commitments – should be created for plastics. To better understand this issue, I recently spoke to a company that makes disposable straws. They described that when purchasing managers at leading companies are given a choice between straws made of polypropylene or a biodegradable alternative which may cost twice as much, companies always chose to save the cost. But who is actually paying for this decision? There are significant social and environmental costs to such a decision, as the straw eventually makes its way to landfills, or the ocean where it will remain forever. By one estimate, as of 2018, over 500 million disposable straws are used per day in the United States. But the associated social and environmental costs are beyond the direct economic calculus of the companies producing or buying the product, so not often taken into consideration.
Recent conversations with leading environmentally sustainable companies including consumer products company Seventh Generation; , an online sustainable products marketplace; and , a company that makes products from recycled plastics, have convinced me that an alternative system is possible.
For example, Grove CEO Stuart Landesberg told me his vision for a plastic-neutral company: “The biggest problem in our industry is single-use plastic. The goal is for Grove to become plastic-free by 2025, but we have the resources today to become plastic neutral. is for every ounce of plastic we sell, we pay for the collection and recycling of an equivalent amount of plastic pollution somewhere.” The idea is if a company can tax itself for its own products, suddenly there's a financial incentive to get out of plastic that never existed before.
Seventh Generation CEO Joey Bergstein* also highlighted to me that, while many companies talk about zero waste goals, such commitments should not only be about the company’s specific footprint in terms of limiting waste in their manufacturing operations. It is important for companies to take responsibility for the extended life of their products, and recognize that most waste they are responsible for is actually the end of life for the products that they create. Bergstein outlined to me his company’s process for dealing with plastic in an elegant way: companies need to focus on a) better plastics, b) less plastics, and ultimately c) no plastics.
For instance, using better plastics means that companies should use as much post-consumer content as possible. This is not without cost. For instance, while product bottles are more easily produced out of 100% post-consumer recycled content, making the cap from such material is more challenging. However, Bergstein recounted that a passionate packaging engineer took on the challenge, and actually created the first cap from PCR plastic, which is now used for Seventh Generation bottles.
Another creative example of this is Preserve’s(POPi), that launched this spring. Using plastics collected from coastlines and waterways, Preserve creates toothbrushes and razors and is donating 25% of proceeds from the sales of those items to nonprofits addressing the estimated 8 million ton a year ocean plastic problem.
Less plastic means selling products with greater concentrations. For instance, Seventh Generation laundry detergent used to be in a 100-ounce bottle that weighs about seven pounds. In 2019, they launched an “easy dose” detergent bottle that at 23 ounces, washes the same 66 laundry loads as the 100 ounce bottle; and at 75% lighter, uses 60% less plastic.
To be able to get rid of plastic all together, you need to actually take the water out of products and so Seventh Generation is looking at how to create an effective product for laundry, for dish cleaning, for counter cleaning, and for hand washing that has no water in it. To do this they created powder and tablet forms, and are running tests of these products on the Grove Collaborative marketplace.
As businesses increasingly recognize some of the extended environmental costs of the products they produce, such as carbon emissions, it is only time until there is more pressure on companies to take responsibility for their packaging materials in a more fundamental way. Thus, if The Graduate were remade for 2021, the neighbor’s well-intentioned advice may well be “sustainable packaging” or even “design innovation” – for a brighter future focused on reducing our plastic waste.Christopher Marquis is author of Better Business: How the B Corp Movement is Remaking Capitalism (Yale University Press, 9/13/20). He is the Samuel C. Johnson Professor in Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University. His research focuses on how businesses are creating a more resilient and sustainable capitalism by focusing on the elusive triple bottom line of environmental, social and financial performance. Previously, he worked for 10 years at Harvard Business School where he developed an award-winning course on social entrepreneurship.
*Bergstein's name was misspelled as Bergstrom in the original version of this article.