The Drifting Problem of Immortal Plastic
Image via: Algalita Marine Research Foundation
We must recognize that everything we create as a society has a future that we cannot see. Every product we make lives on after our brief interaction with it. Nowhere is that more apparent than the plastic legacy we are leaving in our oceans. On a recent trip to Hawaii, I had the displeasure of witnessing the problem firsthand. Escorted to a remote Oahu beach by a local friend of Captain Charles Moore, a leading researcher of the problem, I walked the shores of Kahuku Beach and picked up trash. What I saw was staggering. On a beautiful Hawaiian beach, colorful plastic as far as the eye could see.
Kahuku beach is a so-called 'collection beach.' Because it juts out into the Pacific toward the Northeast and currents swirl around it, tons upon tons of plastic wash up here. And it comes from everywhere. I saw kitchen appliances, fishing buoys and bleach bottles from Japan. I even found a shoelace from Asia. As evidence of how far things travel to Kahuku, there is a petrified redwood tree sitting on its shores.
Image via: Method
On my trip I learned about another collection beach on the Big Island, Kamilo Beach. It's chilling to read the Wikipedia entry for Kamilo and realize how we've so befouled such a pristine and magical place in such a short time.
Those who know will tell you the only plausible solution is to stop the plastic at its source. We need leashes to hold caps on soda bottles, we need to decrease the amount of plastic that travels from factories into our rivers, and we need more recycling. All true. But the scope and magnitude of this problem is immense. So in addition to these solutions, I believe we need two more things: a shift toward a more durable economy, and ways to harvest plastic from our oceans.
The shift toward more durables is difficult, but it can be done. I often get asked the question why Method doesn't make more refills (we have many but don't currently offer a refill for every product). The answer is that for our retailers, refills equate to selling a little more product in a lot more shelf space, because you now have two items of the same product where you used to have one. But we've been successful with higher volume items, both getting retailers to stock them and getting people to buy them.
The next step is motivating people to use durable cleaner bottles instead of one-time-use packaging. If we can get that happening across multiple sectors of the economy, we can start to make a dent in the problem.
Harvesting plastic from our oceans is more difficult. Most of the plastic in our oceans cannot be recovered; it's just too small and too widely spread out to practically collect it. I do think there is utility, however, in recovering some of it and turning it into something beautiful and useful. If we can do that, we can raise the awareness needed to spark the shift toward more durable and responsible consumption. Inspired by my experience in Hawaii, I've begun a project to collect plastic from certain places where it gathers around the Pacific, mostly on beaches, to do just that.
At Method, our primary design principle is 'Design for Reincarnation.' It's about designing products with a past and a future, not just things that are beautiful and function in their "useful" life today. It's about bottles made from bottles, and ingredients that come from plants, not chemical plants. It represents one element of our expanded definition of design that helps us create things to move a small step toward a more verdant and sustainable world.
We certainly need more ideas, ingenuity and effort directed at finding solutions to the ocean plastic problem. Success would mean securing our legacy as the generation that changed the course of our relationship with our oceans, and I hope we do it.
For more on this:
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: "Out of Sight, Out of Mind"
There's More Than One Ocean Trash Gyre! Five Gyres Project Switches Focus From Great Pacific Garbage Patch to Other 4 Gyres
"Recycled Island" Turns Ocean Plastic Into A Paradise