Can Plastic Producers Regulate Themselves ?

How many times have you heard about a billionaire donating millions of dollars to a worthy cause only to be met with scurrility and suspicion? Normally when the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of the world make a large (tax deductible) donation, they are lauded and showered in praise at dazzling ceremonies and press releases. However, as public sector financing diminishes and large donors step in to fill the void some seriously tough questions have to be asked.
This isn’t a new topic. In fact, when John Rockefeller proposed donating a vast sum of money to his own charity at the turn of the century former US President Teddy Roosevelt and then sitting President Howard Taft roundly denounced the idea. Suffice it to say that with little to no oversight and no publicly elected officials these monies can seriously erode the voice of the people. Before peeling off onto the real topic of today’s blog, you can read more about the distorting effects of “big philanthropy” over at Vox and The Atlantic.

While it may be controversial to have large donors directing public policy, this is the world we are living in- a world where the public is often dependent on the will of large donors to shape the world around us. The same is true for the direction of environmental policy, ranging from carbon emissions to plastic waste. Perhaps accepting that this is the world we live in, one man is trying to bend the will of large companies to the will of the people.
In 2018 Dave Ford, decided that a solution to the massive ocean plastics situation needed to happen quickly. Dave Fords normal job, CEO of Soul Buffalo, is to design and host immersive work retreats for large companies where the goal is to create an environment where company executives can break free of their usual way of thinking and find creative solutions to their biggest problems. Why not use the same model to brainstorm solutions to the ocean plastics problem?

The revolutionary idea built into Dave Ford’s plan was to bring bitter enemies together. Ford knew that industry alone would never act quickly enough and that environmental groups would never persuade them to do otherwise using their same old tactics. So, Ford organized one of his work retreats but with a guest list that included plastic industry bigwigs, such as Coke-a-cola, and environmental groups, such as Greenpeace. Over the course of 3 days the two sides wrote a thousand post it notes, broke up into small working groups, and sailed out into one of our oceans massive plastic gyres for buddy snorkeling in a sea of plastic. Whether or not Ford’s plan for a kumbaya breakthrough will have any real impact is yet to be seen. By all reports it was a success at least as far goodwill and handshakes are concerned.
While Ford’s effort and creativity must be applauded there is still room for criticism using the same critique of big philanthropy. Should the fate of our oceans and plastic production at large be left up to a handful of industry leaders on a cruise? I think an argument can be made in either direction. Perhaps this is the best solution given the state of paralysis of so many of the world’s governments when it comes to environmental action. Perhaps small working groups can brainstorm our way out of the ocean plastic crisis.

On the other hand, perhaps this is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Promises from industry to self-regulate have a dismal success rate. And why shouldn’t they? Regulation often means a dent in a companies bottom line, which drives away investment. Afterall, the goal of most companies is to maximize profits, which is exactly what we see in unregulated capitalism. Of course, herein lies the argument for government regulation. The responsibility for reducing plastic waste cannot be put on the same board agenda for companies that are simultaneously trying to thrive beyond their competitors. If you need a reminder of what happens otherwise, just see the tragedy of the commons.
Likewise, and as a bit of an aside, individuals should also not be entrusted with such a great burden. Though obviously it would be great if we could all do our part to reduce plastic waste, if a person wants a soda and a non-recycled plastic container is the only way to get it, I’m afraid they’re reaching for the plastic. That is the role of the individual as a consumer in the marketplace.
How then can the playing field be level for companies in competition with each other and to remove the option for bad choices from consumers? Herein lies the argument for the role of government. Make no mistake, we are witnessing a plastic waste crisis but we may also be on the verge of a solution. While large companies and wealthy philanthropists capture headlines with their solutions, it may be prudent to remain skeptically optimistic.