Oceans Full of Plastic, But Also Promise
John Hocevar, Greenpeace’s Ocean Campaigns Director, says a “perfect storm” of trends is poised to unleash a surge of action on marine debris.
For the debut of our new Future 500 interview series, Ask an Advocate Anything, we spoke with John Hocevar, the Director of Oceans Campaigns with Greenpeace USA. We reached him in Hawaii, after he had just returned from an expedition in the North Pacific aboard the Arctic Sunrise.
You’re just back from an expedition. What have you been up to?
This expedition has focused on plastic pollution; the ship just arrived after three weeks working in the Great Pacific garbage patch. We were supporting research from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Hawaii and several other institutions, looking especially at microplastics and microfibers, and the movement of large masses of debris across the ocean.
What did you learn out there?
We found concentrations of micro-plastics that were 11 times higher than what we’ve seen in coastal waters by cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and San Diego. It’s concentrated within an area that is twice the size of Texas, and 1,000 miles from land. It gives you a sense of the scale of this problem, and really it doesn’t leave you with any hope that you can clean this stuff up once it’s in the ocean. It really underscores the need to stop producing so much plastic in the first place.
The single-use plastic moves that we’ve seen to date, such as banning plastic straws, while good, nonetheless feel symbolic. What should companies be considering if they want to really make an impact?
A starting point for a company is to assess its plastic footprint. Most companies that we talk to aren’t really aware of how much plastic they are responsible for, or what types of plastic. That can be an eye-opening experience, but it is the first step in taking responsibility. From there, we want companies to set targets to reduce that plastic footprint. That can be overwhelming, especially when Greenpeace is saying we should stop using single-use plastic altogether. We recommend that companies start with the most problematic types of plastic, the kinds of things that are almost never being recycled, and/or are particularly toxic.
Polystyrene. Also, right now, in this country, we don’t really recycle plastic that is numbered 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7. They may end up in a blue bin, but chances are, they are ending up in a landfill or an incinerator.
Plastic cuts across so many aspects of modern life, far more than just environmental impacts. How is Greenpeace approaching this from a campaign perspective?
In many cases we would launch a campaign where we would persuade one company to change and build from there. This is a little different. We need to think broadly here. We are engaging retailers, the place where people are personally encountering single use plastics, as well as the large fast moving consumer good companies. We are talking to food service companies, we are talking to restaurant chains. We are open to engaging with any company that is interested in reducing their plastic footprint, or even better understanding the problems. We’re focusing on the companies that have the biggest plastic footprint, that are having the most impact.
What about oil, gas, and petrochemical companies that are providing the raw feedstock, the petroleum that plastic is made from? Do you see that they have a role in solving this, or even in future society?
I admit I find that challenging. As a marine biologist focused on coral reefs, I have seen first hand how climate change is directly responsible for killing an entire ecosystem, which I dearly love. And that is before we even begin to talk about the impacts of fossil fuels on human beings, especially poor people. We have no choice to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as we possibly can. When companies are talking about increasing plastic production, that means increasing our consumption of fossil fuels. And from a climate perspective alone, we just can’t afford to do that.
But aren’t plastics a more inert, less damaging, use of petroleum? If you are making fossil fuels into plastic, at least you aren’t burning them and sending carbon into the atmosphere?
It’s just that it’s different. A study released six weeks ago by Sarah-Jeanne Royer from the University of Hawaii found that when plastic is hit with sunlight, it releases greenhouse gases. There is the problem at the extraction end, where we are extracting natural gas to use as feed-stock for plastic, and then when plastic stays in the environment, if it burns then we are releasing carbon, and if it ends up in the environment just lying in the sun it is also releasing carbon.
I would love to see energy companies act like energy companies instead of oil companies, or natural gas companies.
Does the petroleum sector have a future at all, then, in your mind?
I would love to see energy companies act like energy companies instead of oil companies or natural gas companies. There is so much money to be made in the coming decades, and hopefully centuries, on renewables. It could be some of these big traditional oil companies that make that evolution, or they could lose out completely to entirely new players. They have so much money available to them that it really is up to them how it goes.
There are many groups now working on marine plastics, how does Greenpeace approach partnering?
We work through a coalition called Break Free From Plastic. It is global, and includes some of the large and well-known groups, but also a great number of smaller grassroots groups, especially in the global south. Their perspective has informed our strategy and approach. We coordinate as best as we can across the coalition. Tonight we are hosting an event here in Hawaii in partnership with several local organizations, including Plastic Free Hawaii, the Surfrider Foundation, Conservation International, and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. Where we can, we always try to partner with other organizations. If the issue we are working on isn’t so big that it’s impossible for us to solve it on our own, it’s probably not big enough to justify focusing on.
There is a fair amount of disagreement in the environmental movement about the right approach to tackling plastic, such as incineration, source reduction versus recovery, and so on. How do you navigate these?
There is definitely a need for more than one approach, ultimately we need to shift away from single-use, and start focusing on reuse and refill designs. I find any organization working on plastics would recognize that is the ideal. Where there are differences, it’s about what needs to happen in the short term. For us, we are really focusing on reduction. Let’s stop creating so much of this plastic in the first place. There is definitely value in increasing recycling rates and recycled content. We just don’t think that is going to be enough, or that it is going to keep plastic out of the environment, or out of our bodies.
Many people, including corporate executives, have lots of misconceptions about Greenpeace. What do people commonly misunderstand about the organization? What might surprise them?
Our protests, actions and banners get the most coverage, so that is what many people imagine when they think of Greenpeace. That is a small but important part of what we do. Much of our work involves quiet dialogue with corporate and political leaders, though, that rarely makes it into the media. Our ideal scenario involves collaborative conversation that leads to change all parties feel good about. Sometimes, public pressure is needed to help provide a sense of urgency, but even then we often reach a point where decision makers develop a sense of ownership over plans that seemed out of reach when we first began talking.
How do you balance empowering internal change agents within companies to effect the change you want to see, and your need on occasion to more publicly pressure a company to accelerate its responsiveness — which could potentially undermine those change agents?
Most people, when they think of Greenpeace, they think of direct action, protests, banners, and confrontation — and that is certainly a part of our toolkit. But by far most of my time these days is spent on constructive dialogue with corporate executives who recognize that plastic is a problem, that their company has a responsibility, and who want to talk about what we can do about that. Over the years I’ve seen a shift from where I think most CSR people at companies were primarily focused on PR, and reducing risk to the company. Now, more and more, senior people at these companies are readily genuinely concerned about trying to reduce their company’s impact, for the right reasons. That is a really important shift.
But does that CSR executive’s privately voiced concern translate into action?
The extent to which they are able to be successful depends a lot on the CEO, the board, the corporate culture where they are. Sometimes, we find the best way that we can support a good sustainability executive is to do something public that helps their bosses understand the urgency, and how it relates to their business. Ideally, it doesn’t take that.
“It is nice to have friendly conversations, but we are driven by results in the real world.”
What typically triggers that action to happen, do you set a deadline with a company?
It is nice to have friendly conversations, but we are driven by results in the real world. We recognize that some of this will not happen overnight, but we want to see public commitments. We want to see something where a company is taking a stand that goes beyond our private conversations. Some of this stuff is complicated, but signaling that the company wants to move in a particular direction, we don’t think that should take all that much time.
Greenpeace’s theory of change focuses on leveraging the supply chain power of large brand name companies in developed Western economies. But as the developing world gains more power, as state-owned companies gather more power, that approach will be less effective. How will you adapt?
If Greenpeace was only present in the United States and Europe, we would have a real problem. We run global campaigns where this work is led as much out of our team in Southeast Asia as it is in the United States or the Netherlands. That said, we just published results from a global beach cleanup and brand audit, in coordination with the wider coalition, and we were not surprised to see that, worldwide, the companies most responsible for the plastic we are finding on beaches are based in the U.S. and Europe: Coca Cola, Nestle, Pepsico. These companies are fully aware of the waste management challenges in some of the countries where they are active, but that doesn’t stop them from flooding these markets with packaging that is either difficult or impossible to recycle.
But would those companies not argue that, all things considered, there is no better packaging alternative for reaching these markets?
It is less about companies and more about particular individuals, especially design engineers, packaging engineers. They point to their life-cycle assessments, and they say, ‘What is so bad about plastic? It is better than glass or metal for A, B, C reasons.’ And, increasingly, it has become clear to me that the life cycle assessments that they are relying on to draw these conclusions are very limited. They exclude some of the most significant impacts.
For example, the climate impacts of plastic giving off greenhouse gases as it degrades, the emissions associated with extraction, transport, and refining, how it simplifies the drivers of food waste, that they assume all plastics are recycled, incinerated or land-filled after use, and the human health impacts — most of these impacts now have dotted-line connections from plastics
How does Greenpeace influence non-western companies, especially consumer brands that are headquartered and primarily sell within the developing world? How do you build power under authoritarian systems, or what are the leverage points?
Greenpeace is a global organization, with 28 national and regional offices around the world, providing a presence in over 40 countries. Our priority campaigns engage offices in the countries which are critical for success. Often, success requires working throughout the supply chain and engaging companies and governments in multiple countries.
Working in countries operating under authoritarian regimes can present challenges. Much of our power comes from working on issues that have wide popular support, which can help strengthen civil society in ways that can be difficult for regimes to counter. We have to be strategic, of course, and recognize the importance of cultural differences. Within Greenpeace, offices that have the most at stake and are closest to the issues at hand are given the most say in how we operate.
There’s a lot of talk these days about circular economy economic models. Is that a good framework for spurring innovation and reducing environmental impacts?
I am really happy to see the concept of circular economy becoming much more prominent in corporate circles. I think it’s important. Ultimately, we want to see companies take full responsibility for the full life cycles of what they produce and sell. But that feels like a long way off.
I wouldn’t be surprised if companies that are resisting change now end up getting left behind by their competitors when we have new legislation in two, three, or four years.
So the circular economy concept may be mainstreaming, but the practice is not?
I’ve been in this role 14 years, and we have really focused on corporations rather that the United States government. We felt we could accomplish more, and more quickly [in the private sector], that in dealing with Congress or the White House. On this issue, I’m not sure this will be the case. There are quite a few companies that are ready to take significant action and some that are starting. The culture is changing so fast, that regulatory change is coming. How significant it is remains to be seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if companies that are resisting change now end up getting left behind by their competitors when we have new legislation in two, three, or four years.
Is circular economy regulation an active government relations file for Greenpeace?
We are definitely having some interesting conversations with stakeholders, and one of the surprising things is just how wide that group is, on an issue as omnipresent as plastic. Companies that deal with a lot of glass, paper, or metal, and don’t even sell or package their products, still have a lot at stake. They are finding it much more difficult and costly to recover materials because the growth of plastic is overwhelming waste management and recycling systems. The cost of recycling plastic is driving up the cost of recycling other materials.
Speaking of stakeholders, I’m curious about labor. What are the employment implications of reducing single-use plastics?
There will be people who try to paint single use plastics as a jobs versus environment thing. They always will. But when we talk to labor unions, they remember a time when re-use provided a lot of jobs. Think of the milkman, for example. Studies have shown that at the end of the day, re-use employs a lot more people than single-use.
The marine plastics challenge seems beyond daunting; it’s almost like you are trying to change a fundamental aspect of modern civilization. Are you optimistic?
I’m very excited by the change I expect we are going to see in addressing single-use plastic in the next few years. I’ve been working on social and environmental change, full-time, for 25 years, and I have never experienced a moment like this, where there is so much potential. It is amazing to be a part of it.
Really? Even with the oceans full to bursting with plastic? What’s behind that critical mass?
It’s really been the past three years where all the work that NGOs have done, combined with the new scientific findings, and the power of social media to help make sure that this reaches millions of people. All these forces together have created a perfect storm. Literally everyone I have talked to has understood plastic as an issue we should be concerned about. Almost all those people have taken steps to reduce the amount plastic in their personal lives, and that is true of corporate executives, politicians, as well as people that are just trying to live their lives.
You’re describing a classic tipping point. People have taken for granted, since forever, throwing things away — as if there is a place called “away.” Is away coming to an end?
It’s a classic case of the chickens coming home to roost. There was that classic Life magazine cover in the 1950s about about how easy things will be with disposable plastic. It took us a while to realize that nothing is free. And now that we know, what are we going to do about it?
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