Visible Hands
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Visible Hands

Life in plastic, it’s not fantastic

In honor of yesterday’s Earth Day and the “Nature is Healing” memes that make us smile, let’s chat a bit about the environment and business.

PLASTICS. Everyone’s favorite mean girl clique and the name of the plastic industry’s lobby group (Plastics Industry Association). Despite years of work to reduce single-use plastics by activists, the plastic industry lobby has come out aggressively during the current pandemic to support removing plastic bag bans. Through misrepresenting studies and ignoring experts who found that reusable bags can be disinfected through washing with soap and water, the lobbyists have successfully pushed for reversing bans on single-use plastics. Wow…is now really the time?

Tony Radoszewsk, head of PLASTICS, wrote in March 18 to the Department of Health and Human Services: “The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many Americans, businesses and government officials to realize that single-use plastics are often the safest choice.” But the jury’s still out. Experts have noted that plastics may not be better; store-provided bags may also have germs.

Using disposable bags during a global pandemic is one thing; however, the current swing in sentiment may be reversing some of the nascent efforts to reduce plastic waste for a long time to come.

To be clear: Plastic waste is still definitely a problem. The world produces 300 million tons of plastic waste annually — equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. 80% accumulates in landfills or, worse, in the natural environment. And should you need any more of a wake-up call: if current trends continue, oceans could contain more plastic than fish in 30 years.

What about recycling? Well, only 8.4% of U.S. plastics were recycled in 2017. Moreover, recycled plastics are often shipped overseas for refining, but China and other Asian markets stopped accepting these imports in 2019. Much of the unaccepted materials goes straight to the landfill.

Product packaging is the largest plastic waste generator, accounting for 65% of all U.S. plastic waste by weight. (It’s not your straws!) Although some companies, such as Unilever, have made bold statements on how they will reduce virgin plastics in packaging, proactively collect and process their plastic packaging, and ensure reusability or recyclability, there is still a lot more work to do.

Don’t let the “old plastic bottles to new stuff” trend fool you (I C U Rothy’s). There is limited availability of high-quality recycled plastic waste materials, so more investment is absolutely needed to tackle infrastructural, technical, and commercial deficiencies in reprocessing plastics. Increased innovation in the circular economy can move us forward. In a circular model, processes and products are designed to not produce waste, and materials can be reused or regenerate natural resources.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, “While [a circular economy] is key in preparing us for a viable future, ready to withstand resource constraints, it also can be a solution to the needs we face today in the midst of COVID-19.” The European Commission President underscored that a circular economy “is not only good for our environment, but it reduces dependency by shortening and diversifying supply chains.”

As an employee:

  • Organizations like Cradle2Cradle and Terracycle are partnering with businesses trying to make their products more circular.
  • Many companies have “Green Teams” that help to champion internal sustainability efforts — ask to join or start one!

As a consumer:

  • Extending the life of your existing items is a great way to avoid introducing more waste into the environment. We’re big fans of Patagonia’s Worn Wear program and their mantra around “Buy Less, Repair More.”
  • Understand your local recycling program — waste management companies have different requirements. Most programs ask folks NOT to recycle plastic bags (because they get caught in machines). Most large grocery retailers accept dry, empty plastic bags for recycling, but reusing old plastic bags as trash bags and tossing them in the garbage might just be your best bet.

As an investor:

  • Consider investing in clean energy index funds and ETFs, instead of generic S&P 500 indices. Because plastics are made from fossil fuels, corporations like ExxonMobil are not only driving the climate crisis, but also profiting from this enormous plastic problem. (Though with oil prices veering into negative territory, non-fossil fuel investments might just appear savvy regardless…) Check out this guide by Trillium Asset Management on how to start.

As a citizen:

  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation offers resources on urban policy that city governments can use to enable circular economy transitions. One idea is to involve residents in local budgeting to influence circular economy policymaking.

Stay connected with us through Instagram, Medium, and, of course, email (! Please invite any friends, roommates, coworkers, armchair activists, and paper straw haters to join the movement.




Visible Hands grew out of our impatience with the sentiment of “business as usual.” We share business news and a call to action that includes our multiple stakeholder roles in society: consumer, investor, employee, and citizen.

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