Manufacturing CEOs Should Find Ways to Float Above the Oceans’ Plastic Waste Problem

President Obama went to the Alaskan Arctic recently to highlight the issues involved with climate change. Maybe the next president will travel out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and bob around on a blob of waste to underscore the growing importance of a fast-rising sustainability issue: plastic garbage that is floating all over the planet.

Manufacturing CEOs of many sorts—those who run plastic packaging companies, and the hundreds more whose factory goods go to retail sheathed in plastic—should put this issue on their radars and perhaps seek ways to get ahead of it. Such initiatives could involve, for example, launching and publicizing a major drive to come up with biodegradable and/or paper-based packaging for their products and moving away from a reliance on plastic.

In the meantime, it’s impossible to predict which manufacturers’ brands might be targeted by activists such as the members of the Mega Expedition that returned to San Francisco in August carrying tons of plastic waste that they had pulled onto the research vessel Ocean Starr from the waters between California and Hawaii.

“If we don’t clean it up soon, then the big plastic will break down into smaller and smaller pieces, making it harder to clean up and more dangerous to sea creatures.”

“If we don’t clean it up soon, then the big plastic will break down into smaller and smaller pieces,” making it harder to clean up and more dangerous to sea creatures, Boyan Slat, a 21-year-old Dutch diver who raised more than $2 million through Kickstarter to launch what he called the Ocean Cleanup, an organization raising money and developing technology to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Covering an area that some estimate as twice the size of Texas, the patch consists mainly of waste from Asian consumers and businesses that is driven into and across the Pacific Ocean by prevailing winds. But this fact will not exempt western manufacturers and brands from having to confront the plastic-waste contagion at some point.

In fact, they can count on it, now that the United Nations itself has gotten involved. In July, the UN launched a new global initiative, Parley for the Oceans, whose goal is to raise awareness of “the beauty and fragility of our oceans and collaborate on projects that can end destruction.”

Plastic is the main culprit in the destruction, of course, not only refusing to break down and adding to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but also entangling an estimated 135,000 whales a year in plastic marine debris in addition to an inestimable millions of birds, turtles, fish and other marine debris.

The UN has even come up with a handy acronym to help global denizens collaborate to drive change: AIRR, which stands for “Avoid” using plastic; “Intercept” and catch plastic waste before it enters the oceans; “Reclaim” plastic by retrieving it from shores and recycling it; and “Redesign” by replacing plastic in products and creating new materials.

But manufacturing CEOs shouldn’t feel too bad if this issue hasn’t yet landed in their daily reports; even some companies on the front lines of plastic packaging haven’t picked up on it yet.

For example, Tetra Pak, the Dutch giant whose aseptic plastic packaging is used broadly for a whole variety of beverages ranging from soy milk to fruit juices, has made a point of partnering with an environmental outfit that has come up with a day each year that it calls Overshoot Day— the point at which “humanity’s demand on nature exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year.”

And yet, in a conversation with Manufacturing CEO Briefing, Tetra Pak executive Carola Fantoni wasn’t clued in to the problem of plastic flotsam and jetsam in the oceans. “This is not,” she said, “an area where we have any involvement.” Perhaps it is an area where they should.

Dale Buss :Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.