An Ocean Plastics Field Trip for Corporate Executives
Recycling is broken. The oceans are trashed. As the plastics crisis spirals out of control, an unlikely collection of executives and environmentalists set sail for the North Atlantic Gyre in a desperate attempt to find common ground.
The subtropical island of Bermuda does not see many icebreakers, but on a warm May day, Dave Ford is standing on one, welcoming his uneasy guests aboard. Technically, the RCGS Resolute, 400 feet long and eight decks high, is an ice-strengthened expedition ship, one class below an icebreaker. But the choice still seems inspired, because as the factions of environmentalists and plastics executives arrive, the chill on the ship is palpable, and the only way Ford’s vision of some sort of Paris Accord for plastics is going to happen is if a whole lot of icebreaking goes down.
SoulBuffalo’s previous expeditions have all been for small groups from single companies, but as the scope of the plastics crisis has unfolded (spoiler alert: it’s worse than you can possibly imagine), Ford began to wonder if a big, boundary-crossing, experiential intervention could turn the tide. “I’ve always believed that travel can capture magic in a bottle,” he says. “You know how when you travel with people, your relationship can advance years in a matter of days? That’s what needs to happen out here.”
Ford is tall and scruffy. At 41, he still dresses in the just-slept-in jeans and T-shirts that make it easy to picture him in his young, globe-trotting days. That informality helps take the starch out of the suits, which is one of his goals for this Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit: Put all the stakeholders on a ship, steam out to the plastic-studded wastes of the North Atlantic Gyre, distribute snorkels, and, in a kind of epic swirly, stick their faces in the problem. Then haul everyone back aboard and hack a solution to the fucking thing.
SoulBuffalo had to write a “very big check” to book the Resolute, which was en route to the Arctic from its January cruising grounds in Antarctica, before Ford knew if anyone would come to his party. “We bet the company on this,” he confesses, “pushed all our chips into the middle.”
When I ask why, his voice rises. “How many whales with 60 pounds of plastic in their guts need to beach themselves? How many turtles with straws up their noses?”
More, apparently, because most of the 70 corporations Ford invited said no. But before going down with his very pricey ship, he elected to raise the stakes. “You know what the tipping point was? When we decided to invite Greenpeace. When people realized that Dow and Greenpeace were going to be on the same ship, they were like, Whoa, this is real.”
And while Greenpeace may be the most anti-corporate of the greens on board, it’s not alone: Break Free from Plastic, Upstream, Ocean Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the 5 Gyres Institute are all here to hash it out with Dow, Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters, GE, Colgate-Palmolive, Hasbro, Mary Kay, Kimberly-Clark, Clorox, HP, and other industry behemoths. (The 391 tons of carbon dioxide generated by this little soiree will be offset by SoulBuffalo through the Kariba Forest Conservation project in Africa.)
Quarters are tight. Unless you’re willing to pay $25,000 for a private stateroom (which a few of the bigwigs are), everyone has to share cabins, and one of the assignments is dropping jaws: the reps from Greenpeace and Nestlé Waters—which have been at war for the past month, after Greenpeace launched a campaign against the bottled-water giant—are bunking in a cramped stateroom with beds three feet apart, at Nestlé Waters’ request. (“Haha,” Ford initially wrote back. “Very funny.”)
But Ford says he’s fine with the noes. “This isn’t a boot camp for clueless executives. It’s a leadership summit.”
And leadership begins with service. No sooner have we all checked into our rooms than we have to get right back off the ship. Roll up your sleeves, Ford tells us. Time to clean up a beach.
At first glance, Long Bay Beach looks suspiciously like paradise. The golden sand sparkles. The waves glitter. Bermuda is a wealthy island that regularly cleans up its shoreline. Sure, the odd flip-flop is poking out of the wrack, but rather than any sort of environmental angst, I feel a strong desire to work on my tan.
Then Marcus Eriksen, cofounder of the 5 Gyres Institute and the expedition’s lead scientist, tells me to look closer. A former Marine with a buzz cut and unyielding blue eyes, he’s been crusading against ocean plastics for 15 years. In 2008, he lashed 15,000 plastic bottles underneath an old Cessna fuselage and sailed it from California to Hawaii to raise awareness. He’s led trips to all five of the world’s major ocean gyres—vortexes of current where microplastics and other marine garbage swirl. He’s published papers about the plastics found there and lobbied relentlessly.
None of which has made a dent in the business practices of the big plastics producers, something he’s dearly hoping to change in the next 72 hours. “This is huge,” he tells me. “Nothing like this has ever happened. It’s been my dream my entire career to take the people who run the plastics industries out to sea. Once you’re at sea, you can’t go anywhere. You have to talk.”
And one of the things he most wants to talk about is right at my feet.
At first all I see is sand and seaweed. But then, at the high-tide line, something blue catches my eye. Then something pink. I kneel to get a better look, and—impossible—the shell bits resolve themselves into a confetti of colors. Half the flecks I thought were pieces of shell are actually bleached plastic.
The problem with plastic is that it never rots, never goes away. But contrary to popular misconception, Eriksen explains, it doesn’t form floating islands of trash. It disintegrates. “Sunlight makes it brittle, the waves crush it constantly, and the fish and turtles and seabirds just tear the stuff apart.” The pieces get smaller and smaller until they’re tinier than a grain of rice and qualify as microplastic. By Eriksen’s count, there are more than five trillion pieces of microplastic in the oceans—more than there are fish—and despite some well-publicized debacles like Ocean Cleanup’s dysfunctional 2,000-foot-long boom, which was supposed to sweep the seas free, no force on earth is going to get that plastic out. The best we can do is prevent more from going in.
From the largest whales to the smallest zooplankton, everything is eating plastic. Plastic particles at sea act as magnets for toxic chemicals and organic pollutants. Plastic has been shown to make shellfish sluggish. It’s in virtually all seabirds, which becomes obvious when they die, flesh melting away to reveal the plastic within like trash in a spring snowbank.
Back in 1950, at the dawn of the plastics era, the world made just two million metric tons of the stuff per year. By the seventies, we were up to 50 million metric tons a year, and by the nineties, 150 million metric tons. Then production exploded as the Asian economies took off: 213 million metric tons in 2000, then 313 million metric tons in 2010, and now more than 400 million metric tons per year. About half of this is single-use plastic—the bags, bottles, spoons, straws, sachets, and wrappers that make modern life überconvenient and utterly disposable—and most of it has nowhere to go.
Recycling is a joke. For all our careful sorting, less than 5 percent of plastic in the U.S. gets recycled. That’s not a typo. The only types of plastic that are widely recycled are #1 PET (soda and water bottles) and #2 HDPE (milk jugs and laundry-detergent containers), and even they are guaranteed to be recycled only if they’re clean, pure, and not mixed with nonrecyclables. Almost everything else gets incinerated or dumped into the ground or the sea.
In the U.S., which has a well-developed waste-management system, only about 2 percent of recycled plastic gets mishandled, meaning it could potentially wind up in the ocean. For developing countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, 70 to 90 percent goes into the drink. Until 2018, when China stopped accepting most of our recycling, a lot of that plastic started out in America. Chinese recyclers picked out the usable bits and disposed of the rest. Staring at that ridge of very familiar items, I can only wonder how many pieces of plastic I’ve tossed into recycling bins over the years that were dirty or the wrong kind of plastic or just mixed with too many questionable things and wound up in the South China Sea.
Back in 2010, scientists estimate, the oceans contained about eight million metric tons of plastic. Now we add that much every year. Today there are about 75 million metric tons of plastic in the marine environment, and in five years we can expect 150 million metric tons.
Perhaps this explains why the whales of the world keep beaching themselves and expiring with wads of plastic in their guts, a kind of gruesome global protest. And why bugs in the Mariana Trench, 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, are packing plastic.
So are you, but we’ll get to that later.
The North Atlantic Gyre is one of the three great endpoints for the world’s plastic. It and the Indian Ocean Gyre each hold about 60,000 tons of the stuff, a figure topped only by the trash in the North Pacific Gyre (a.k.a. the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), which holds 100,000 tons. Each gyre has its own character, according to Eriksen. “The North Pacific is the fishing-gear gyre. The North Atlantic is more like the bottle-cap gyre.”
The best place to find those bottle caps is inside the free-floating sargassum seaweed that accumulates in an area of the North Atlantic Gyre known as the Sargasso Sea.
“To the heart of the gyre!” Ford directed the captain of the Resolute, a no-nonsense Russian.
“I have no idea where that is,” the captain replied.
“Just head east until we hit seaweed.”
As we knife through calm seas, we begin our three-day “design lab.” That’s tech-bro talk for what used to be called brainstorming: get as many different perspectives as possible on how plastic leaks out of the circular economy, break into multidisciplinary groups, stress-test the best ideas against the needs of all stakeholders, then come back as a group on the final day with concrete action plans.
The ship is a rolling spark session. Bonnie Monteleone—a North Carolina artist who creates Hokusai waves out of ocean plastic—is schmoozing with Ellen Jackowski of HP, which is incorporating millions of Haiti’s plastic bottles into ink cartridges. Gaelin Rosenwaks, a filmmaker fresh off a submarine exploration of Belize’s Great Blue Hole with Richard Branson, is chatting with the AI guru Tom Gruber, one of Siri’s inventors, who has become a prominent ocean advocate since retiring from Apple in 2018. A dude from the World Bank is huddling with Tensie Whelan, the former president of Rainforest Alliance, who now heads up New York University’s Stern School of Business.
I sidle up to Bridget Croke, vice president of Closed Loop Partners, an impact-investment firm that steers money from corporations toward recycling innovations. Croke, who is also a pretty badass rock climber, strong-armed a lot of her clients onto the Resolute. “All of a sudden they decided they couldn’t miss it,” she says.
Considering the speed with which the world is turning against single-use plastic, showing up seems like a no-brainer. Plastic bags and bottles are becoming as socially toxic as cigarettes. Hundreds of U.S. cities, states including California and Hawaii, and countries such as China, France, Kenya, South Africa, India, and Saudi Arabia have all announced bans, and more are on the way.
Well, apparently 50 of them, but never mind, the icebreaking has begun in the aft lounge, where Greenpeace and Nestlé Waters are on stage for a “Sleeping with the Enemy” panel discussion. John Hocevar, the ocean-campaigns director at Greenpeace, looks a bit spooked by the eyes of so many longtime foes. “I was just saying to someone on board, ‘Oh, the last time I was at your office I was hanging off the front of your building.’ And the last time I was at Nestlé’s office we were there with a giant trash monster.”
Hocevar is long and lean, with a graying goatee and body-length tattoos. He’d be at home in Brooklyn, but his roommate on this trip is Nestlé Waters’ chief sustainability officer, David Tulauskas. Clean-cut and Midwest friendly, Tulauskas directed sustainability efforts at General Motors before shifting to Nestlé Waters in March 2019.
When Tulauskas extended his sleepover invite, Hocevar was guarded. “I regularly have conversations with people we’re running campaigns against,” he later confides to me, “but sharing a small room? And a bathroom? That’s definitely next-level.” Many Greenpeacers were against it—espionage!—but he thought it was a rare opportunity. “For this insane experiment to make any sense, we have to establish a real connection,” he says. “We have to build some sort of a human relationship. But ultimately, he represents a company that we are campaigning against for good reason. They have a massive footprint, and they have taken very little responsibility for it.”
Nestlé Waters (whose portfolio of about a dozen brands includes Arrowhead and S.Pellegrino) produces 1.7 million metric tons of plastic packaging every year (topped only by Coke’s three million metric tons), almost all of it single-use. “We’ve done brand audits after beach cleanups around the world,” Hocevar says. “Everywhere we look, we find that the companies producing the trash are American or European.” In 239 cleanups around the globe, Coca-Cola was the most common brand, followed by PepsiCo and Nestlé Waters. Polystyrene was the most common material, followed closely by PET.
For its part, the plastics industry points toward the need to fix waste-management systems in the countries doing the polluting. But to Hocevar, it’s disingenuous to blame people in Southeast Asia. “These companies are fully aware that their packaging is not going to be recycled, and yet they’re flooding those markets with this material.” To him the bottom line is simple: “Single-use plastic has to go.”
Eriksen agrees that would go a long way toward solving the problem. “For a long time, the industry has harped on consumer behavior and deflected all responsibility for how plastic is used in society.” The onus should be on companies, he says, to reduce their packaging and come up with new delivery systems. Instead they’re pushing chemical recycling. “That’s the new buzzword. You’re gonna hear a lot about it on the boat. You’ll hear ‘chemical recycling’ every other word.”
True that. A lot of people here are pretty jazzed about chemical recycling, which can take the worst plastics, all the unrecyclable stuff, and cook them down into fuel. If I’m China or Vietnam right now, bleeding rivers of plastic into the sea, that would sound pretty good to me. But to Eriksen, it’s a Band-Aid that just perpetuates the fossil-fuel economy. Considering the urgency, says Croke, whose Closed Loop Partners invests in chemical recycling, the only strategy that makes sense is all of the above. “There’s nothing we don’t need to do.”
As the ship crane lowers black Zodiacs into the swell, the crew of the Resolute gives us our snorkel briefing: Here’s how to use your snorkel. Here’s how to use your life jacket. Don’t take it off under any circumstances. Accustomed to Arctic conditions, the sailors are a bit freaked out by the thought of 150 bodies bobbing in the water, but they roll with the plan. We flop like penguins from a metal gangway into bucking boats, and then we’re off.
I find myself up front, between Stan Bikulege, the chairman and CEO of Novolex, one of the world’s largest plastic-bag manufacturers, and Bruce Karas, the vice president for the environment and sustainability for Coca-Cola North America. To anti-plastic crusaders, Bikulege is the devil. He’s also a decent guy who hangs on to the back of my life jacket as I lean over the front of the Zodiac to haul passing crates and sneakers out of the sea. But sometimes you just find yourself on the wrong side of history.
Karas is here, as far as I can tell, to not get left in the dust as the issue evolves. Coca-Cola—which has spewed plastic across the planet like few other companies and has staunchly opposed bottle bills, one of the most effective ways to increase recycling rates—has not been a leader on fixing the plastics crisis. From what Karas tells me, he’d like it to be. “I have to be able to carry the message back to our franchisees that I’ve been to the gyre,” he says. “I’ve seen it, I’ve held the plastic in my hands, and it’s real.”
That shouldn’t be a problem. We snorkel through alphabet soup, collecting spoons and toothbrushes and bottle caps. I’m never out of reach of another piece. I grab a hunk of sargassum, I give it a shake underwater, and suddenly I’m in a snow globe, white flecks swirling all around. We don’t see any of Karas’s bottles or Bikulege’s bags, but that’s because such things disintegrate fast, helped along by tiny marine life that can pick a single plastic bag into 1.8 million micropieces.
Back on the Resolute, we pile our booty into a creepy altar, capped by a toilet seat, and break into a dozen design-lab teams. Croke peels off with the money folks to crunch ideas on funding. People from Dow, the World Bank, and the Pew Charitable Trusts put their heads together on new markets for used plastic. Tulauskas leads a wildly eclectic squad trying to disrupt retail packaging that includes executives from Dow, Clorox, and Kimberly-Clark, the founder of a startup called TAP that’s been billed as the Waze of water, an official from 5 Gyres, NYU’s Tensie Whelan, Gaelin Rosenwaks, and Ovie Mughelli, the hulking former fullback for the Atlanta Falcons, who has started his own environmental foundation.
That evening I drink a beer with Tulauskas and ask him how he’s getting along with his roommate. “Great,” he says. He and Hocevar have shared lots of personal details. “I know that his parrot is freakin’ crazy, and I know he has a beagle named Otis and a bluetick hound.” The night was not without issues, however. “Apparently, I kept him up with snoring, for which I apologize. I was hoping the rocking of the ship would make me sleep like a baby.”
Somewhere amid the snoring and small talk, they got into it. “We did exchange high-level business perspectives,” he says. “He shared his view on Nestlé Waters. We talked about his criteria for corporate engagement. It was enlightening. I feel like it would be a lot easier to reengage if we ever get the chance.”
Powerful day, Tulauskas admits. “Seeing all that plastic speaks for itself. How do we close the loop? We can design lighter bottles. We can do it in ways that make recycling more efficient. We own that. But we need to move faster and farther with the use of recycled content, and there’s great partners here for that.” (Days after the trip, Nestlé Waters will announce that Poland Spring plans to be the first major water brand to convert to 100 percent recycled bottles.)
We drain our beers and watch the sun sink into the ocean. “This needs to be a transformative experience for me,” Tulauskas says softly. “I need to come back a new person.”
By day two, I’ve identified the espresso machine on deck five as the choke point through which the entire summit funnels. I stake out a nearby table, and people stumble past and tell me things they shouldn’t.
I hear that Coca-Cola is secretly planning for a post-single-use-plastics future. Ask Coke about that, my source whispers to me. I can’t, because I’m not supposed to know.
I learn that, back in December, when it looked like SoulBuffalo wouldn’t be able to pull the trip together, Ford’s partners began referring to it as the Gyre Festival, after the disastrous Fyre Festival that so famously belly-flopped in the Bahamas in 2017. But the scoop that darkens my day is the rumor of a disturbing new study, not yet released, estimating that we each have about a credit card’s worth of plastic in our body, to which I respond: (A) What the fuck are you talking about?, and (B) How do I get it to scan?
Later I check out the details with other scientists on the ship. There’s a grim consensus that the plastics crisis is much more than an ocean issue. As microplastic keeps breaking down, it eventually becomes small enough to pass through cell walls and migrate into organs and flesh. Yes, that means it’s in our seafood, but crossing calamari off your list won’t help. It’s in our beer, our salt, our tap water, and our bottled water, sometimes at concentrations of thousands of particles per liter. The average wash load of clothes launches 700,000 plastic microfibers. A single car trip whips clouds of microparticles off our tires. Plastic sloughs from civilization like hay off the back of a chicken wagon.
And that, Hocevar believes, may be why so many corporations are suddenly interested in changing their business model. “I think the time is coming when some of these companies are going to have their tobacco moment,” he says. “I can absolutely picture some of these executives having to stand up in court and answer questions about what they knew about the health impacts of their packaging and what they did about it.”
By day three the bar is empty. The Jacuzzi bubbles forlornly. These people are machines. It’s our last full day at sea; the captain has been told to just drive around, fingernails on the chalkboard of his highly scheduled soul, and even when the call goes out that more sargassum mats have been sighted, almost no one ditches their committees. But I practically run to the Zodiac, where I join the water people: Eriksen, Rosenwaks, a dive instructor and marine advocate from Bermuda named J.P. Skinner, and Tom Gruber, who anticipates my question to him.
“What’s an AI guy doing here?” he says. “Basically, I do intelligence. Siri was individual intelligence, but I also do collective intelligence.” And that, Gruber says as he tinkers with some huge underwater camera from the near future, is what we desperately need right now. “Our brains didn’t evolve for giant civilizations. The election process is broken. It no longer produces quality leaders. You end up with Trump and Brexit. So government is irrelevant, but business leaders are starting to step up, and that’s what you’re seeing on this boat. We may be at a turning point in how we act collectively.”
Gruber says he’s been to other save-the-ocean conferences, and this one feels different. “There’s a ray of hope here that’s not typical. Maybe we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘I was on that ship when things started to change.’ ”
And with that, we all back-flop into the water and badger Steve, our minder from the Resolute, to let us ditch our life jackets.
“If you have to dive under to get a photo, we can use the buddy system,” Steve says grudgingly. “Take off your life jacket, hand it to your buddy, and briefly dive under while your buddy keeps eyes on you.”
“Steve, will you be my buddy?” I ask, shucking my jacket.
“Sure, hand it over.”
Eriksen is next. “Steve, can you be my buddy?”
Soon Steve is everybody’s buddy, a floating coatrack, and we’re all dolphining under the sargassum.
In the water, I forget all about the plastic. I’ve snorkeled the Caribbean, barrier reefs, and crystalline lakes, but never in mile-deep ocean. I gaze down through the bluest blue I’ve ever known, and my mind goes as blank and content as a child’s.
I churn sargassum beneath the surface with my arms and dive down through it. The color makes me gasp through my snorkel, golden galaxies in a cobalt cosmos. When I surface, a petrel has come winging over to see what the heck we’re doing in its world, and then Rosenwaks pops up beside me. At that moment, the Resolute and the Zodiac are somewhere in the distance behind us, and it’s just her and me and the sea and this sleek little bird turning gyres around us. Rosenwaks says she feels so small, and I babble unintelligently about the blue before coming out and saying what I’m really thinking: It’s the color of God, and I can’t believe it’s still here.
As we head back toward Bermuda, 100 miles and closing, the design sprint pushes well past dinner. In the morning, we’ll arrive in port and head back to our lives, and you can feel a hint of panic set in. We know that one of the world’s most challenging problems is not going to get solved in three days on a boat; we just need to know that we’ve turned this icebreaker in the right direction.
Late at night, the bleary-eyed teams share their ideas. A few sound refreshingly real. Mary Kay announces a new rewards program to get its beauty consultants to recycle their cosmetics containers. A group including executives from Dow and the World Bank proposes a fee on virgin plastics, to be used as a credit to reduce the cost of using recycled plastic. It’s like a carbon tax, and we all turn and stare at one another. Did they really just say that?
The most original idea comes from David Tulauskas’s team. ZeroHero, as it’s called, would be a section—heck, maybe a whole aisle—of big-box stores devoted to zero-waste products. To qualify for the ZeroHero aisle, products could be package-free, refillable, delivered from a dispensary, or otherwise ultralight in their footprint. The program would have its own label, promotion, possibly even a dedicated check-out line. It’ll need a big-box retailer to play ball, but half the brands on the boat are already in, and plans are quickly made for cross-industry working groups in the U.S. and UK.
It’s wildly ambitious, and ZeroHero gets an ovation. Just like that, a faint glimmer of collective intelligence emerged from the primordial capitalist muck.
Even Hocevar sounds willing to give his roommate the benefit of the doubt. “I do think he came to Nestlé Waters to try to turn the company into a sustainability leader,” he says with a sigh. “I don’t know how on earth he thinks that’s going to happen. But he seems like a gamer.”
So does Ford. Before I disembark the next morning, I tell him to get some sleep. No time, he says. “I’m trying to secure the ship for next year’s summit.”
“Absolutely. I’m optimistic we can turn most of them into yeses.” Then he pauses. “But to be honest, two of the biggest oil companies in the world have already told me resoundingly that they won’t be a part of any collaborative summit like this. So I’ll take 48.”
I tell him I’ll be curious to see who’s on that boat, then I race to the airport to catch my flight back to New York. As the plane takes off, I can see the Resolute in the harbor, a ridiculously small oval shrinking to a speck, all of Bermuda dissolving into the eggshell blue around it. I push the seat back, massage my sore snorkeling legs, and refuse the flight attendant’s offer of a plastic cup for my water three times.
Jacobsen, R. (2019, August 8). An Ocean Plastics Field Trip for Corporate Executives. Retrieved from Outside: