Sustainability + Creativity = Innovation

by Coalition Board Member Steve Martin

I spent some time in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore this last week. I hesitate to share this because, well this is one of the best kept “secrets” in the world. It was just designated one of the top 10 Most Scenic Drives in the US, and then the woods, trails, lakes, and miles and miles of beautiful white sand Lake Michigan beaches.  Very few people and within the park the shoreline is completely undeveloped, huge dunes, great wildlife, and crystals clear water and sand….. strike that.

We had a strong northwest wind on Tuesday and Wednesday, the same front that caused some damaging storms in the Midwest. And so on Friday as I walked Good Harbor beach I could see the high water line from all of the big waves from the blow. The normal driftwood, weeds, and occasional dead fish are to be expected, but everywhere I looked- every foot of the way was plastic. Bottle caps came in at number 1 by the hundreds, bottles, small broken shapes origin unknown, and the most surprising discovery was dozens of remnants of Balloons and Ribbons (Now I know where they go when my grand daughter lets go of the nice helium display).

And its not going anywhere. The wood, weeds, and fish will be gone in days or weeks as nature reclaims the nutrients. The plastic, it wasn’t just on the water line, it was in the sand we dug for sand castles. So before I go onto a rant against plastic and the thoughtless people who litter, lets apply a bit of our sustainability framework we use in the work of The Sustainability Coalition. The Natural Step framework says that in a sustainable society nature is not subject to ever increasing concentrations of:

1. Material Extracted from the earth’s crust… check, most plastics come from hydrocarbon compounds in oil or natural gas, it has been cheap but it will only get more expensive. .

2. Man made chemicals that are bio persistent – check…. all plastics have hardeners, softeners, and other man-made chemicals,  Recyclable, yes, but only 7% of plastic generated each year gets recycled, primarily because plastic products have been designed to be be cheap and cheap means disposable. The primary recycling challenge is that plastic has to be downcycled (anyone want a black Frisbee?)

3. Degrading Natural Systems – check… the bottle caps did make nice decorations on our sand castle, but this is more than what we see on the surface. The ubiquitous plastic bags sink…. and foul the wildlife swimming in the water. A recent Fast Company article said that 15 million tons of plastic end up in our marine environment each year.

4. People’s ability to sustain themselves- Granted, plastic containers are cheap and durable, and have made products less expensive. But at what impact to the other systems? Has it improved the quality of our life? Or is this a product where we have not considered the material from which it is made, the man made chemicals that leach into the food products during use, or the end of life cycle impacts?

Sustainability thinking requires that we think about these four systems conditions and their impact when making business and consumption decisions.  Awareness is building in the business community where Sustainability as a driving force of innovation is clearly in play. The biggest solution was Walmart’s goal to reduce packaging 20%, and telling the consumer products suppliers to quit shipping water — Sell us the concentrated product instead and save the money on packaging, freight, and shelf space. I would say that this fits the common sense approach.

In the end it does become a matter of some critical mass of business leaders and consumers stepping up and changing both their design and buying habits for plastics. That starts with awareness, and fits perfectly with the Sustainability Coalitions program of Education – Collaboration and Innovation. Join us to continue the discussion.

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