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Balancing the Plastics Debate

Monday October 29, 2018


Some say it started with a sea turtle. A 2015 viral video showed researchers trying to remove an obstruction from the animal’s nose, and the seemingly painful extraction revealed an unlikely culprit: a plastic straw. For years, environmental advocates have tried to raise awareness of the plastics polluting the ocean — an estimated 165 million tons, according to Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment.

That viral video, coupled with the less-than-rigorous findings of a 9-year-old’s research into how many straws Americans use daily, spurred an ongoing transformation in consumer goods via the ban of the plastic straw. So far, nearly 15 cities have implemented legislation that in some way prohibits the use of plastic straws; starting in 2019, California will be the first state to implement a law that prohibits sit-down restaurants from automatically giving plastic straws to patrons.

However, what appears to be a positive environmental effort hasn’t been universally applauded. Disability advocates worry what alternatives are going to be made available for people with physical limitations who rely on the bend and durability of plastic straws. Other people have pointed out that plastic straws account for a mere 4 percent of plastic trash by piece.

What the straw debate highlights is the complicated process of trying to implement sustainability efforts. While the dispute may center the environmentalist versus big business, Yossi Sheffi, Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, says the reality of the debate and possible solutions require a delicate negotiation of interests.

“There are people who want a clean environment and worry about what will happen to the kids and global warming, and there are people who worry about jobs and being able to afford stuff,” Yossi recently explained to me, when I interviewed him for APICS magazine. “The point I'm trying to make is both of them are right; there's a balance.”

Sheffi’s most recent book, Balancing Green: When to Embrace Sustainability in a Business (and When Not To), offers a pragmatic investigation into corporate sustainability. It explores how corporations can sensibly pursue a sustainability effort and hopes to promote a sense of parity in the often polarizing conversation around corporate social responsibility.

“These companies should understand that they are responsible for the balance. On the one hand, they are polluting by using energy. By using our resources, they are affecting the environment. On the other hand, they are the organizations that provide jobs and get people what they want at prices that they can afford,” Yossi says. “Balancing Green is balancing environmental consideration with jobs and affordability.”

BBC’s Richard Gray recently investigated what addressing balance in the plastics problem would look like. His article, “What’s the real price of getting rid of plastic packaging?”, got into the math of how much plastic alternatives might cost. For example, though the cost of producing glass bottles in not that much more expensive than making plastic bottles, transporting the much heavier glass requires 40 percent more energy than plastic, resulting in more carbon dioxide pollution.

Plastic’s role in eliminating food waste is another prominent example of the controversial material’s utility. Packaging food in plastic can extend shelf life exponentially and, in some cases, cuts food waste up to 75 percent. Food waste costs nearly $1 trillion globally, and reducing plastic use could result in a cost that gets passed on to consumers.

The way forward through the plastic problem will likely involve working across sectors, from shoppers changing how they consume to plastics manufacturers experimenting with biodegradable innovations. There is no one solution, ban or corporation that will provide a panacea.

“What I'm saying is, before you judge, beware before you say, ‘Companies must do this, that and the other thing,’ [companies] won't much do anything,” Sheffi says. “If their customers will want it, you don't have to worry, they'll do it. If the customers are willing to pay, they'll do it. If the customers are not, they will not.”

Read more about business strategy expert and MIT professor Yossi Sheffi’s sustainability perspective in the October-December 2018 issue of APICS magazine.