Charismatic circularity, ocean plastic, and other dangerous distractions

We are rightly desperate for compelling anecdotes that demonstrate how we are solving the world’s environmental problems. That desperation may allow us to miss the bigger point at times.

I’ll be honest, I’m proud of my Adidas swimsuit made from plastic that would otherwise have ended up in the ocean. The swimsuit is comfortable, well-made, and loaded with a sense of optimism.

Adidas swim shorts. Made of plastic that has been “intercepted” while ocean-bound. Loaded with a sense of progress.

And I’m impressed that Adidas has gone to the trouble of going after plastic pollution in such a constructive way. Indeed, the firm has set the ambitious goal of ending plastic waste by 2030, and its ocean plastic work is one of the oft-cited charismatic examples of progress toward a circular economy, a notion I heartily endorse.

Unfortunately, the world around Adidas is swimming in some sloppy narratives that obscure some of our biggest challenges. A recent piece in the Guardian, replete with the same good feelings I get from my Adidas shorts, tells us that “Ocean plastic was choking Chile’s shores. Now it’s in Patagonia’s hats.” We learn of an inspired and inspiring small company, Bureo, that is gathering abandoned fishing nets from the oceans and turning them into skateboards, sunglasses, an ocean-themed Jenga set, and yes, parts of a few products from Patagonia and other firms.

I read the article in order to be filled with more of that optimism, but I came away with a few big worries.

Let’s start here: despite the focus on the collection of fish nets, the Guardian article manages to run nearly a thousand words and never mention the root cause, which is fishing.

Again, to be clear, I’m thrilled that people are getting those destructive nets out of the ocean. But Chile and its neighbors have bigger fish to fry. The fish stocks fished by South America’s fishing fleet are severely over-fished, and Chile in particular. In South America, as in much of the rest of the world, we have obscured the problem with the rise in land-based and coastal aquaculture, but the stark reality is simple: over the past generation, our harvest from the ocean has stagnated, despite a massive increase in the global fishing fleet and deliberate restrictions on overfishing by most developed countries.

State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016, UN FAO

The Guardian article is by no means exceptional here, as it merely represents a class of well-intentioned journalistic distractions. Few articles on ocean plastic note the various important ways in which we are killing the oceans or how much that killing will harm current and future generations, and over-harvesting from most of the world’s major fisheries is just the start. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are both warming and acidifying the oceans. Human activities directly damage oceans from the run-off that rivers carry from industry and agriculture into the oceans, and from our mauling of coastal ecosystems.

Wait, isn’t plastic also a big bummer for the oceans, along with those other problems? Sure. But the “massive plastic pollution crisis that’s choking the planet’s oceans” is in fact just the insult added to several more substantial injuries. Despite the click-baity warnings that we’re headed for oceans with more plastic than fish, we pay a lot less attention to these other, more substantial problems.

Even the framing of the ocean plastic problem often suffers from a total lack of scale and specificity. Despite the 39 million views as of this writing and sympathy the image evokes, the straw in the sea turtle’s nostril is worse than useless as a guide; instead, we should be thinking about ten rivers whose effluent delivers 90% of plastic waste to the oceans, or better yet, the larger picture of plastic pollution, including but not limited to the pathways to the oceans.

I’m touchy about this issue of distraction because it brings immense risk that our warped awareness will lead to setting priorities poorly. If policy makers or consumers wish to save the oceans, fostering a marketplace of goods made from ocean plastic is a strikingly low-leverage place to start. It is the classic “end of pipe” solution to a complex environmental problem.

To be fair, Patagonia and Adidas clearly see the big picture here and on the challenge posed by plastic, they have really jumped into the deep end. The first step in Adidas’ plan is to “use recycled plastic at scale by 2024” – an ambitious objective for a plan released fairly recently – and the company also hopes to invest directly in making recycling of footwear and garments truly easy and convenient for consumers. Meanwhile, Patagonia lays out a concise and powerful vision for itself: “The day will come when polyester and nylon clothes from Patagonia will be sourced entirely from some of the 6 billion tons of plastic already circulating the planet.” Both companies and a number of others are working toward closed loops for a variety of synthetic materials.

Yet the danger here lies in the distraction. Vanishingly few consumers will ever go to those corporate web sites, and instead their sense of urgency will be shaped by the charismatic anecdotes. Accordingly, their appetite for change, as consumers and as voters, will likely suffer.

This Jenga set will save the oceans.

So I’m all for this circularity, and I love my swimsuit. But if we’re going to save the oceans – a goal of immense urgency – it won’t be with Jenga sets made from Chilean fishing nets. Saving the oceans will come from concerted transformation of our seafood diets. It will come from rapid and ambitious action on climate. It will come from dramatically decreasing water-borne pollution from agriculture and industry that inevitably finds its way downhill.

Similarly, the much-publicized problem of ocean plastic shouldn’t itself be a shallow stand-in for deeper problems – how we manage material flows, how we act as responsible stewards of ecosystems, and how we transition away from fossil fuels, to name a few. So we can celebrate the swimsuit and the Jenga set, but on our voyage toward sustainability, let’s not succumb to the siren songs of catchy distractions, but instead navigate by the stars.

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