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Patricia Stupp at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development

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By Patricia Stupp (SFS'16)

What are you looking at? In all likelihood, you’re looking at a computer; half of which is made of plastic. What are you sitting on? A plastic computer chair? Maybe a cushioned seat, or mattress. Either most likely have polyester fibers—a type of plastic. It is undeniable—plastic is everywhere! And for good reason: it’s cheap, lightweight, durable, and versatile. It is a seemingly magical material. However with such great material comes great responsibility.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work as an intern for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) on the marine plastics initiative. I applied for the position after taking a semester class called Oceans, and serving as Chief of Staff for Georgetown Sustainable Oceans Alliance. As already a Science, Technology, and International Affairs major with a concentration on the environment and energy, I had often heard and discussed issues of climate change and renewable energy. But in the aftermath of my two ocean-related experiences, I realized I was negligent in not considering our oceans. They cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, hold more than 95 percent of the Earth’s water, and provide a home for over a million known species. Furthermore, they affect the development of societies, the status of our global economy, and the lifestyles of communities.

As the only full-time WBCSD staff member working on the marine plastics project, I was given the freedom to brainstorm and develop an initiative that could engage the nearly 60 WBCSD member companies in reducing plastic pollution in the ocean. The initiative was a completely new idea spurred on by the Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit, Global Ocean Commission, and the MacArthur Foundation. These institutions sought WBCSD’s expertise in laying the foundations for private sector companies to take on sustainable actions on the issue of marine plastics.  

Though we all know that plastics in the ocean are bad, (they were strangle marine life, create giant garbage patches, and clutter our beaches) being completely immersed in this topic made me realize the wider problem. The cycle for plastics is almost nonexistent. Due to their affordability and flexibility, nearly 275 million metric tons of plastic are produced globally each year, and production is still increasing. Yet, out of all this plastic, only around 10 percent is recycled. Due to their durability, every piece of plastic that has ever been produced still exists today, whether in durable goods, recycled material, or in the environment. And with most plastics being improperly disposed of, they end up anywhere.

In several discussions with WBCSD staff, we considered ideas of using recycled marine plastics for new material, and establishing consumer awareness campaigns. However, to go to the source of the problem and directly address the private sector, I saw an opportunity for the WBCSD to use its relationship with its members to develop a system or regulation practice for plastic measuring and disclosure in the private sector, much in the same way that governments and international institutions have established the proper measuring and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change. These systems of measurement allow experts could see how companies were contributing to climate change and find areas for mitigation.  The issue of marine plastics is a current global problem that threatens the environment, societies, and the economy, and requires the same level of concerted effort. As I concluded my internship I honed this strategy and presented my research. WBCSD is reviewing and revising my pitch, but saw much potential in it for future endeavors.

This experience with WBCSD and the marine plastics initiative has given me new insight into sustainability has perhaps initiated a new directive for business practices in plastic management. I had many responsibilities over the summer, but overall I learned that we all have a greater responsibility to be aware of our present circumstances in order to ensure a sustainable future.