As we close out plastic-free July, Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch and Suzanne Lee, founder of Biofabricate, get together to discuss what a world without plastic could look like—and what it will take to get us there.
The pandemic has exacerbated a number of crises. Among them is the unprecedented rush for single-use plastic. Last year in March, people the world over started stocking up on face shields, masks, gloves and antibacterial gels. Online shopping surged, meaning more plastic envelopes and bubble wrap sent to home-bound consumers. Restaurants shut their doors, replacing sit-down reservations with takeaway orders delivered in single-use food containers. By June 2021, imports of face masks into the EU had more than doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to a recent study by the European Environmental Agency. The picture is even bleaker on a global scale where approximately 3.4 billion single-use face masks and face shields have been discarded daily since the COVID-19 outbreak began.
It is clear that the rate of plastic consumption is unsustainable. Companies need to stop spending their marketing budgets touting public-facing commitments to reducing their use of plastics, all the while pouring additional money into the production of those very same synthetic materials. And governments must introduce regulatory initiatives that decrease the circulation of plastics as well as investing money to improve their waste management infrastructure that can help tackle the petrochemical materials already in circulation. But, although the pandemic may have deepened the world’s already-critical plastic crisis, it is also proof that mobilization on a mass scale is possible and even plausible. In fact, as the pandemic begins to show signs of ebbing and communities cautiously re-enter society, humanity’s relationship with plastic is primed for reinvention.
Below, Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch and biofabrication pioneer and founder of Biofabricate Suzanne Lee discuss what a plastic-free future could look like—and what it might take to get us there.
What can we learn from the pandemic—this confrontation with our interconnectedness and vulnerability? And how can we apply that to climate and plastic solutions?
Cyrill: In my eyes, what happened with the pandemic is that we understood collectively as a species that we are more fragile than we thought we were. Suddenly this little virus sends us home and shows us how difficult it actually is for us humans to protect ourselves. It also shows how quick we are to return to old patterns like consuming more single-use, disposable plastics the moment we are scared. But it’s precisely this lack of sensitivity towards nature that makes us a danger to ourselves in the first place. What did you learn from the pandemic, Suzanne?
Suzanne: One of the things that we learned is that we should be listening to scientists and environmentalists when they warn us of the potential consequences of actions like intensive farming that destroy natural habitats. People have been warning us about the potential for global pandemics for decades now. So I think you’re right; the pandemic has taught us many, many things about the way we live and the impact of our actions. It’s true that we started using more single-use plastics, but I also think that there were some positives that we learned.
Cyrill: But we also learned to do things in a different way.
Suzanne: For all the single-use plastics that were used by healthcare professionals and for people to socially distance, I feel like people at home were maybe reassessing the amount of plastic in their lives.
Cyrill: I think people mainly switched their habits if they had to. Travel is a good example, we easily switched to meetings with Zoom calls. But what is most impressive for me, is that there were suddenly trillions of dollars deployed to protect people’s lives and stimulate the economy. This way of dealing with the crisis at such a fast speed is logistically and fiscally incredible. I’ve not seen that before. Imagine if we deployed the same amount of funds and the same logistics and the same amount of brain power to solve the biggest environmental issues that we’re facing.
As the world starts returning to normal, what should we consider when carving out a new standard of living on this planet?
Suzanne: For me, 2020 was definitely a year of recognition that everything we do has a carbon impact. The “normal” we are discussing is something that none of us are ever going to return to. I think that we now live in a world of: When is the next pandemic happening? What is the next climate crisis? How might it affect my community? All of these things have come to a head and people are thinking much more about resilience, whether it’s for their family, whether it’s for their business, whether it’s for the environment. What do you think we should be asking?
Cyrill: I agree, I don’t think that there is a normality that we can return to. The pandemic is in my eyes a very drastic alarm bell that shows us that we are in a crisis already. We’re facing a plastic crisis. We’re facing a climate crisis. We’re facing a fishing crisis. We’re facing a global environmental crisis. It’s not something that’s happening in 20 or 30 years—it’s happening now, we’re in the midst of it. There’s the immediate threat that we are experiencing right now with COVID-19—and a lot of people deny that as it is. Then there are others that appear more abstract. Yet, we are lacking the imagination to understand how big these threats are. Really, we need to remain in high alert, in crisis mode.
What’s the problem with plastic?
Cyrill: Plastic in my eyes—and in the eyes of Parley—is a design failure. It’s not a material that is safe in the sense that it’s shedding microplastics. It’s releasing emissions that we don’t want in our atmosphere. It’s leaking chemicals. And the whole process of making plastic eats a lot of energy and causes a lot of carbon emissions. It’s urgent that we invent new materials that replace plastic, because this material is not future-proof.
What does it take to invent a new material that has functionality like plastic?
Suzanne: This is the challenge that we have, because plastic is an incredible material. It has been designed for durability and functionality with the benefit of economies of scale optimised over decades to deliver at a price that natural materials cannot meet. It’s an abundant material right now, it’s a super cheap material, and it’s a super high-performing material. So you have a triple challenge if you are trying to engineer a competitor material that ticks all of those boxes. The simple reality is that we’re not there yet.
We need a lot more financing around material innovation—like bio-materials that come from, for example, the waste of agricultural crops, or microbes,—research that is focused on unlocking the secrets of the natural world. Nature is by far and away the best designer and fabricator of materials. If you look at all the wondrous materials that you find in the natural world, what humans have made by comparison is crude and comes fraught with all these issues.
Cyrill: We are in a very complicated situation right now. We have created a lot of awareness around plastic as a problem, but there are not any real solutions available when it comes to a replacement material. In fact, plastic is an unclear and abstract word for many people who often don’t understand that, say, their clothes or their tea bags contain plastic. It’s quite a difficult task for consumers today to understand what is wrong and what is right.
We are in a very complicated situation right now. We have created a lot of awareness around plastic as a problem, but there are not any real solutions available.
How can personal acts of resistance against plastics turn into a Material Revolution?
Suzanne: At the end of the day, we have choices as consumers. And with social media, we have a direct channel to the brands that we buy to ask them questions and to confront them head on about their practices, about the design of their products, what they’re manufacturing from. We need to support and promote the companies who are really coming up with solutions and rolling them out. While we still have plastic there are good uses for it, but you want to keep it in circulation for as long as possible, not just the single use.
Cyrill: So the consumer’s role is really to ask for transparency, ask for honest details, and also support alternatives. Consumers should try to support credible attempts of switching to alternative materials, new product concepts like refill models and support a circular economy where they can. That includes recycling models, where materials are truly arriving back to the base and are being reused.
Suzanne: Yes. Consumers also need to support local government representatives, those who are pushing for more recycling, responsibility and accountability on the part of manufacturers. We need to move to a world where, if you are a brand producing stuff, you are also held accountable for its end of life. The days where you just pump out consumable products with no accountability for what happens need to come to an end.
How can we scale the use of biomaterials and other alternatives without repeating the mistakes that led us to the plastic and climate crisis?
Suzanne: It’s important that you have teams which represent systems thinking in every dimension, from science, design, and engineering, to environmental justice. At the education level we need to bring in more teaching around things like green chemistry. We need to be studying biology and biomaterials, nature’s materials, in order to really understand them. We need to be using the latest tools of synthetic biology to build new materials that unlock nature’s building blocks. Then we want to put those building blocks together in such a way that not only have the functionality that we’re looking for, but they have the ability to break down into the units that go back into a nutritious cycle for the planet. That really is the holy grail for what so many people are looking for across lots of different sectors.
Cyrill: I mean, we broke the planet. Now we have to be enthusiastic sceptics and say, actually nature knows better. Nature has billions of years of research and development. We have to fit into that system that allows for us to be here. And that means that when you invent something, you don’t rush out to the market right away and try to become a millionaire. Instead, you have to question what it does to the planet. I think it’s really about not allowing for economics to be the dominant factor when measuring success. We need to establish criteria establishing material standards and new material innovations that are in sync with nature.
Suzanne: The most radical proposition is making the planet your customer. Rather than measuring your company’s success financially, you are judged on your carbon impact.
Why is systemic, industry-wide change so urgently needed to combat the plastic crisis?
Suzanne: We should say something about the elephant in the room, especially in relation to fast fashion, because so many of those climate-positive pledges are by fast fashion companies. But the reality is that the level of our global consumption of fashion is not sustainable. We could have the most incredible biomaterials in the world, but still the environmental impact is more than this planet can tolerate.
Cyrill: Yes, because it’s based on a business model that is simply not in balance. Making very cheap products by using toxic materials and exploiting humans is something that will never be fair, sustainable and future-proof. We have to let go of these business models that are not working anymore and radically change them. You cannot solve environmental issues if you, on the other hand, are inflicting pain on people. How would a factory worker in the Philippines, in Taiwan or in Bangladesh be able to take care of the environment and not burn plastic or toss chemicals into the river, if they can’t afford the simplest of things because they’re not paid a fair wage. That’s where the business model doesn’t work out any more. It’s exploitative, and the imbalance creates friction and a lack of solidarity when it comes to tackling these massive issues.
What is the role of the individual in all this?
Suzanne: Every time you make a purchasing decision, you are choosing to either support the status quo or you are taking action to support those who are trying to offer an alternative. And then of course, it’s important to show support for organizations that are taking action and driving full transparency for regulation and for accountability across industries.
Cyrill: It shouldn’t be that individuals are carrying guilt associated with doing the wrong thing. It just means that we try our best and we don’t fall into despair. It means picking your battles and thinking about the areas where you can make an impact.