Plastics, Perils and Paradigms

by | Feb 23, 2010

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saillant, rogerOur greatest environmental challenges hold our greatest opportunities.

Consider the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of trash twice the size of Texas that has accumulated in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre between California and Hawaii. It is an ecological nightmare, but just as the gyre is gathering refuse, the Garbage Patch is gathering global attention.

The situation is a chance to better understand how our global systems interact and to realize what power we have to effect change. It’s also an opening to discover how businesses could re-examine their product development processes and offer lasting solutions to core problems.

Understanding our motives

The Garbage Patch is composed of 80 percent plastics in a soup that reaches to the ocean floor in some places. Commentators on the Garbage Patch point to irresponsible disposal, especially waste from ships, streams and river runoff into the ocean, as well as deliberate dumping. The Garbage Patch is a consequence of our unsustainable designs of systems and products, they point out.

If the story stopped there, we would be able to redesign solutions that would efficiently eliminate the Garbage Patch and ensure another could not materialize. But we are not finding those solutions, because our designs are not concerned with them.

Design is really a manifestation of intention. The Garbage Patch is not only a collection of failures of design, it is a vortex for our misplaced intentions.

Going a step further—to the origin of our intentions—we begin to realize what paradigms drive us. The core problem of the Garbage Patch is a widely lived paradigm that humans are removed from the rest of nature. It is a misperception, it is dangerous, and it informs everything we do and everything we design.

Real, lasting change must be made at the level of the paradigm if we are to alter our designs in ways that will lead to holistic harmony. We must ask ourselves now, “What paradigms drive our intentions?”

Embodying the connectivity

The Garbage Patch is one monstrous example that our designs, intentions and paradigms rarely consider the biosphere as an entity with which we are deeply, irrevocably intertwined. It is also a blatant example of just how, exactly, our lives are indeed inseparable from the biosphere.

Today there are 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer of ocean, and because of this a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year, directly affecting our food chains and our future prosperity. As plastics break down in the water, they poison us, too: when plasticizers such as Bisphenol decompose, endocrine disrupters are released from the synthetic materials and enter our food and water streams—these endocrine disrupters interfere with our hormonal balance and increase the chances of health risks from cancer to infertility.

Thus the unintended consequences of our designs might start thousands of miles away from us, but the biological systems of the world are so holistically connected that there will be consequences for us. Like messages in a bottle, the contaminants are landing on our shores, they are infiltrating our menus and they are telling us that we are not only poisoning remote species, we are poisoning ourselves.

An ocean of ideas

Our designs can be destructive, but our designs can also be restorative. The path to restorative design returns to an awareness of intention. An understanding of intention moves us to know our paradigms—and to change them if we understand that they cause harm.

By shifting paradigms to see our own lives as integrated wholly with Nature, we will begin to learn how Nature’s ways can give life and prosperity to us. Our intentions will be prosperity without harm, and our designs will be infused with lessons from Nature.

Intentionally including Nature in our designs will lead to new products, industries and systems. These outputs—based on Nature’s creative brilliance and ancient wisdom—will allow living systems to thrive and economic systems to prosper.

What if we found a way to use sun and wind to biodegrade plastics efficiently while sequestering toxic outputs? Nature has its filters, which we could take notes from, and she already breaks down plastics using sun and wind. Without human design to counter human design, though, Nature has no mechanism for sequestering endocrine disrupters and other toxins. As a human family with lessons from Nature’s designs, we could accomplish this—and someone could create a whole new industry (and be very profitable) doing it.

Better yet, what if our plastics—instead of contaminating ocean gyres—actually fed the ecosystems where they ended up after human use? After all, Nature recycles everything or, said in another way, waste equals food.

Nature’s lessons are good for business because they show us how to build systems that last. They are good for us not only because they lay the foundation for strong business, but because they lead to holistic prosperity: clean water, unpolluted food streams and greater human health. If we could recognize the connectivity and the interdependence of manmade and natural systems, our intentions would change, our designs would be different.

Paradigms form the DNA of our intentions. We must understand and change this DNA if lasting change is to be made.

Roger Saillant is the Executive Director of the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. Among his extensive corporate experience, he has served as a senior executive in the Plastics Division of Ford Motor Company and, most recently, as CEO of Plug Power, a fuel-cell company based in Albany, New York. He’s also interested in alternative ways to communication sustainability issues: his novel Vapor Trails explores carbon sequestration and global warming with a cinematic plot and cast of characters.

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