How many world leaders does it take to fix a leaky faucet?
6 min read

How many world leaders does it take to fix a leaky faucet?

The term sustainability has become synonymous with the 21st century. Yet, its dominance of chatrooms and social media platforms is not common among the political circles we rely on to effect wide-scale change.

What if the problem of sustainability was compared with that of the problem of a leaky faucet (tap). That is what JC Milam, a consultant, entrepreneur, and Florida-based sustainability fanatic, has done.

Through his theorisation and abstraction of the systematic issue of sustainability, JC offers a unique insight into the pitfalls of sustainable policymaking.

Packaging: a battleground for debate

Images of plastic straws, cotton buds and plastic bags floating in harbours, oceans and rivers have frequently featured on Twitter feeds and Facebook walls. Powerful images (Figure 1) have rightly elicited a global emotional response. Yet, efforts to translate widespread dissatisfaction into sustainable change has been continually thwarted.

Images of plastic straws, cotton buds and plastic bags floating in harbours, oceans and rivers have frequently featured on Twitter feeds and Facebook walls. Powerful images (Figure 1) have rightly elicited a  global emotional response. Yet, efforts to translate widespread dissatisfaction into sustainable change have been continually thwarted.

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Figure 1- Plastic pollution

Packaging is ubiquitous. Its application is valuable and a necessity within our global economy. From protecting valuable goods, to drastically increasing the shelf life of perishable items, to functioning as a blank canvas for brands to springboard marketing campaigns, packaging's utility cannot be understated.

Yet, while the utility, cost-effectiveness and performance of packaging has been hugely beneficial, there is a dark side to packaging: it is a pollutant once its purpose has been served.

Powerful images of plastic pollution have rightly raised questions about the role of single-use plastics, extractivism and a linear economic model, which, to this point, has enabled humanity to reap the benefits of an industrialised economy.

These important conservation narratives, combined with stark scientific warnings of shrinking ice sheets and warming, rising oceans, has increased regulatory, consumer and governmental scrutiny of our wasteful economic system.

No sector has been implicated in this quite as strongly as the packaging industry and the products of well-known fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies in defacing sights of previous environmental bliss.

Tlastic has been the catalyst for environmental lobbying over the past five years and has forced the packaging sector to enter an era of sustainable innovation.

The challenges facing the packaging industry also offer many opportunities.

Defining sustainability

Sustainability has become something of a buzzword globally in response to the risks posed by climate change. But what does sustainability really mean? And how should we be using, discussing, and developing the term?

The Brundtland Report defines sustainable development as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

Therefore, sustainability is best understood as a business's country's or individual's ability to sustain their livelihood in a manner that is not detrimental to others now or in the future. It concerns safeguarding the opportunities, potentials, and realities that we enjoy today so that others may do the same in the future.

There is a degree of consensus on the importance of sustainability, the means by which it is understood, pursued, and achieved vary drastically.

If you ask industry experts what sustainability means, you'll get many different perspectives.

Ed Treacy, vice-president of PMA, the Produce Marketing Association, says sustainability is key in inspiring "our members to implement business solutions and initiatives that benefit the planet and people on it".

This sentiment was echoed in an interview NS Packaging conducted with Louise Koch, Dell Technologies' corporate sustainability director, who emphasized the role of global companies as part of wider "society", helping to find a "solution" to sustainability problems. Paul Davidson, challenge director for UK Research and Innovation's (UKRI) smart sustainable packaging challenge (SSPP) reminisced about how, as a PhD student in plastics processing, "poorly educated we were in terms of" both the issues of sustainability and recycling. Whilst sustainability dominates discussions in boardrooms, living rooms and parliaments today, it was not always a principal concern.

It is easy to understand why companies, consumers and governments have yet to develop a meaningful appreciation of sustainability. understanding sustainability, its nuances and ambiguities, and the core issues it seeks to address is fundamental for any individual looking to positively contribute to – or implement – sustainable systems, services and products.

The leaky faucet

In 2019, a former advertising executive called Dave Ford, set out to organise and facilitate a plastic waste talkathon, in the format of a four-day cruise from Bermuda to the Sargasso Sea. This may seem bizarre, but Dave managed to bring together 165 individuals from Greenpeace activists to CEOs of petrochemical companies, to collaborate, debate and understand the many issues and perspectives at the heart of the problem of sustainability.

Those with different ideologies were literally thrown together. This extended to making a Greenpeace activist and a Nestlé executive share a room, a ploy later termed, 'sleeping with the enemy'.

The initiative was a success and led to the founding of the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network. This group consists of a complex mix of – times antagonistic – members of a global community tasked with delivering sustainable development.

The themes of responsibility, collaboration, and sustainability were explored in conversation with JC Milam, consultant, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Cherripick. For JC, we are at a point in understanding sustainability where "the rubber meets the road", where the statements, actions, and the "measurement thereof must start aligning".

Consumers, policymakers and executives within the packaging industry must understand that an overhaul of the system requires collective responsibility. This can be seen in the recent adoption of wide-scale extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes within the OECD, which place the onus on producers to recycle the waste from the products they manufacture.

For JC, "small is all" when thinking about sustainability or developing solutions to achieve it.

JC says the concept of a leaking tap is universally "recognized as a problem". The reason for it being a problem is different for different people. Those individuals all have different methodologies, incentives, and reasons for dealing with or fixing the leaky tap. Still, there is a consensus that leakage is a problem that needs to be addressed. The question is how, when, and the extent to which it is fixed.

In other words, says JC, how do we "get disjointed, disagreeable groups of people to work together to resolve the same issue?"

While debates rage about the use of alternative materials, the sustainability of plastics, recycling, etc., there is consensus about the need to address rising global temperatures, over-exploitation of finite resources and the huge swathes of plastic waste in waterways.

So the question then is, how can corporations, politicians, activists and consumers work together to solve this issue, an issue created by the interaction of people, profit, and the world at large (see Figure 2)?

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Figure 2- People, Planet, Profit

This model may be an oversimplification, there are different ways of looking at the 'leaky faucet'. Some will say the problem is the system itself, others the faucet, and there will be those that think the problem may come as a result of the damage caused by leakages.

Some will consider it a significant problem, while others may not see an inherent need for a solution at all. Each solution may have a different price, the incentive may be different and there is by no means a consensus due to the wide array of individuals involved in dealing with the problem.

The same is true of the topic of sustainability. On the issue of plastic waste, many don't see eye to eye. Yet, they have fostered a culture of collaborative communication, moved beyond partisan ties, to find an inclusive solution.

Collaboration is key. The sentiment and message shared here is central for any aspiring entrepreneur, innovative thinker, or industry expert when dealing with sustainability.

Trash to treasure

JC's "small is all" approach was vital in becoming more sustainable as consumers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. Vision, he explained, was in his eyes foundational in realizing wide-scale sustainable growth and a move away from a linear economic model.

Industrial ecology, a field of study that focuses on goods production from nature's point of view, mimicking a natural system in which resources are conserved and reused, has inspired JC. For instance, he asked if bottle caps could be manufactured from materials that could act as a food source for marine life if disposed of in a water system.

Thinking cross sectors could bear fruit in the development of a more sustainable system.

"One man's trash is another man's treasure", JC added, and this is the mindset we need to foster and which could prove to be hugely rewarding financially and environmentally.

Adopting an open-minded approach to the development of sustainable solutions is hugely beneficial. Tapping into industrial ecology offers a promising sustainable route that coupled with cross-industry collaboration, will assist the development of sustainable products and solutions.

J.C.'s leaky faucet offers a novel way to think about the supply chain's issues when addressing sustainability. While motives, perspectives and opinions vary from activists, business leaders and consumers, collaboration is necessary to address the fundamental issues of unsustainable business models.