By: DANIEL BURKE
Nanjing: On a grey Nanjing afternoon, cars swirl past concrete high-rises, the sidewalks are choked with idle bicycles waiting for riders and at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, students take time from their homework routine to receive a guest. Upon arriving in Asia nearly 25 years ago, Doug Woodring, a graduate of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and Wharton School of Business, was struck by both the scale and unsustainability of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and set out to work towards a better path. On Friday, October 20, Woodring came to Nanjing from his base in Hong Kong to represent Ocean Recovery Alliance and its push towards a green future.
Students at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center were treated to three days of lectures and group discussions that focused on environmental sustainability. During these three days, Woodring outlined small changes that can be made to products and corporate culture to reduce the amount of plastic waste. The first day of the mini-course focused on understanding the issues humans face today. Woodring was part of the first scientific team to investigate the giant mass of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean. As he describes it, the situation is “like a giant, million square mile, area of water, like a soup, which has large and small plastic pieces in both horizontal and vertical contexts, showing a large scale environmental catastrophe that is incredibly hard to solve.”
The world produces nearly 30 million tons of plastic per year, but recycle only about two million. Much of this waste gets washed out to sea where ocean currents agglomerate the waste in areas where these currents converge. “[This problem] needs to be solved upstream, to stop the flow/creation of plastic/waste/pollution, before it makes its way to the ocean,” Woodring emphasized. The importance of implementing sound disposal methods to halt the expansion of these massive plastic disaster zones is vital.
In addition, bioaccumulation is a larger issue that affects us directly through the food chain. In less developed countries, the government often gives no support for plastic waste removal. As such, nearly 40 percent of countries burn plastic material, releasing massive amounts of toxic fumes into the air. These fumes not only harm those on land, but also disperse out over the sea. The aforementioned floating plastic bits in the ocean then act like magnets, absorbing these toxins. Brightly colored pieces of plastic (especially red ones) get eaten by ocean life, which become poisoned and pass that poison up the food chain to us.
The second and third days of the mini-course tackled these issues and addressed the ways in which people can solve them directly. In this regard, Woodring’s organization, Ocean Recovery Alliance, has seen success in implementing modest changes to products and reducing the amount of plastic waste created. The organization has engaged businesses directly to increase the amount of recycled content in their products, and reduce packaging and supply chain waste. Additionally, Ocean Recovery Alliance has helped businesses reevaluate their product’s life cycle assessment and urged them to consider their product’s “afterlife.”
Woodring emphasized to students how important it is to talk to businesses directly and not antagonize them. Nick Manthey, a student at the HNC commented, “I’m surprisingly a bit optimistic after seeing the kind of work that Doug has been engaged in. The most important thing that I took away from the weekend was the unique role that NGOs play in challenging businesses to come up with creative solutions that foster economic growth while restoring our environment.”
Overall, the mini-course sparked students’ interest in how to reduce the amount of waste we produce. Whether it’s buying products with less packaging, reusing water bottles, or simply refusing a lid and straw, there are concrete steps we can take in order to minimize the impact our waste has on the environment.
As for Woodring, he returned to Hong Kong to continue his work with Ocean Recovery Alliance, as well as their plastic waste event titled “Plasticity.” This event targets businesses directly, as he has found government participation too cautious. “Governments are too weak to lead in the right way,” he says, “so it is up to communities and social media to inspire companies to take the lead on many of these topics, investments and opportunities. If they wait to be regulated, we will lose out on some huge potential gains in improvements in the next ten years. Stay tuned.”
Daniel is a staff writer for the Nanjing Bureau of the SAIS Observer. He is a certificate student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and will go to SAIS DC next fall to complete his master’s degree.