Get Your Microplastics Out of My Beer!

The community I call home, Duluth, MN, happens to be perched on a steep hillside that runs down to the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior. There’s hardly a place in town where you can’t turn around and see the lake stretching out across the horizon. With such an expansive geographical feature nearby, it’s not surprising that people who live here share a special affinity for the lake, borne out in the names of local businesses (Lake Superior Brewing Company, Lake Superior Garden Center), local colleges (Lake Superior College), and the plethora of Lake Superior tattoos that adorn the bodies of many young locals.

Because Duluth people love Lake Superior with such fervor, we were outraged when we read about a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One that found eight of nine tap water samples taken from all five Great Lakes, including our beloved Lake Superior, contained plastics. It was especially alarming for the significant population of beer lovers in our community to learn that scientists also found micro-plastics in all of the 12 brands of beer brewed with water drawn from the Great Lakes.

Plastics are a worldwide problem.

Freshwater sources around the world, not to mention the oceans, are filled with plastic that takes several hundred years to break down: shopping bags, six-pack rings, food wrappers, and fibers from  synthetic clothing, among many other forms. The plastic fragments make their way into our food chain, with devastating results, as shown by the haunting film Albatross.

A 2015 University of Georgia study, Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean, concluded that the ocean contains far more degraded plastic than previously believed—an estimated 150 million tons of plastic, with 8 million tons added annually. That’s equivalent to a garbage truck load every minute. The consequences are unimaginable: if we don’t take action, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050, according to a 2016 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Local and National Solutions

The good news is that concerned citizens are taking tangible steps to address the issue of plastics in our environment, both locally and nationally. Here in Duluth, we’re lucky to have the organization Bag It Duluth, which is working to reduce our community’s dependence on single-use plastic bags and straws through a city ordinance to promote zero-waste strategies and environmentally preferable to-go containers. Early supporters include well-known local businesses including Loll Designs, faith communities like Peace United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth, and restaurants including At Sarah’s Table and Duluth Grill.

Taking the lead on the international stage, Rwanda banned all single-use plastic bags in 2008. In 2015, the UK government introduced a 5 pence levy on all single-use plastic bags, leading to an 80% reduction in their use. In 2016, California became the first state to impose a statewide ban on plastic bags. Other cities, including Austin, Cambridge, and Seattle, have imposed 5-10 cent fees. Using sensible incentives, communities around the world are taking tangible steps to significantly reduce plastic waste.

Socially Responsible Investors Taking Shareholder Action

The broadest coalition of socially responsible investors working to engage companies on plastic pollution is called the Plastic Solutions Investors Alliance. They are comprised of twenty-five institutional investors, from four countries with a combined $1 trillion of assets under management, who have all signed a declaration citing plastic pollution as a clear corporate brand risk and pledging to interact with leading companies to find solutions through new corporate commitments, programs, and policies. Their initial engagements will be with four large consumer goods companies: Nestle, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, and Unilever.

As You Sow, the nation’s leading non-profit leader in shareholder advocacy, has successfully engaged companies on waste reduction. In 2013, following engagement with As You Sow, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Brands agreed to phase out polystyrene foam coffee cups, which wreak havoc on marine life. In 2014, Procter & Gamble agreed to make 90% of its packaging recyclable; Colgate-Palmolive pledged to make all packaging recyclable in three of four operating divisions and to use 50% recycled content by 2020. Target Corp. agreed in 2017 to engage with its suppliers to phase out the use of harmful polystyrene foam for e-commerce packaging. And Unilever has agreed to make 100% of its packaging recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.

Investing in a Zero-Waste Future

In addition to advocacy, there are multiple ways investors can tilt their investment portfolios towards environmental solutions. And while the following should not be considered a specific  recommendation for you, each are examples of investments geared toward reducing waste, resource optimization, and creating a better world for all.

Pax Global Environmental Markets Fund
This fund utilizes a global thematic strategy to invest in companies that are developing innovative solutions to resource challenges in four key areas: energy efficiency and renewable energy, water infrastructure, waste management, and sustainable food and agriculture. One of the companies currently in the portfolio is Suez SA, a diversified waste management business that has pioneered plastic recycling by developing plants in France that convert polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in plastic bottles into food packaging. Every year, the company recycles 40,000 tons of PET plastic bales.

Calvert Global Water Fund
This fund is positioned to take advantage of long-term investment trends in water infrastructure and address global issues of water quality and scarcity. The fund offers opportunity across the water value chain—not just on the supply side (water utilities, water infrastructure, and technologies), but also in companies that are demonstrating leadership in reducing their water footprint.

When it comes to our own consumption of plastic, the sheer ubiquity of it presents a significant obstacle for those of us seeking to eliminate it from our lives. But solving the global crisis of plastic is not something that can be achieved through individual action—although such actions can certainly support an important shift in public attitudes. Innovation and a large-scale corporate commitment to the cause—along with a culture shift—are critical components for success that we can advance through our investing.

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