Journalism Needs to Get Political About Plastic Pollution

Professional big wave surfer and businessman Jeff Denholm sailed from Miami to New York to bring big money into the solution of marine pollution. By personally delivering a new yacht to a billionaire from K2 Ventures, Jeff secured three days together at sea to convince the venture capitalist to invest in his company. Jeff’s business, Atira systems, has engineered a toxic free alternative to traditional flame retardants used by firefighters across the U.S. Follow the chemicals downstream and many end up marine ecosystems across the nation. Waterways permeate a soup of man-made toxic waste that bond with plastic debris, causing physical harm throughout the entire food chain. Jeff created his company to solve one particular source of human waste, and works with other power players to solve bigger environmental threats together.

Journalistic coverage of marine plastic pollution rarely leads with an industry-centered story like Jeff’s. A picture of a decomposing albatross with a stomach full of plastic usually sums up the problem for readers. Images of trash wounding an animal help readers connect their consumption to the problem a world away. However, the solutions proposed by journalists focus on a select group of readers who have the time and money to live a socially conscience lifestyle. Clean up the beach. Live plastic free. Bring a shopping bag. Socially conscience solutions help, but most people lack the time of day to make choices with the ocean in mind. Journalists bring the fight to basic human behavior, instead of to the polls where ordinary people make eco-friendly a right.

Jeff explains, “Most people don’t have the bandwidth to look at global environmental issues. They’re not looking at what big corporations are doing. They’re just trying to get by.” Jeff’s past work as a marine archeologist has taken him around the world. He has witnessed first-hand the way countries from all over the world pollute the land and sea. Since then, Jeff has focused his career and connections to combat toxic pollutants. Outside of work, Jeff serves as an ambassador for 1% For the Plant to convince companies to invest in environmental nonprofits and brand themselves as eco-minded. Toxins and debris caused by overconsumption and waste continue to threaten California’s ecosystem and natural beauty, but rallying support from industry and consumers remains an uphill battle.

The enduring issue of marine debris that pollutes the world’s oceans has been covered for the past twenty years by journalists who must frame an issue with seemingly little impact on its readers, to one that seems relevant in their daily life. To illustrate the immensity of the problem, the majority of journalists appropriated the metaphors “Garbage Patch” and “Plastic Island,” embellishments used by seafarers to characterize the mass of man-made flotsam particles that accumulate in oceanic gyres. These bizarre metaphors captured the imagination of readers, and motivated them to propose legislation, start organizations, and invent solutions to address the issue. However, the metaphors were just that, not facts but weak representations of the actual thing, and their inherent misdirection caused nearly every attempt to solve the issue to fail. The public’s power that existed in information from journalists was rendered feeble.

The use of imagery and solutions that target consumer lifestyles demonstrate the American news media’s reliance on a model that champions individualism. Journalism researcher James Carey claimed as far back as 1996 that, “American Culture is ‘individualistic’. This overreliance …is a pervasive weakness of American Journalism.” The major drawback to proposals for individualistic solutions manifests when only a small percentage of readers have the ability to take action. Lifestyle changes from a group of readers will not solve humanity’s plastic crisis. Contrast marine debris coverage from the ‘Huffington Post’ or ‘CNN’ with France’s democratic model evident in outlets such as ‘Le Figaro,’ and the difference becomes apparent. French sources focus primarily on proposed legislation and the positions of politicians around the issue instead of ways for readers to solve the problem themselves. Journalists who assert legislation as the principle method for fighting marine debris tap into existing political and environmental advocate groups. Only galvanized collectives of politically active individuals and industry stand a fighting chance against the status quo.

Major news outlets dropped the “Trash Island” metaphor as data mounted against it, but one young man from the Netherlands continues to champion the idea and build an organization around it. That man, Boyan Slat, has gathered together investors and scientists to combat marine pollution with a massive floating filtration device that skims parts of the “island” surface from the ocean for recycling. After millions of dollars and years of testing, his team has had no proven success. Still, news outlets like the Huffington Post champion his work as a solution to marine debris. Boyan’s approach presents a simple solution to an over simplified issue. In order to develop new solutions to this persistent issue, concerned citizens need to look beyond the world of environmentalism.

“Just because the guy doesn’t’ have the same politics as you doesn’t mean you should alienate him, as a matter of fact you need to be closely aligned with him,” Jeff says about his wealthy prospective investor. The billionaire from New York didn’t invest. Jeff’s company was too far outside the venture capitalist’s field of expertise. Jeff spends money and time away from his company to gamble on meetings with certified investors. His company’s advisory board has renowned environmentalists and leading scientists, but they aren’t the only experts Jeff wants on his team. “Say I have a meeting tomorrow with the biggest environmental attorney in the world, or I (could) have lunch with the CEO of EXON. Guess who I am having lunch with?” “Exon,” I replied. “Exon…Those are the people who need to hear the story,” he explained.

Jeff’s adventure sports side career (yes, he has that going on as well) and charisma helps him gain an audience with big investors. High-end outdoor apparel company Patagonia took notice of his unique story and brought him on board as a brand ambassador. Jeff explains, “True influence, like what Patagonia is trying to do, comes from financial success, and leveraging your model of success which is more examined and more in balance with humanity and the environment than others, and proving to others that it can be done. That’s where the change is going to start to happen.” He is proposing a top down model to environmentalism, but that doesn’t mean consumers lack an important role.

At the consumer level, environmental groups and journalists suggest people become socially responsible consumers to combat pollution. American’s have begun to see social consumerism as a political act, one that replaces voting, according to a dissertation study published in 2013 by the University of Pennsylvania. That study found that people who cared about an issue were willing spend a 20% more on an alternative socially responsible product. What’s more impressive is that, “individuals who say they don’t care about an issue have a more than a 70% probability of choosing a socially conscious product if it is of equal cost as generic alternative.” Savings motivate consumer choices in general. For most, the environment only weighs in when price becomes irrelevant. That means, however, that prosocial consumers have less of an effect on industry than if they prioritize a top down model. Purchasing power helps, but voting hits the top levels of the problem hardest. To affect widespread change, voters can impact consumer options for disposable plastics when they vote on legislation that bans throw-a-ways or provides incentives for innovative environmentally conscience industry. Law can bind the ocean’s health to the profit of companies, something industry must adapt to.

Californian’s environmental legislation currently leads the Nation’s towards widespread use of alternatives to plastic food packaging and disposables. In Jeff’s hometown of Capitola in California, 12 ordinary citizens on the city’s volunteer Environmental Commission proposed a ban on polystyrene takeout containers. The ordinance was brought to city council and passed in 2009. On a larger scale, California’s ban on plastic bags took a collective effort from average voters, city councils, and state legislators. What began in cities became a statewide movement to end the use of potential sources of plastic pollution. The ban was met with pushback from Industry players. Major cities across the state were sued multiple times by a conglomerate of plastic manufacturers called Save the Bag. Some cities even had to vote to ban bags twice. The plastics industry argued jobs were at stake, and that legislators used questionable evidence to support environmental arguments. They were right, to a degree. Trace back sources of evidence used for city-led initiatives to stop plastic pollution and you will find a 1984 article on the impact of fishing nets on marine mammals. Californian voters didn’t need to wait for an updated and encompassing study on the harmful impacts of bags, the evidence was on their beaches and in their waterways. The proposition holds today.

Nonprofits aimed at tackling marine pollution have sprung up across the country in the past decade, and have brought a new level of research and advocacy to the issue. Journalists turn to environmental nonprofits like the California based 5 Gyres organization to shed new light on the fight against marine debris. 5 Gyres has focused years on researching the scope and impact of plastic pollution in the ocean. Now, they have begun a community advocacy program called 5 Gyres Ambassadors to give ocean-minded individuals the tools and contacts to catalyze change in their community. 5 Gyres asks individuals to begin with a pledge against plastic consumption. Next, the organization suggests methods for political action. On the homepage of their website, visitors find charts to look up their community’s current plastic legislation, links to email their state representatives, and a guide to create a plastic ban Kickstarter. All proven methods. However, political solutions rarely make it into news stories. Too often do media savvy individuals like celebrity/activist Adrian Grenier or the ill-fated solutions of Boyan Slat, both who lack significant contributions to the plastics issue, get the final say in a news article.

For “average” people, Jeff says, “I think the most baseline success humans can have on this planet would be to examine their own consumption rate.” Traditional news media agree with Jeff, but for different reasons. Jeff recognizes the bank account needed to enter the ring with the plastics and oil industry, but hopes averages citizens take the small meaningful steps available to them. Conversely, news idealistically presumes their audience can solve plastic pollution alone. Readers need to understand the role of big business and lawmakers in the issue of marine debris if journalists want to see their proposed solutions follow a top down model. Again, France has found success in their democratic media model. France remain the only country to ban both plastic bags and disposable cutlery. The more politically contextualized the issue becomes, the more avenues for change become available to citizens.

Jeff recently took a small group of billionaires skiing to get a moment alone with them, but spent of half of his rare time with investors to talk business. The other half he spent advising his wealthy audience to combine their charity efforts together. He explains, only a, “unified power elite…focused on just a few common issues,” can truly disrupt the status quo. That’s how Jeff operates, way beyond his own interests. For journalists who want to open up the discussion of marine pollution, the task won’t come easily. The already complex topic must now include policy and industry analysis. Fortunately, after two decades of coverage, the news media appears to have crafted a solid and foundational understanding of the issue to build upon. For the rest of us, we just need to remember that our problems are down stream and up Capitol Hill.


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