A cross-border U.S.-Canada business group is developing a plastics pollution plan for the Great Lakes, with initial funding from several firms in the industry, including Dow Inc. and Charter Next Generation.
The Council of the Great Lakes Region announced March 31 that it is launching a five-year effort to identify projects to tackle plastic pollution, and it pointed to another industry effort, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, as a potential guide.
"Plastic waste and pollution are serious issues in the Great Lakes," said CGLR President and CEO Mark Fisher.
The group, which has offices in Ottawa, Ontario, and Cleveland, is still developing its strategy, including how much money it hopes to invest.
But Fisher said it plans to issue an action plan and identify "transformational" projects by December.
"A big component of our work will be trying to produce that action plan by the end of the year which will give people a road map in terms of where we go from here," he said. "The action plan is really going to try to put a finer point on what investments are required from governments, from foundations, from industry, to really get this moving and shifting in a different direction."
Other founding partners of the project, called Circular Great Lakes, are plastic film manufacturer Pregis Corp. and flexible packaging supplier American Packaging Corp., along with Imperial Oil Ltd. and tobacco company Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc.
Fisher said the report could include policy recommendations on improving recycling infrastructure and supporting end markets for the plastic collected, as well as how to better engage with consumers.
He pointed to research showing that 22 million pounds of plastic enters the five Great Lakes each year, and he said the bulk of what is found on shorelines is plastic. The five lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world.
"When we look at the results of different beach cleanups we're finding that 80 percent of the material that shows up on the Great Lakes shoreline is plastics," he said. "We have research showing that a significant amount of plastic could be flowing into the Great Lakes every year though different pathways and sources.
"We've discovered that it's not just an oceans problem," Fisher said. "It's starting to have a significant negative impact on our ecosystems and our wildlife. We are just at the forefront of understanding, but we also have a moment, an opportunity, to course correct."
In its announcement, the group prominently mentioned AEPW, a $1.5 billion effort launched in 2019 by the plastics and consumer product industries. The Great Lakes group said it will work with AEPW and other partners to develop its action plan.
AEPW has largely been focused on projects in the developing world, particularly in places with little waste collection infrastructure.
Several members of the Great Lakes group are also members of AEPW, including Dow, Charter and Pregis. The CGLR vice chair, Brian Ames, is a former Dow senior executive who held roles in the company's performance plastics, olefins and aromatics units.
"We're excited to have members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste involved in supporting the work that we do and really utilizing their member directed commitments to the Alliance," Fisher said. "But it's also how do you match that funding alongside governments and foundations and others, private equity potentially, to invest in a bigger way, in a collaborative way, to do some of these more transformational projects that are required."
In its statement, the group said it wanted to encourage systemic changes and a "shifting away from a linear, take-make-dispose economy and materials management mindset."
Fisher pointed to plastics legislation and regulatory activity on both sides of the border. In particular, he said CGLR does not support the Canadian government's announcement last year that it was considering labeling plastic "toxic" to expand its ability to regulate the material.
But Fisher also said the group sees promising elements in the Canadian government's plastic waste strategies, such as extended producer responsibility initiatives and broadening Ottawa's initial focus on ocean plastics to freshwater sources.
"We're very supportive of the zero plastic waste free strategy and the work that's happening in that regard," Fisher said. "We're very pleased that the federal government is starting to pay more and more attention to plastics in the freshwater environment.
"I think the conversation in Canada is slightly ahead of where things are in the United States [and] there's an opportunity to bring some of that knowledge and some of those initiatives into the U.S. conversation," he said.