"When the campaign launched, it got lots of attention, and it certainly got the attention of the plastics industry," said Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability for the industry trade organization. "I will confess I think it caused some anxiety. Not because we didn't agree with the thesis. Plastics pollution in the marine environment is probably one of our greatest environmental challenges today.
"I think where the anxiety came from is that we don't believe that plastics or planet is a dichotomous choice," Holmes said.
Craig agreed that plastics have a responsible place in society.
"The problem is not the plastic itself. It's where it's ending up. As it travels across land and into the ocean, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces where it's starting to enter our food chain," she said.
There are plenty of stories about plastics now finding its way into food, Craig said.
"It's not just about the turtles and albatrosses that are really compelling images for magazines like ours to publish," she said. "We're also starting to think about what are those effects on human health."
National Geographic's approach is to acknowledge the importance of plastics while still sounding alarm bells about its dangers if not handled properly at the end of its useful life.
"Really, this is a solvable problem. And it goes down to the individual level of what am I consuming? How are my kids behaving in my house? What is my community doing? Thinking about what you can bring to your workplace, how can you be a leader in your company, what your company is going to be able to do. But also how can we come together to accelerate solution generation," Craig said.
"At every point in the supply chain there's opportunity for innovation and creativity," Craig said. But she specifically pointed to design and waste management as key areas.
Holmes agreed that no one group can resolve the plastics pollution problem.
"This is something we are going to have to solve together. Industry is not going to solve it alone. NGOs are not going to solve it alone. Brands can't do it [alone]. It's going to take everyone," Holmes said. "Working together, we can go further and we can go faster."
While plastics in the environment create daunting problems, there are plenty of ways to help tackle the issue. Craig said there are a couple key areas that stick out for her: material design and innovation.
She also said eliminating the flow of plastics into the oceans must be the first priority, otherwise subsequent clean-up efforts will never end.
"Why is plastics getting out into the environment? One of the greatest characteristics of plastic is that it's lightweight. And that light weight means that it can travel on the wind and in water currents.
When we talk about marine debris, that's a big issue because we have one global ocean, so even if debris is hitting [the water] in Asia it's quickly circulating around the world," Craig said.
"Yet that light weight is also the thing that makes plastic so incredible. If you think for a second about the weight of thousands of glass bottles being transported by truck or by plane and now think of the same number of bottles made with plastic," she said. The weight difference represents an enormous savings in carbon emissions.
As interim CEO of the plastics association, Patty Long was also invited to talk about the issue before the conference audience as part of a panel discussion with Holmes and Craig.
She said the brainpower of the plastics business is there to help be part of a solution.
"Innovation is what we do as an industry," she said. "We are an industry of engineers, problem solvers. That's what we're good at. It is an opportunity and an exciting time. People started using plastics because it did things better than other materials. But it absolutely cannot end up in the ocean."
Even with the "Planet or Plastic?" question posed by National Geographic, Craig said pragmatism and balance are needed to create change, she said.