Joi Danielson received her bachelor's degree from the University of Washington and master's degree from the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science in South Africa.
She is a partner with Systemiq Ltd., a certified B corporation that launched in 2016 to cultivate and scale solutions that deliver economic and environmental value. With Systemiq and Borealis, she created a nearly $14 million program that works with local governments to build clean, circular waste management systems in cities with high plastic environmental leakage that would stop thousands of tons of waste pollution.
Danielson is also the co-founder of Vital Ocean, an organization that conducts field research, administers circular waste system pilots and makes recommendations to policymakers. Vital Ocean's goal is to "build a coordinated movement to sustainably reduce ocean plastic pollution by 50 percent by 2025 and ultimately end all ocean plastic by 2035, starting in Indonesia," according to its website.
She recently published a book titled Leave No Trace: Vital Lessons From Pioneering Organisations on the Frontline of Waste and Ocean Plastic.
Danielson's first time working in plastics was in 2014 when the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy hired McKinsey, where she worked as an engagement manager and McKinsey Global Institute Fellow of disruptive technology, to solve the issue of reducing ocean plastic levels by 50 percent worldwide by 2025.
"Our team traveled to China, the Philippines and Hong Kong to research how the plastics supply chain worked and where the breaks in the system were with the results written up in the white paper, 'Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies for a Plastic-Free Ocean,'" she said in her Women Breaking the Mold survey.
Danielson's love for water continues when she's not working as well. When she wants to relax, she enjoys "being in or on the water" — diving, swimming, sailing and dragon boat racing — and playing with her dog, Pepper.
Lianne Mason, head of project communications for the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, nominated Danielson.
Q: What is your current challenge at work?
Danielson: My team's aim is to double waste collection in Indonesia from 39 percent today to 80 percent and stop nearly 40 million tonnes of waste from going into the environment. We also aim to change the value equation of plastics (especially "problematic plastics") to make a circular economy viable. Achieving this means working top-down and bottom-up.
Top-down we are supporting the government to understand (and hopefully soon resolve) the root cause structural constraints that make setting up and operating waste systems so challenging in Indonesia. Bottom-up we are working with partners like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste to expand waste collection to millions of people, most who have never had waste collection before.
One of our biggest challenges is system economics. It costs twice as much to recycle plastics than the revenue received from selling recyclables given the waste composition of 85-plus percent flexible packaging and other problematic plastics in the waste stream, and waste pickers removing much of the higher-valuable plastics remaining.
Q: What about the plastics industry surprises you?
Danielson: How challenging it can be to balance the needs of recyclability, carbon footprint, food freshness and cost when designing packaging and that the very components that make plastics such a useful material — low cost, durability, lightness — are also what make it so challenging in the environment — low cost, there's less incentive to collect it; durability, it stays in the environment; lightness it travels great distances.
Q: What associations do you belong to or actively participate in?
Danielson: I actively participate in Verra and BV Rio's 3RI Standard Development Committee to develop standards for a "plastic credit mechanism" to measure, finance and "credit" activities that recover and/or recycle plastic above baseline rates, thereby reducing environmental plastic leakage around the world.
Q: If you were CEO of a company, what would you do first?
Danielson: Define what problem needs to be solved, go into the field to learn as much as I could about the problem, develop a plan of action and surround myself with some great people to solve it together.
Q: Who is your mentor or someone you look up to?
Danielson: My stepfather Steve, for his unwavering support, deep wisdom and for the honour and integrity he brings to everything he does.