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Thoughts for the C-Suite: whose responsibility is it anyway? Yours? Mine? Ours?

Published by CME Manitoba on August 10, 2017

Thoughts for the C-Suite: whose responsibility is it anyway? Yours? Mine? Ours?

By Kevin Lusk, CME Advanced Manufacturing & Senior Executive Leadership Champion

A team of scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association, have just released in the Journal of Science Advances the first global analysis ever of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. Here are the facts: by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics. 6.3 billion tons have already become waste. Only 9 per cent was recycled. 12 per cent was incinerated. 79 per cent is sitting in landfills or floating in our oceans, rivers and streams or elsewhere in the natural environment (an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the oceans in 2010 alone.) Unabated by 2050, the number is projected to rise to roughly 12 billion metric tons.

According to the study, from the 2 million metric tons produced in 1950 we topped 400 million metric tons in 2015. This production tonnage is only surpassed by materials, such as steel and cement. Steel and cement are used primarily for construction. Plastic’s largest market is packaging, and most of those products are used once and discarded. Roland Gayer, lead author of the paper and associate professor in UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management notes "roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use -- plastic is the opposite. Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use."  Of the total amount of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in just the last 13 years.

As CEOs and owners of manufacturing firms, the number 1 reason for the firm’s existence in business is to make a profit. Without profit, no company can survive. But the uncontrolled impact on our environment and therefore on all of us, as identified by the runaway plastics environmental crisis, begs the question of who is responsible for product end of life disposal?

More often than not, CEOs don’t like to think about that question. Perhaps; however, as the ultimate stewards of the resources our businesses consume or convert into products, or at minimum as global citizens, we should be thinking about that. When that nifty new product you produced is finished its life, you of course, want to sell the next product or the next generation. But do you, as the manufacturer, the processor, the dealer or the distributor – all of whom have made a profit on the product – have any accountability for its re-cycling where possible, or its destruction where not?

I can hear the screams already that “this is a cost I can’t handle!!” So here’s a question for you: Are our products right priced for the markets in which we compete? Or, are our products underpriced because we haven’t taken into consideration the true product cost when we consider the end of life disposal question?

In answering this question one can use the logic that the consumer bought the product. They assume complete responsibility for it. It’s not mine anymore. They used it up or they wore it out. But the thing is – you built it or made it. You made money off it. So whose responsibility is it anyway? Yours? Mine? Or ours?  

Sooner or later, unless we as manufacturers get our act together and come up with some form of policy or standard position on the end of product life question, either government or lobbyists are going to tell us whose responsibility it is… and how much it’s going to cost.

As your advocate for manufacturing policy input to government, CME has a series of committees including the Energy and Environment Committee that as a member, you’re welcome to become a part of and to share your views. Maybe it’s time for you to become more involved in CME. You can also email me your thoughts on the matter: 

Found in: sustainability

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