What is innovation? To me it's all about creative new change - creating an idea or product or process that changes and enhances the world in a new way. I think of it instinctively with a positive, world-bettering filter. Innovation is important because it can lead to new, positive, disruptive change. Fast. And in the world of plastic pollution - i.e., our shared world, because the plastic waste is now everywhere - new, positive, disruptive change cannot come fast enough.
Just over a week ago, I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the inaugural - and now to be annual - Think Beyond Plastic (TBP) Innovation Competition and Conference, held in Berkeley, California at the gorgeous and green David Brower Center on June 13-14, 2013. That coloured light bulb to my right is the TBP logo symbol, and is itself a visually delightful and innovative take on the light bulb - a perfect representation of the new rays of light and ideas unveiled last week and now radiating all over the world. The purpose of the competition and conference was to find and highlight disruptive solutions to the global plastic pollution crisis. Life Without Plastic was honoured to be a sponsor and enthusiastic supporter of TBP.
TBP was organized and sponsored by the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) whose dynamic and innovative (I'll try not to overuse this word, but it's just so appropriate in the context of many parts of this blogpost) team made it a solid success. That's many of them below as we thanked them for their hard work.
The master of ceremonies for the event was the engaging and always smiling Ed Begley, Jr., who attended with his eco-aware daughter Amanda. He has been a strong force for spreading the word on the issue of plastic pollution, working closely with the PPC - for example, in this great little video on banning plastic bags.
I'm not going to talk about the winners of the innovation competition because you can easily check them out here. Rather, I'm going to take you on a whirlwind tour of the rest of the event through my eyes to give you a taste of the whole extravaganza. If you want more, there are lots of links to explore.
It began on the plane down to San Francisco from Canada. I overheard the guy sitting behind me say to his neighbour, "Yeah, I'm going to a conference on plastic pollution." That's how I first met the lively Terry Bigsby, President of Aspenware, the leaders in disposable, compostable wooden cutlery (made from aspen, birch and poplar left as waste by the softwood lumber industry). We shared some fascinating stories of the trials and tribulations - and exhilaration - of the entrepeneurial life.
Plastic-free blogging guru and friend and inpsiration, Beth Terry was there signing copies of her informative book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too - a must-have for those looking for oodles of tips on how to live plastic-free. Check out her blogpost on Think Beyond Plastic, to read her prespective and learn about other neat aspects not mentioned here.
Michael Davis is the founder and President of US Pure Water, which provides water filtration and purification systems, including beautifully made stainless steel water stations that can be used at events like this one. That's Michael below standing behind the stations he brought to TBP. Thanks to Michael's work over the past 25 years - thousands of single-use water bottles have been avoided.
Michael also plays a mean flute. At the end of the first day of the conference, he invited Terry and I to a musical jam and potluck at a funky Berkeley community center called PLACE (People Linking Art, Commuity and Ecology). And it was at PLACE that I learned about the Peace on Earthbench Movement (POEM), which empowers youth and community members to clean up the environment, repurpose their trash - including plastic bottles - into a building material they then use to build an Earthbench where they can share music, stories, and life.
The Conference began with PPC Co-founder and Executive Director, Daniella Dimitrova Russo, providing some background on the PPC, the event, and setting the stage for the speakers to come. This was not an event to talk about the research or the details of the problem - most of us attending were well aware of the plastic pollution issue - but rather to focus on solutions. The PPC takes a three-pronged approach: 1) promoting viral behaviour change by building awareness of the issue and highlighting ways to eliminate plastic use at the source; 2) promoting impact investing - the purpose of this event - bringing solutions in front of investors to get good ideas funded and implemented; 3) youth leadership, for example through the PPC Plastic Free Campuses project.
Fran Seegull, Managing Director of Impact Assets was the first speaker and gave us a solid overview of "Impact Investing as Disruptive Innovation." Impact investing seeks to use the best of the for-profit and the nonprofit systems and blend them to yield social, environmental and financial returns.yerdle ("a magical place where you share with your friends"), followed with an engaging talk entitled, "Disrupting Shopping as Usual and Impact on Social Change: The Sharing Economy." Adam is one of my heros. At 23, he became the youngest ever President of the Sierra Club, and is an inspiring, and funny, force for change. His goal is to make sharing the new shopping. He promotes generosity over hoarding, which, he told us, is now a recognized clinical condition. The idea is to move from a linear economy of ownership and planned obsolescence to a circular economy of access over ownership, services over stuff, and Lifetime Customer Value. Did you know there are 63 pieces of LEGO for every person on earth. Do you use your LEGO? According to Adam, 80% of our stuff sits unused. So why not pass it on or share it?
Then we had a treat. A performance, and there is no other way to describe it, by the hilarious and smart Emily Levine: comedian, writer, broadcaster, philosopher.
The title of Daniel Goleman's talk was "Systems Thinking with Anthropocene Focus and Eco-Intelligence." He is a psychologist, science journalist and author of the wildly popular 1995 book Emotional Intelligence. I can remember my father quoting from this book when it first came out and popularized the the notion of our ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. So the anthropocene dilemma he outlines is that the systems around us (food, health, commerce, political...) have processes that are degrading our life support systems, and we mostly don't notice. What to do? In a nutshell, "make the invisible visible" and reinvent everything with an awareness of the full life cycle and the full effects of that life cycle.Wild Farm Alliance and Watershed Media.
In his garage 20 years ago, Mike Biddle founded MBA Polymers, which is now the world leader in recycling post-consumer plastics from complex waste streams - and thus diverting them from landfills, incineration and pollution. This is huge because currently less than 10% of the waste plastic in the world is actually recycled, though the plastics industry would have you believe it is much more than that. Mike gave us a snapshot of his journey from then to now, including some horrifying photos of plastic waste depots in China - and most of this plastic waste comes from North America. He had experience-based tips on entrepeneurship: make the most of technology, hire the best people you can find (better than you) and treat them like partners on a mission, go beyond your comfort zone, financial sustainablility is key. His key closing message: "Being true to your dream is what matters most."
Next up was a blast of youthful energy. Prashanth Ramakrishna is one to watch. Speaker, writer, activist. At just sixteen he is the founder and CEO of Unheard Voices, which empowers youth to fight for a sustainable future. He is on several national councils including the International Youth Council USA, where he sits as the Environmental Protection Director, the Greening Forward National Youth Council and the Roots and Shoots National Youth Council.
He is a forceful advocate for his Generation Y Millenials, who he describes as global problem solvers. They number 82 million in the US alone, but thanks to social media are a truly international generation, and they are changing the face of social media by using it in new and utterly innovative ways to effect change. Fast.
These are not kids lol'ing around facebook and twitter; their key tools are the powerful new sharing tools like Instagram, and especially those with a social mission like policymic and GOOD. And they will be heard.
Leandro Herrero is a man on a mission to promote the idea of Viral Behavior Change. Yes, it's all about behavior: fast, sustainable, large scale behavioural and cultural change. He describes us humans as "sophisticated copying machines," but notes that "the bridge from awareness to behavioral change is a big one." So how does behavioral change occur? The strongest change-causing network is that of peer to peer interactions, which are informal, socially influenced, story-based and often the result of distributive leadership -- a distributive leader is one who works backstage to give the stage to those more powerful than s/he. Powerful ideas, and he gets very excited talking about all this. We can learn a lot from his enthusiasm and humor - and ideas.
And here are some of the other neat people I met...
Ellyn and Robbie, who wowed us all with music and words straight from and to the heart.
The angelic Joanna Moore of AXE restaurant in Venice, CA: (ă • shay) is a salutation borrowed from Yoruba (where Nigeria is today) that means, "go with the power of the Gods and Goddesses." AXE was also a sponsor of TBP, and I look forward to the day I will experience the food at AXE.
The enthusiastic Chanelle and Cyndi Sladics of Simply Straws, with their colorful straws and handy mason jar mugs with straw lids.
Alfhild Aspelin from Two Tomorrows, an international corporate sustainability agency which has teamed up with WWF to spearhead a innovation project to prevent further plastic pollution and clean up existing plastic marine pollution.
Julie Corbett, the Founder and CEO of Ecologic Brands, a green packaging company that makes containers of recycled and compostable cardboard and newspaper on the outside and 70% less plastic (recyclable plastic) on the inside, where plastic is required for liquids such as detergent. They are working to disrupt the packaging industry.
John Borg is the Founder and CEO of Eco Imprints, which offers Earth-friendly promotional items, and Steelys Drinkware, which focuses on stainless steel cups and bottles. He shared with me a super informative infographic he created about the disposable cup crisis - click on it for a better view of the detail, it's a real eye-opener...
I met many other folks doing fascinating, important, and yes, innovative things. It was invigorating to be in an atmosphere where we did not need to even explain the issue, we could just dive into how we're working on ideas for the solutions. This is our tribe and community. And being with these people is how we learn and grow and build partnerships that work to attack plastic pollution exponentially, rather than each on our own.
The day after I returned home from Berkeley it was Father's Day. Our son Jyoti was the driving force behind us starting Life Without Plastic, so coming back to his laugh and love really brought it all home - a key reason why we do what we do - again and again and again: because the children deserve healthy bodies and a healthy world without plastic pollution.
Jay Sinha, Co-Owner
Photos by Jay or Chantal, unless noted otherwise.