A Plastic-Free Ocean Starts on Land

Jenny Flores
Posted by Jenny Flores
Corporate Social Responsibility

Every minute of every day, we dump the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean. That’s 8 million metric tons of plastic a year.

In response to growing awareness of this crisis, more and more cities across the country are outlawing plastic bags.

Manufacturers are starting to seek out more environmentally conscious packaging.

At home, though there’s still a long way to go, many of us have made a commitment to reduce our single-use plastic footprint. And, more and more people are taking action by joining in the annual International Coastal Cleanup.

But have you ever thought about how your bank account might contribute to the problem, or the solution?

Here I’ll connect some dots to show why I believe that banking holds a critical key in fighting ocean plastic pollution, how that problem is linked to climate change—and why eco-conscious consumers should be paying attention.

The Plastic Ripple Effect Grows… and Grows

By now, we’ve all heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: that growing collection of debris—old fishing nets, plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups—somewhere between California and Japan. (By the way, there are actually four other major Patches around the world.) Some media describe the Pacific Patch as twice the size of Texas, which brings to mind an emerging continent. But I recently learned to rethink my view of the Patch as less of an island, and more like a toxic soup. Much of the debris in the Patch is not biodegradable, so those plastics do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces.

As Janis Searles Jones, the CEO of Ocean Conservancy has said, “The long-term solutions to plastic in our ocean start on land—we need to reduce our single-use plastic footprint, fix our broken recycling system, and move toward a fully circular economy.”

Not the Ocean I Want My Daughter to Inherit

As head of corporate social responsibility (CSR) at Bank of the West, my goal is to advance sustainability throughout the bank. Today, our CSR mission involves much more than traditional bank philanthropy initiatives. Instead, we’re embedding sustainability into how we do business—through policies on what we do and don’t finance—in order to address global issues such as gender equality, climate change, rainforest preservation, and the future of oceans and marine life.

Banks Can Dive in to Make a Difference

With that in mind, the plastics crisis in our oceans is one of the reasons Bank of the West no longer finances big tobacco. Cigarette butts are the single most littered item on the world’s beaches, and micro plastics from butts are found in 70% of seabirds and 30% of turtles. Cigarettes aren’t just a human health issue, they are threatening the sustainability of our planet.

I recently joined the board of Ocean Conservancy, because I believe in the potential of like-minded organizations to amplify their impact locally and globally. Ocean Conservancy organizes the annual International Coastal Cleanup – the world’s largest single-day volunteer effort on behalf of the ocean. The organization also works to protect the Arctic—and Bank of the West and our parent BNP Paribas have a policy of not financing Arctic drilling. With shared values, together we can achieve more.

Banking on a Healthier Ocean

Many people don’t see the connection between banking and conservation. But just like consumers, banks make choices that can affect the environment. Your money in the bank doesn’t just sit in a vault. Deposits finance things—home construction, small businesses, solar panels, car loans, however, potentially also things like arctic drilling and big tobacco.

What a bank finances is as important as what it chooses not to. My role in CSR means that I’m tasked with making sure that our policies are woven directly into our business. Last year, for example, we made a $1-billion sustainable finance commitment, which we’ve been fulfilling through home equity loans for solar panels, discounts on loans for electric cars, and other business and consumer financing to promote the energy transition.

As I begin to work with Janis and others at Ocean Conservancy, I have no doubt there is a role for banks to play in protecting our oceans, shorelines, and sea life. It’s early, so I don’t have the answers, yet. But I’m certain we can bring our banking expertise, global resources and access to capital to bear on many of the challenges facing our oceans and the planet.


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