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Experiential Learning for the Win (or, How to Really Turn the Tide on Global Plastic Pollution)

2019’s Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit transformed not only its host organization and its 165 participants — it catalyzed action around plastic waste at an unprecedented scale. We caught up with Ocean Plastic Leadership Network founder Dave Ford to learn more.

After former media and ad exec Dave Ford spent two transformative years traveling South America, North America and Africa in the early 2000s — seeing firsthand some of the often-devastating social and environmental effects of decades of business “progress” on the developing world — he was compelled to launch SoulBuffalo, an experiential learning program designed to get executives out from behind their desks to see those real-world effects for themselves, as well.

After a few years opening corporate decision-makers’ eyes to their on-the-ground impacts, SoulBuffalo organized its biggest-ever outing in May 2019: The Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit took over 150 executives and activists out to the middle of the ocean for four days at the North Atlantic Gyre (one of the five major ocean plastics hotspots). The Summit transformed not only the participants, but the company itself — SoulBuffalo re-emerged in 2020 as the nonprofit Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, which has since catalyzed a movement called the Global Plastic Treaty Dialogues.

With the United Nations Environmental Assembly set to decide whether to start negotiations on a “Paris Agreement for Plastics” in February 2022, there’s no time like the present for these Dialogues. We caught up with Ford, ahead of his talks next week at SB’21 San Diego, to learn more about the movement and what he sees as the future of plastic.

OPLN’s previous incarnation as SoulBuffalo took executives out into the wild to experience and understand the wide-ranging effects of the climate crisis and business’ contribution to it. What prompted the shift to a sole focus on the ocean plastic crisis?

Dave Ford: I would view our path as an evolution. SoulBuffalo was an expedition company rooted in experience; and the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network was born on one of our biggest expeditions — to the Atlantic Gyre with 165 plastics leaders, from activist to industry. Through this journey, we've realized that — in addition to experiential education, positional education (learning from your oppositional groups) and building a baseline of factual understanding for leaders across the value chain are mission-critical to widespread environmental intelligence.

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Through this journey, we've realized that at our core we are an environmental education organization. As we've started to work with governments, via the Global Plastic Treaty Dialogues we've been running, it made sense to simplify the brand. Government leaders and non-English speakers from other countries had a difficult time understanding what a "SoulBuffalo" was. We're launching a new parent brand for the leadership networks we're building, coming soon; it will not just be limited to ocean plastics.

What conversations/partnerships/initiatives have emerged from that first Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit? Are more Summits planned?

DF: We've largely been convening virtually due to COVID; but when things get more back to normal, we'll absolutely be back out in the Gyres. But first, we'd like to embed executives directly with waste collectors in the global south. With respect to the initiatives that were born on the Summit:

  • Zero Plastic Waste Communities are funded and launching in tribal lands here in the US (Montana and Alaska) and in Ghana. This project was built and brought to life by Pyxera Global and First Mile. Reserve logistics is a big focus.

  • There is a small-format recycling initiative that is being incubated by The Sustainability Consortium.

  • Additionally, a Plastics Reclaimers Working Group, with seven global waste-reclaiming organizations, is being housed at the Meridian Institute.

Through forming OPLN and engaging with its member companies, what gaps/barriers/opportunities do you still see in how the global plastic crisis can most effectively be addressed? How have the Global Treaty Dialogues moved things forward?

DF: We've formed an interesting niche, as we've been a safe space for activists and industries to learn from each other since the OPLN's inception. Yes, we think it can be addressed — but we absolutely think that national and global policy is the quickest way to get there. Some of the biggest gaps can be highlighted through our Global Treaty work that we are running together with WWF and Greenpeace, to help bridge the understanding gap. We've found that activist and industry groups are many times fighting battles from years ago, and convenings like ours can help focus both sides on what the "actual fight” is in 2021. We don't have time to waste.

Our next Global Plastics Treaty Dialogue is on November 10th, 2021 and all OPLN members have access.