Protecting Our Oceans From Plastic with Dr. Dune Ives, CEO of Lonely Whale

Less than 10% of the plastic consumed in the United States is recycled. Much of that ends up in landfills, is incinerated, and over 11 million tons end up in the marine ecosystem according to The Pew Charitable Trust. Lonely Whale, a nonprofit founded in 2015 by Lucy Sumner and Adrian Grenier, began as a result of a single lonely whale and the unwavering love of the ocean. In only five years, they prevented over 27,000 tons of plastic from reaching the ocean, inspired industry leaders and youth to act, and continue to tirelessly fight for the elimination of single use plastic.

Leading this charge is Dr. Dune Ives, CEO of Lonely Whale, whose distinctive background in psychology and unwavering optimism, illustrates we each have a role to play and can make a difference. We spoke with her following The Regenerative Travel Summit to learn more about she is saving our oceans one straw at a time

Lonely Whale
Dr. Dune Ives speaking  at Lonely Whale’s Museum of Plastic in New York City in June 2019

You have a unique background in that you work in ocean sustainability, but have a Ph.D. in Psychology. What do you believe are the primary behavioral factors that drive environmental awareness and change?

Before Lonely Whale, I spent nearly two decades working with companies on organizational change. Through that I learned a lot about human behavior when faced with change—both small and big—that I have distilled into several principles for our work but one in particular that has really influenced our work at Lonely Whale: Keep it simple. 

Our brains are designed to only take in a small bit of the massive amounts of information we encounter. Recently an agency shared that every minute on the internet there are 347,000 Instagram Scrolls, 4.5 million YouTube video views and 1 million Twitch streams. That’s a tremendous amount of information that our brains, with a processing limit of 120 bits per second, are trying to consume, which can cause overload and then disengagement.

The same is true when we look at the complexity of an issue. How does a complex issue like 11 million metric tons of new plastic entering the ocean every year inspire someone to get involved? It doesn’t. It’s too big to comprehend. For most of us, the issue is too complex and too large to know where to begin. To inspire behavior change, it’s critical to start simply with something that can result in immediate success. For us, the first winning idea was the straw—not because it was the biggest cause of plastic pollution, but because it was familiar, and became the most likely to spark a movement. We have harnessed this principle to provoke successful movements including “For A Strawless Ocean” and “Question How You Hydrate.”

As an individual, it is easy to get overwhelmed with all that is needed to combat the “slow-moving oil spill” of plastic pollution. What do you say to folks who are struggling to see the connection between declining the use of a plastic straw at dinner and their environmental footprint, and really get them excited to be part of this movement?

Understand that you’re not alone in feeling this way. It’s common to feel frustrated and helpless, not even knowing where to begin with such a big issue. But it really doesn’t matter where you start. You can start with alternatives to a plastic bag, a plastic straw or a plastic water bottle. The world uses 500 billion single-use plastic bottles on an annual basis!

But we also understand that hearing “easy” eco-friendly solutions like that can sound pretty absurd compared to the scope of the problem. New research tells us that people love the idea of broader sweeping changes, rather than changing their individual actions. People want to get excited about a larger environmental issue that they actually care about and have an emotional connection to. We want you to reimagine how you do things, like ways to travel post-pandemic or policies that can really change the world, and then encourage others around you to get involved so you can make a difference together. 

And, remember that this is a journey that we are all on together. Get started, share your story and keep demanding greater change—it’s working! 

Lonely Whale
“An estimated 11 million tons of new plastic enter the ocean every single year.” – Dr. Dune Ives.

With the onslaught of COVID-19, we have seen a surge in single-use items from masks and gloves to single-use amenities. How can companies balance the need to protect their employees and customers, while minimizing single-use waste?

Today, an estimated 11 million tons of new plastic enter the ocean every single year—and this was before the pandemic. We know that, in 2020 alone, virgin plastic resins will be used to produce 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every single month to keep front-line health care workers safe. None of these items are recyclable, yet all are essential in this pandemic.

Beyond these essential items, however, the modern plastics industry has been taking advantage of the pandemic to further increase its profits. The industry has pushed rhetoric that single-use plastics are “The Great Protector” and a way to keep us safe, despite scientific evidence that the coronavirus may linger on plastic surfaces for up to six days.

We’ve seen pressure by the industry to delay or even roll back single-use plastic bans in favor of disposables, especially as restaurants reopen and offer meals to-go.⁠ It is paramount that we reject the business-as-usual scenario and expand policies that can push back against industry efforts. Consumer goods companies have a responsibility now during the pandemic, and always, to reduce plastic pollution, move to a circular economy for consumer packaging and products, and improve recycling efforts.

You mention how youth are fundamental in the work Lonely Whale does. Why are kids crucial to the platform and problem?

Following “Strawless,” we saw that young activists around the world wanted to get involved. Kids and teenagers were already waking up to the fact that there is an environmental crisis they are inheriting and many saw plastic pollution as an area where they could affect significant change. We wanted to give them the tools and the language to do something about it.

That’s why we launched the Ocean Heroes Network with Captain Planet Foundation. This program gives agency to youth to develop effective campaigns against plastic pollution in their communities. Our ultimate goal is to empower the generation most impacted by the plastic pollution crisis—many of whom will graduate high school in 2025, when the ocean is expected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish.

This unique youth-led program has engaged more than 7,200 youth from 56 countries and activated 167 campaigns to beat plastic pollution. These young heroes have gone on to change state-level policy, kick plastic out of their school districts, and express their concerns about plastic through artivism and localized campaigns, both offline and online.

Lonely Whale focuses on connectivity versus a “doom and gloom” approach to ocean conversation. How do you continually keep engagement up? How does Lonely Whale engage those who live in landlocked spaces, who perhaps don’t interact with the ocean on a day to day basis?

You’re right, traditional environmental campaigns can be dark and overly serious. We build bright, vibrant worlds that are about action and making choices, not guilt.

Even for people who don’t live near the ocean, or have never put their toes in it, we try to bring the ocean closer to them. We help them realize that the ocean is connected with every part of their life. The ocean contributes to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the local waterways we visit, the food on our tables. Every person on every corner of the globe is impacted if we don’t take care of our ocean.

What can we do to truly move the needle towards plastic recycling and reuse? Does this rest in policy? Legislation? Consumer purchasing power? What’s the fast track to end this catastrophe?

Three things need to happen to end plastic pollution on land and in the ocean: People need to continue to make their voices heard. Companies need to only make packaging that can be upcycled. And finally, oil, gas and petrochemical industries need to stop making virgin plastic resin.

The reason we are stuck in this situation is not because of consumers. We aren’t demanding more items wrapped in single-use, non-recyclable packaging. There is no question that this is being caused by the stasis in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry whose profitability is driven by the growth of the plastics industry.

The pandemic has exposed a broken system, perpetuated by the plastics industry and consumer goods companies. I’m a firm believer that the system can be fixed, but industry must lead the way.

Lonely Whale
“Every person is impacted if we don’t take care of our ocean.” – Dr. Dune Ives

Despite all the harm humans have caused to our oceans, how do you continually remain positive and believe we can change the current trajectory we are on?

First, I’m an eternal optimist and believe that where there is the will there is the way. It took more than a decade for the U.S. presidential debate to include climate change as a topic, but it finally did in 2020. Is it too late to change our trajectory? Absolutely not, but quite honestly we don’t have 10 years. By some estimates we only have 3-5 years, so I say let’s get this done!

I’m also a mom of a 29 year old and a six year old, so I’m not allowed to have negative thoughts about the future. As parents, we are responsible for our children’s future, and that includes ensuring they have a healthy and resilient planet to thrive. 

My kids and so many young activists are excited about what the future holds, and they want to take charge. So I choose to wake up every day and be part of the solution.

In your environmental journey, what has been the most unexpected difficulty to overcome, and what has been the most uplifting?

The most challenging part of this journey is the stasis of the plastics industry itself. While everyone can agree that plastic does not belong in the ocean, until the oil, gas and petrochemical industries address the fundamental flaw in their business models, it will continue to feel like we are all pushing a wet noodle up the hill. And, it’s so easy to get excited about the next big announcement industry will make on a new initiative, but we need to remember to never confuse motion with progress and always demand more from industry so that they can meet our intentions.

What has been one of the most uplifting is the continued resolve from our NextWave Plastics member companies even during COVID-19. NextWave is a consortium of companies dedicated to diverting ocean-bound plastic and permanently locking it up into their products, thereby creating value for what is considered a waste product. Members include Dell Technologies, Bureo, CPI Card Group, General Motors, Herman Miller, HP Inc., Humanscale, IKEA, Interface, Solgaard, and Trek Bicycle.

It has been remarkable and admirable that these companies, some of which are competitors, are coming together around this cause and supporting each other to find solutions. To date, NextWave member companies have collectively diverted 850 tons of plastic from entering the ocean en route to the stated outcome of 25,000 tons by the end of 2025.

Where do you see Lonely Whale in 5, 10 years?

When we launched Lonely Whale five years ago (this December!), I made a proclamation that we should have a 10-year horizon, and if we are still here in 10 years, then we need to really evaluate whether our approach is achieving the impact we set out to achieve.

Halfway to our 10-year mark, I can honestly say that I am so proud of this team and what we’ve accomplished. But the truth is that, for all of the awards we’ve received, all of the people we’ve inspired and impact we’ve had, we are very far away from the vision we have for the future. Core to the shift we need to make as a society is to become reconnected with each other and with nature, to learn how to communicate with one another in a way that we really hear each other, and to challenge our assumptions about what is normal and everyday. 

To achieve this will require a shift in our mindset that will be challenging, uncomfortable and necessary. For our team, it means going back to our origin story of the loneliest whale in the world, 52 Blue, and what that whale was trying to say to humans, the only species that could hear him as he called out at an unusual range of 52 hertz from the depths seeking compassion, companionship and connectedness.

Where will we be in 5 years? I can’t honestly say. I couldn’t have said that in 2016 either, but I do know we’re going to work like hell to achieve our vision of bonding people with the ocean and with each other so that together we can heal the ocean and ourselves. 

What books/podcasts are you currently reading/listening to?

Of course, I’m tuning into Lonely Whale’s podcast 52 Hertz! I also have a stack of books I’m diving into simultaneously including All We Can Save by my dear friends Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine Wilkinson. If you need inspiration this is a must have. As a team, we’re reading Sapiens and Nature and the Human Soul to explore what it means to be human and how we’ve shaped this planet. And, as a mom of a six-year-old boy, I can’t seem to get enough of The Last Kids on Earth—a story about friends surviving the zombie apocalypse. Next up is Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher.

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