As one who’s witnessed changes in the world’s oceans firsthand over several decades, the alarming proliferation of ocean plastic waste is tangible for Fisk Johnson ’79, MEng ’80, MS ’82, MBA ’84, PhD ’86, CEO of SC Johnson. He’s seen the rise of plastic debris on the ocean surface and below the waves; he’s seen plastic shopping bags and other plastic film floating through and covering sections of coral reefs; he’s walked on beaches covered in plastic waste; and he’s measured the density of microplastics in the most remote corners of the world’s oceans.

“As a lifelong diver, it’s only natural for me to want to do what we can to protect the ocean.”

—Fisk Johnson

Johnson holds up a piece of plastic in diving gear
Johnson holds up a piece of plastic film he found in the water. Photo courtesy of SC Johnson.

“I’ve been diving for 47 years now, and I have probably done over a thousand dives,” says Johnson. “I’ve had a chance to see how the ocean has changed over those years, and I have seen more and more plastic waste in the ocean. I have seen more and more pressure on the health of the ocean ecosystems. Human life on this planet depends very heavily on the health of the ocean ecosystem, and the changes that are taking place are scary, whether it’s ocean acidification, plastic in the ocean, overfishing—all of those things.”

The ocean plastic crisis has inspired Johnson, who is the fifth-generation leader of SC Johnson, the family-owned manufacturer of household consumer brands, to take action and do everything in his power to end plastic waste. “As a lifelong diver,” Johnson says, “it’s only natural for me to want to do what we can to protect the ocean.”

The exponential growth of plastic waste

It’s hard to break the disposable plastic habit because plastic packaging is so useful and convenient. It helps to preserve foods. It provides clean, leak-free containers for a host of consumer products, ranging from household cleaners and shampoos to sour cream and salsa. It’s used for sterile packaging for medicines and medical supplies. Single-use plastic bottles used for water and a multitude of beverages are among the most ubiquitous uses of plastic.

It’s astonishing to learn how much plastic we’ve manufactured in a relatively short period of time. Annual plastic production skyrocketed from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 381 million metric tons in 2015. Over that same period, cumulative production reached 7.8 billion metric tons of plastic according to a 2017 study, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” published in Science Advances. Our World in Data reports that’s more than one metric ton of plastic for every person alive today.

Plastic packaging is by far the biggest generator of plastic waste, and most of it feeds an exponentially increasing profusion of plastic waste. According to the same 2017 study, only 9 percent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12 percent has been incinerated, while the rest—79 percent—has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment. (See more analysis from the UN Environment Programme’s Beat Plastic Pollution website.)

While high-income countries are by far the biggest producers of plastic waste, they also tend to have well-managed waste collection systems. Consequently, they tend not to be big contributors of plastic pollution to external environments like the world’s oceans.

Nevertheless, 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste winds up in the oceans every year. How? “A lot of this waste comes from rivers where they don’t have good waste collection systems upstream,” says Johnson, standing on a waste-strewn beach in Latin America in a brief video, Ocean Plastic: Root Cause, on SC Johnson’s website. “People use the river to get rid of their trash, and it flows out into the ocean and then collects on this beach.”

Most of the plastic that makes its way down rivers and into the oceans—86 percent globally—originates in Asia, followed by Africa at 7.8 percent and South America at 4.8 percent, according to a 2017 study, “River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans,” published in Nature Communications. The concentration of mismanaged plastic waste in Southeast Asia is one reason why Indonesia plays a big role in SC Johnson’s efforts to address plastic ocean waste.

The pathway by which plastic enters the world’s oceans

Estimates of global plastics entering the oceans from land-based sources in 2010 based on the pathway from primary production to marine plastic inputs. Data from Jambeck et al (2015).


Global Primary Plastic Production

270 Million

Metric tons per year

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Global Plastic Waste

Plastic bag and water bottle

275 million

Metric tons per year

This value can exceed the primary production value in a given year since it can incorporate production from previous years.

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Coastal Plastic Waste

House on the coast icon

99.5 million

Metric tons per year

This is the total of plastic waste generated by all populations (2 billion people) within 50 kilometers of a coastline; therefore, at risk of entering the ocean.

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Mismanaged Coastal Plastic Waste

Waste landfill icon

31.9 Million

Metric tons per year

This is the annual sum of inadequately managed and littered plastic waste from coastal populations. Inadequately managed waste is stored in open or insecure landfills; therefore, at risk of leakage or loss.

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Plastic inputs to the ocean

Plastic bottle floating in water icon

4.8–12.7 Million

Metric tons per year

Estimates of plastics in surface waters range from tens to hundreds of thousands of metric tons. Estimates are wide-ranging. It remains unclear where the majority of plastic inputs end up—a large quantity might accumulate at great depths or on the seafloor.

Data sources and illustration credits

SC Johnson’s commitment to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic

Compelled by what he has seen, Johnson has made it his business, and SC Johnson’s business, to address the proliferation of plastic waste and, ultimately, create a circular economy for plastic.

“Plastic waste is probably the single biggest environmental issue for our company,” says Johnson.

SC Johnson proudly points to its deep-seated and many-faceted commitment to end plastic waste in articles and videos throughout its website. In a 2018 SC Johnson statement, Johnson says: “Together with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and other global organizations, we are making ambitious commitments and taking united action to create a new plastics economy that helps stop plastic from becoming waste.”

Three people talking amongst one another
Fisk Johnson (left) on stage with Roberto Ampuero Espinoza, then Minister of Foreign Affairs in Chile, and Dame Ellen MacArthur after signing the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment at the 2018 Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia. (Graham Crouch/AP Photography for SC Johnson)

In fact, Johnson joined Dame Ellen MacArthur and Erik Solheim, then executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, for the launch of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2018. Led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme, the Global Commitment establishes a common vision for companies to help eliminate plastic waste and create a circular economy for the plastics we use. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines it, “a circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.” The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment now unites more than 400 signatories, including many well-known consumer businesses representing 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally.

In 2018, SC Johnson also partnered with Plastic Bank, a social enterprise dedicated to stopping ocean plastic by monetizing waste while simultaneously improving lives. Through this partnership, SC Johnson has opened nine new plastic recycling centers in Indonesia with the goal to stop plastic before it ever gets into the ocean. SC Johnson chose Indonesia for the partnership because it has the world’s highest levels of marine biodiversity, yet also faces high levels of plastic pollution in its oceans.

The system incentivizes waste collectors to gather plastic waste and bring it to a recycling center where they can exchange it for digital tokens to buy goods and services. Payments in digital tokens are tracked using blockchain technology, reducing the risk of loss or theft. After it’s recycled, this post-consumer plastic is trademarked and sold into the market as Social Plastic. SC Johnson is incorporating Social Plastic into bottles of Windex in both the United States and Canada.

“It was only natural for us to get involved with Plastic Bank and their effort to collect ocean-bound plastic,” says Johnson. “I like it because it not only gives us a source of plastic we can recycle back into our products, but it’s got a great environmental benefit and a social benefit as well.”

Fish and David hold a banner that says Plasticbank
Fish Johnson (left) with David Katz, founder and CEO of Plastic Bank, at the opening of a recycling center in Indonesia in 2018

In October 2019, SC Johnson announced that it had expanded its partnership with Plastic Bank, adding a ground-breaking, three-year deal to create a total of 509 plastic collection points across the globe. These collections centers are projected to collect 30,000 metric tons of plastic waste over three years—the equivalent of stopping approximately 1.5 billion plastic bottles from entering waterways and the ocean.

This laser focus on addressing plastic ocean waste is right in character for SC Johnson, a company that has purposefully built a reputation for its commitment to environmental and social responsibility over several generations. Upon signing the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, the company announced a new set of commitments to reduce its plastic footprint and encourage reuse and recycling of the plastic used in its own products, including:

  • Make 100 percent of plastic packaging recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025—up from 90 percent today
  • Triple the amount of post-consumer recycled plastic content in packaging by 2025
  • Expand the number of concentrated liquid refill options for household cleaning products that come in trigger bottles by 2025
  • Champion curbside recycling of plastic film in the United States and promote the reuse of Ziploc brand bags, which are made to be reused many times
  • Work with industry and other organizations to support circular plastic economy models and keep plastic out of landfills and the environment.

Strengths of a family company

“We’re uniquely advantaged relative to other companies because we are a private company and a family-led company,” says Johnson. “As a private company, you don’t have to worry about next quarter’s earnings or pressures to maximize shareholder value; we can focus on doing the right thing for the long term.”

Johnson was fascinated by the Business Roundtable’s August 2019 statement on the purpose of a corporation, which moves away from shareholder primacy to include a commitment to all stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, and communities, as well as shareholders. Johnson laughed, saying, “You know, I can’t believe it’s taken everybody this long to come to that conclusion.”

But even companies that recognize the importance of all stakeholders are challenged by short-term internal pressures, Johnson says. “I love the fact that Paul Polman, who was the CEO of Unilever, stood out as someone who really tried to do the right thing for the long term. He got rid of quarterly reports and accomplished a lot from an environmental and social standpoint.”

Fisk stands in an enormous pile of plastic waste
Fisk Johnson at the site of a river barrier built to prevent plastic from reaching Panama Bay and, eventually, the ocean

As Johnson sees it, doing the right thing for all stakeholders is key to building their trust—an invaluable and indispensable prize. “Trust is at an all-time low today in many sectors of society, whether it’s business, civil society, or government,” says Johnson. “And trust is a mainstay of being successful long term as a business. People look to see how a company treats people and the planet to determine whether they trust your company or not, and I think companies in today’s world who neglect doing the right thing for both people and planet really do it at their own peril.

“Younger generations today care even more about trust,” Johnson adds. “They care more about a company’s history of social and environmental responsibility, as they make their purchasing decisions.”

Raising awareness is critical

Johnson believes consumers, companies, and governments must all work together to effectively tackle the plastic waste problem. And the first step, he says, is to raise awareness: “It’s critical that consumer awareness is more in tune to this issue and that consumers are willing to go through some changes to help create a more circular economy.”

In Johnson’s experience, getting consumers to change their behavior, even in small ways, isn’t easy. For example, SC Johnson has been trying to sell concentrates for its trigger bottles for more than a decade, test marketing in multiple locations using several different tactics, with limited success. “Those trigger bottles can be reused many times,” says Johnson, “and it’s not a big behavior change to buy a small concentrate, pour it in the trigger bottle, and fill it with water. But people have just not been aware enough of the plastic waste problem to go through that slight change of behavior.”

“There’s nothing—nothing!—that companies respond to better than pull or demand from consumers.”

—Fisk Johnson

Fortunately, things have changed, Johnson says. “We are at an inflection point in the world where the plastic waste issue is much more top of mind for consumers,” he says. “So as a company, we have the best opportunity now to make a go of concentrates and get people to reuse trigger bottles.”

On another front, SC Johnson is testing a refill station for laundry care products in a store just outside of London and finding that customers are receptive. “That would have never worked five years ago,” says Johnson, “but it’s working today because people are more willing today than ever to remember to bring their old bottle into the store and refill it.”

Johnson sees this as indicative of a new wave going forward. He credits younger generations as even more attuned to environmental issues and consequently more willing to make behavior changes. “It’s something that gives me more optimism than ever that we’ll be able to tackle this problem,” Johnson says.

“There’s nothing—nothing!—that companies respond to better than pull or demand from consumers.”

That comes full circle to why raising awareness is so critical. “One of my missions is to go out there and to keep raising awareness about the plastic waste issue among the public, and you see me doing that through social media,” says Johnson, who actively posts news and information about plastic waste on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. He hopes to see more companies and civil society entities join in raising awareness, as well.

Fisk standing on a plastic-strewn beach with a skyline in the background
Fisk Johnson investigating firsthand the effects of plastic pollution in Panama

Why we need greater government regulation

In addition to growing awareness about plastic waste, we need greater government regulation, says Johnson. “I think this is an important element if we’re really going to solve this problem,” he says. “We need regulations that help incentivize the incorporation of recycled materials into products, because the solutions today are not easy.”

As a company, SC Johnson has lobbied for more regulation in a lot of important areas. In 2016, the company championed the passage of critical reforms to the nearly 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act. In 2017, its government relations team worked on California’s Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, legislation aimed at providing consumers with greater ingredient transparency. “We need to do the same thing on plastic waste and other waste-related issues,” says Johnson.

Government regulations play an important role in providing the impetus to drive change. They can also level the playing field.

For example, the World Resource Institute and the UN Environment Programme reported that, as of July 2018, at least 127 countries had adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags, ranging from outright bans to progressive phase-outs. Johnson loves that as an example of regulations that incentivize consumers to change their behavior. “It’s a nice incentive to remember to bring your reusable bag,” he says, “and it’s a great example of the kinds of things that we need to do.”

Regulations that require manufacturers to change their practices are another important piece of the puzzle. “When we put ocean plastic into our Windex bottles, it’s a 30 percent cost premium to do that, and that’s over and above the cost premium we pay to put 100 percent recycled plastic in our Windex bottles to begin with,” explains Johnson. “We’re willing to do that kind of thing. Other companies may not be so willing to do it. If we’re going to really get over the hump, we need greater regulation.”


Related content

Continue reading about Fisk Johnson, the Johnson family legacy, and research about plastic waste.


Infographic credits:
Research from: Eriksen M, et al. (2014) Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea and Jambeck J, et al. (2015) Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean

Design remix based on Our World in Data: Where does our plastic accumulate in the ocean and what does that mean for the future? Licensed under CC BY-SA.

Icons from the Noun Project: Orin zuu, Jems Mayor, Marie Van den Broeck, and Ayub Irawan.

2 Comments

  1. We have a new hero. Keep up the great work, Fisk. Thank you.

  2. Awesome initiative! SCJ has lead the way in greenhouse gas reductions and is now doing the same with ocean plastics!

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