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OPLN: 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
spent two transformative years
traveling South America, North America and
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

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
over 150 executives and activists out to the middle of the ocean for four days
at the North Atlantic
(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

With the United Nations Environmental Assembly set to decide whether to
start negotiations on a “Paris Agreement for

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
, 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?

Cultivating and Training Breakthrough Regenerative Leadership

Hear more from Dave Ford — along with representatives from Forum for the Future, Valutus and more — on how to to acquire and sharpen the skills it takes to be a truly regenerative leader, Oct 19 at SB’21 San Diego.

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.

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
    and First
    . 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
    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

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.

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