A New Earth Project is transforming the packaging industry with sustainable innovation to raise awareness on the plastic crisis and leave the world a better place for the next generation.
Wes Carter grew up outside.
Three s’s molded him into the man he is today: saltwater, surfboards, and sun. Coastal North Carolina is where Wes learned to appreciate nature’s bounty and explore boundaries—nature’s and his own.
Wes’s grandfather, Walter Horace Carter, founded Atlantic Packaging, and as an adult, Wes joined the family business shortly after graduating from the University of North Carolina. He later assumed stewardship of Atlantic Packaging in April 2016, becoming the third generation of Carters to lead the largest privately-held packaging company in North America.
Upon taking over, Wes began to consider how he would make his mark on the company and on the world. He thought about his upbringing in coastal North Carolina. He thought about the gift of perfect waves he’d caught around the world. He thought about his children and the world he wanted to leave behind for them. He looked to his mentors for guidance and big consumer companies like Patagonia for inspiration.
Wes also took time to work on himself. He engaged in a spiritual practice rooted in meditation and contemplative practices, focusing on his personal healing all along. It was within his spirituality that he kindled the flame of his generosity and his impact beyond sales and profits. Wes realized he had a voice along with the privilege and platform to use that voice to make a positive and collaborative change in the world.
Wes didn’t rush into realizing his vision. Instead, he took the time to build slowly, to build the right way, and to be open to new ideas and perspectives. Like a surfer gauging the conditions on the water and sensing when to go after a wave, Wes absorbed the information at his disposal—his experience, the help and support of the people he trusts, and his intuition—as he swam in the direction of his vision. Wes has never had a destination or a goal beyond being a voice and vehicle for positive change in his industry and, one day, the world.
Today, the vehicle for that vision is A New Earth Project. It’s a partnership between the surfing and outdoor communities and the packaging supply chain to raise awareness of a massive global problem and then fix it. That problem is all of the plastic waste swirling around the world’s vast oceans.
Plastics are amazing products. Their name stems from their best trait: moldability. Plastics can be molded or shaped into just about anything, and their combination of durability and malleability is exceedingly rare. As such, they have quickly become a ubiquitous part of the global economy. And we’ve certainly made a lot of plastic; global production has risen from two megatons in 1950 to 380 megatons in 2015.
The chemical makeup of plastics is great in many ways but terrible in one major one: they decompose at a snail’s pace in nature, and they never fully leave our ecosystems. The result of our addiction to plastics and their chemical resilience is a lot of harmful waste. Of the estimated 9.2 billion tons of plastics made between 1950 and 2017, about seven billion tons became plastic waste. It’s in our air, our water, and our land.
Let’s focus on plastic waste in our water, specifically in the oceans, which cover over 70% of the Earth’s surface. Only a fraction of disposed of plastic is recycled, and recycled plastic is downcycled every time it’s reused, meaning it gets less and less useful because of its chemical properties. 91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled; it’s either incinerated or ends up in a landfill. And while estimates vary as to how much plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the bottom line is that it’s a lot—likely somewhere around 10 million metric tons per year. On our current polluting trajectory, that figure is expected to nearly triple to 29 million metric tons by 2040.
One engineering professor who researches plastic pollution says that the annual amount of plastic waste that enters the ocean is equivalent to five grocery-sized plastic bags for every foot of coastline. Every minute, two garbage trucks’ worth of plastic enters the oceans. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped, either. The excessive use of single-use plastics (including consumer packaging and personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves) throughout the pandemic has exacerbated this issue.
"I feel a responsibility to give back to the kids. Hopefully they can have a better ocean than I ever had, in the future." says Kai Lenny, A New Earth Project Advocate and Professional Surfer
There’s even a giant area of the Pacific Ocean twice as big as Texas called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is largely composed of plastic waste. For every pound of plankton present within the patch, there might be an estimated six pounds of plastic. You can’t see most of the trash with the naked eye, but it’s there, and it’s killing our planet. By 2050, there might be 12 billion tons of plastic sitting in landfills across the globe and more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish.
It’s critical to know that most of that plastic is out of sight. As visual creatures, we tend to focus on things we can see. Most of us don’t see tons of plastic waste in our everyday lives, and last time I checked, most of us don’t live in the oceans. Even if we did, almost all of the plastic floating in the ocean would be invisible to the naked eye. But it’s there. From the ocean surface to the bottom of the ocean, where scientists have measured concentrations of 2,000 parts of microplastics per liter of seawater. You’ve probably seen images of turtles or seabirds choking on big pieces of plastic, but it’s so-called microplastic that you should really be worried about. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long that can easily spread across ecosystems and through bodies, affecting a host of bodily systems and functions in humans and other species.
That last part is key: plastics aren’t just a threat to other creatures. They harm and kill us. When we eat animals (like fish) that have ingested plastics, the toxins enter our bodies and cause all sorts of issues. And when we use plastics products that contain harmful toxins like phthalates and BPAs, the same applies. A new study published in the journal Environmental International found evidence of microplastic particles present in the human body for the first time, and pediatrician Leonardo Trasande, who directs the NYU Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards, estimates that the human health cost of plastic in the U.S. alone is around $100 billion a year. It’s hard to precisely quantify the global impact of plastic waste on human health, but suffice it to say that it harms just about all of us and kills far too many of us. If nothing else, we all have a shared interest in doing away with plastics for good.
Over the course of his career, Wes has come to understand the gravity of the plastic waste crisis. These sobering statistics can overwhelm some people. They paint a not-so-pretty picture of humanity’s impact on this beautiful planet we are so lucky to call home.
But rather than scare Wes, the facts have inspired him. The key realization was that a confluence of factors made him uniquely positioned to tackle this crisis head-on. All of that time spent in the water as a kid and as an adult facilitated Wes’s appreciation for nature and opened his eyes to the extent of worldwide plastic pollution. The industry he and his family have dedicated their lives to is packaging—a key contributor to the plastic waste problem. And the company he now leads works with some of the world’s leading consumer products companies, with customers including Procter & Gamble, QVC, Bass Pro Shop, and Williams Sonoma. These firms need help as they navigate the transition from a plastic-heavy world to a plastic-free one.
Wes recognizes that Atlantic Packaging has contributed to the problem. But to him, playing the blame game is useless—he’s solutions-oriented. And, he knows that Atlantic can rectify it's past by moving itself and its customers towards a more sustainable vision that helps the humans who enjoy packaging without harming the world we all inhabit. Wes knows that sustainability is a business opportunity rather than a cost, and he knows we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the problem to fix itself or for someone else to take care of it.
That’s why he helped launch A New Earth Project to develop a collection of products, protocols, and capabilities with the goal of presenting effective and efficient consumer products that are 100% curbside recyclable and do not include any single-use plastics. From drinking straws and water bottles to grocery bags and takeout containers, single-use plastics are used in a variety of products, particularly packaging and service ware and are a major cause of worldwide ocean pollution. They’re convenient but environmentally destructive, reflecting a global throwaway culture and prioritization of convenience and price over durability and quality. About half of the plastic produced annually is for single-use items, equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
A New Earth Project seeks to replace the destructive status quo by designing, developing, and offering environmentally friendly packaging alternatives to the world’s largest consumer brands. Wes wants to move his industry and other industries away from the plastic that’s polluting air, land, and sea. As he often notes, many plastic products that the public assumes can be recycled are either hard or impossible to recycle, as reflected in the aforementioned fact that 91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled. And he knows that his efforts could inspire a domino effect of global impact in supply chains near and far.
"I don’t think we have the luxury of just waiting" – Wes Carter
Wes sees Atlantic Packaging’s position in the supply chain as an asset in this quest, enabling A New Earth Project to improve the entire packaging process from sourcing to disposal. Atlantic operates a 400,000 square foot research and development facility in North Carolina with a current focus on innovative package design, materials testing, and sustainable solutions.
One example of this innovation at work is the fishbone can carrier, a paper-based replacement for the all-too-common plastic rings that hold six-packs together around the world. The fishbone carrier is a completely plastic-free and biodegradable alternative with a simple, minimalist design that also provides billboarding space for branding and marketing. It reflects Atlantic’s long-standing leadership in sustainable packaging and shows how A New Earth Project can bring superior solutions to consumers around the world.
A New Earth Project is strategically partnering with the outdoor community to bring a passion for protecting nature and a deeper knowledge of how plastic pollution is choking the planet to the table. Having carved up waves from Hawaii to Costa Rica to Indonesia, Wes shares that passion and has seen firsthand the gravity of the plastic waste crisis. The United Nations Environment Programme announced a historic resolution to develop a legally binding plastic pollution agreement by 2024 that could set rules for the production, use, and disposal of plastics. Wes and his partners are well-positioned to ride the wave of kicking our plastic addiction to the curb.
Surfing a big wave is ambitious. Numerous things have to go right to catch a wave and ride it back to shore. Riding a giant, moving wave on a thin surfboard is no picnic.
That also applies to ridding the packaging industry of plastic and making 100% recyclable products. It’s an ambitious goal, one that will take many things going right. But sometimes, a bit of ambition is what’s needed to turn humanity’s biggest dreams - from going to the bottom of the ocean to climbing the world’s highest peaks to landing on the Moon—into reality. Wes sees the challenge of plastic waste as this generation’s Moon landing, and he considers it a great privilege to be a part of that effort.
Ambition helped Wes’s grandfather fight the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and win a Pulitzer Prize (the first to ever go to a weekly newspaper) by shining a light on injustice. Wes sees a similar moral imperative to address environmental injustice with a focus on plastic waste.
The New Earth Project won’t do this alone. No big dream is achieved alone. But New Earth will catch the wave of plastic cleanup and ride it home until single-use plastics are a thing of the past and the world’s oceans are a bit cleaner than they are today and we're back to when Wes was first learning how to catch a wave.
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