Project Management

Plastic Risk Management - Part 1 of 3

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Richard Maltzman
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I approach this three part (!!!) post from the PMI® viewpoint about risk.

Risk, as you likely know, can be described as negative risk, the risk we usually think of, called threat, and positive risk, called opportunity.  When I started this story it was very depressing – because I thought of it only as a threat.  But a deeper dive (excuse the pun) led me to the conclusion that there was both threat and opportunity here.  In fact, I’ll treat this as a three-part series.  Part 1 will focus on risk identification, Part 2 on threat and opportunity analysis, and Part 3 on risk response – and the initiation of a huge project that will capture your imagination and tickle your project management fancy.

So – all that said, let’s start with Part 1: Risk Identification.  What’s the risk, and why was it so depressing at first? 

Here’s a challenge for you, dear reader.  Consciously note and identify the number of plastic items you touch over the next 24 hours.  In fact, let’s make this a bit interactive.  I request that you respond to this post with that count of touches and items.  Log it on a piece of note paper, remembering that the pen you use is also likely made of plastic.  Plastic is everywhere.  You’re reading this post while touching a plastic bezel of a device or with your hands resting on a plastic keyboard and/or mouse, and looking at a plastic monitor, perhaps snacking on pretzels in a plastic bag (watch those crumbs!).  So the risk I’m talking about is indeed – plastic.

Many of you have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  For those not familiar with the situation, first of all, the word “patch” makes it sound way too small.  It’s actually (currently) twice the size of Texas.  And – ask anyone in Texas, Texas is BIG.  Below is an image from a recent article in New Scientist magazine:

This is not just about litter – the plastic affects a much larger food chain – including us.  And it’s not just this patch, where the plastic happens to concentrate.  Remember your project management training – a risk is not a risk unless it has an effect on project objectives.  In this case, for sake of argument, the “project” is continuing good quality of life on this planet.  From the below, you can see that this definitely qualifies as a risk.  Research suggests that not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution.  Here is one small sample regarding fish, from research on the effect of plastics on sea life:

“Fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, which can cause intestinal injury and death and transfers plastic up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals. A recent study found that a quarter of fish at markets in California contained plastic in their guts, mostly in the form of plastic microfibers.”

Where’s the plastic coming from?  In other words, what’s the cause – the source of this risk?

In a very recent NPR story, Jenna Jambeck (website: ) describes well the sources of plastic.  A graphic below helps explain it as well. 

Professor Jambeck has collaborated on a technical article recently published in Science magazine which details this:

Science magazine article - Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean

From the abstract:

By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, we estimated the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. We calculate that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. Population size and the quality of waste management systems largely determine which countries contribute the greatest mass of uncaptured waste available to become plastic marine debris. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.  The plastic garbage patch may even be much bigger than we thought, according to this recent article.  And, oh, by the way, this is not the only mass of debris.  Each of Earth’s gyres (click on the link and/or see below) also contain vast amounts of plastic.

So, the problem is huge, and it’s growing, but we have identified the threat and we have a much better handle on its size.  In Part 2 of this three-part post, I’ll talk more about the risk analysis and move towards a risk response.

But before you leave...  remember my challenge to you.  Track the plastic items that you touch over the next 24 hours (or whatever period you can bear doing this) and respond to this post with your numbers and if you're willing, a table showing the number and the items.


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 29, 2018 10:50 AM | Permalink

Comments (19)

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I will take the challenge and count the number of Plastic items. Very interesting Richard.

@Rami - thank you kindly!

@Richard: You’re welcome and thank you for sharing this great post.

Ok I’m in but I know this will be depressing- I use a lot of plastic 🤨

Thanks for sharing!!! this is combined risk analysis for environment protection!!!

Really an awful situation. At least every few minutes you'd be touching something plastic.

Andrew Craig was right.. to hard to count for 24 hours, it was too frequent. I was at 25 for about 8 hours but I know I missed some. So, I'll say 50 for the 24 hours.

Until I sent to bed, I counted around 66 ___ Wow, thats a lot !

It's more than 50 for me. Proliferation of plastic is terrifying !

I never use a plastic straw with soft drinks. Also, remember, recycle all plastics you can. It is a great way to prevent proliferation of plastic waste. Looking forward to part 2 for solutions

I touched 23. Reduce Reuse & Recycle. Awareness is the first step and even that is a monumental task. People must WANT to do better first.

The ironic reality is that plastics are the result of trying to avoid wasting a product that had no obvious use in the petroleum or energy industries. No one could have imagined the wild success that plastics would create in the beginning. But like all things, there is a dark side to nearly all unchecked growth. That coupled with the massive cultural inertia that the plastics market has created over the past decades, it will be difficult to turn the ship. Hats off to everyone who is attacking this problem head-on, you have my support!

It is amazing how we can create o ur own problems that turn into our worth nightmares. I remember Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate being advised as to how great his future would be with plastics. Boy did that turn out wrong !!!!!!!

I passed 20 plastic items just on the way to the car...

Another day where I intentionally didn't use any straws/What would the imp[act be if we could get 100,000s of us to do the same for just a month? Keep our campaign alive ! ! ! !

Have you ever seen a duck whose head is ensnared in the plastic used to join a six pack of soda? It is the most gruesome site ever. Recycle and make sure you cut up these plastic can holders in pieces that can't be dangerous.

Wow, thanks for keeping this active, dear readers. I still plan to follow up shortly with Parts 2 and 3...

Nice post Richard,

I Try to avoid plastic both for an environmental reason and health. What in plastic gets transfer in our food? what about long-term accumulation in our body.

I get all I can in bulk, I bring my none plastic container.

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