Unknown Unknowns

Unknown Unknowns

“…As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” –then Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Unknown Unknowns

We are on the pathway to provide a more sustainable future in the packaging industry.

Whatever one’s opinion of Donald Rumsfeld, it’s hard to argue his point. When we search for something new, we do so on the basis of what we already know. Flow charts and decision trees follow paths from what we have established to what we hope for, or perhaps, what we fear. Either way, the unknown into which of those events progress is a relative thing—multiple choice, most often, rather than an essay question. Occasionally, though, the flow changes, with no warning, and we are left without boxes to fill in, and instead find only blanks that cry out for data and explanations we simply don’t have.

Take what we know about plastic and the environment. You are in possession of the “known knowns” as well as anyone, I suspect. It’s generally made from scarce petroleum resources; it’s treated as disposable when it decidedly is not; and it winds up, almost always, in places we don’t want it. The “known unknowns,” that is, the things we are trying actively to find out, are also pretty clear: What impact is it having on wildlife? When will we run out of space to dispose of it? How much can our oceans take?

This last question in particular is one recently explored by 5 Gyres, an organization “Working to Restore Healthy, Plastic-Free Oceans.” To that end, they undertook a study to determine just how much plastic was accumulating. Sampling suggested some 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are distributed around our oceans. Of course, it’s not all the size of plastic bottles or six-pack rings. It breaks down into smaller pieces potentially even more dangerous to wildlife and the environment.

That’s when they encountered an “unknown unknown.” They expected millions of tons of sand sized plastic particles (referred to as “nurdles”) from their models. Instead, they found just 35,000 tons. It wasn’t a fluke; a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences agreed. A small fraction of the expected particles were located.

So where are the particles? Well, we’re in fill-in-the-blank territory now, trading shaded ovals for composition books. It would take the most persistent optimist to assume that the plastic somehow evaporated. Maybe they made it back to land, to interfere with shore life. Maybe they are sinking. Maybe they are being eaten by an ecosystem starved for anything else.

On the bright side, that “unknown” isn’t so unknown now. It’s a mystery we can work to solve—though it is sure to produce others. What we know for sure is that, as important as it is to find out what happens to all that plastic, it’s just as important to make less of it. We need to turn to truly renewable, sustainable packaging that lasts as long as we need it, then returns to the ecosystem as a welcome addition. We need, in short, A Refreshing Alternative™ to help save our planet.

By |2017-07-12T00:11:02+00:00September 28th, 2015|