It's about so much more than just plastic straws.
Of the 10 million to 20 million tons of trash dumped into the world's oceans each year, about 80 percent is plastic. And at least two-thirds of that plastic was created for single-use, disposable packaging.
The perplexity of this polymer problem has spurred action from one global packaging firm with a local presence in the Rose City.
The name BillerudKorsnäs may trip on the tongue of the average Portlander, but the 150-year-old Swedish company boasts $2.5 billion in annual sales — with a quarter-billion dollars in operating profit — plus 4,400 employees worldwide.
"We have a mission for BillerudKorsnäs — to challenge conventional packaging for a more sustainable future," said President and CEO Petra Einarsson during the multinational's "Challenge 2018 — Solutions for a Sustainable Future" forum held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on Monday, July 9.
"It's very much a consumer-driven revolution that is taking place," she said. "It's our opportunity to find a better solution for the world."
The company's sack paper, kraft paper, liquid packaging board, carton board, fluting and liners don't typically bear its crown-shaped logo, but people handle BillerudKorsnäs products unknowingly while chugging unsweetened almond milk sold by Whole Foods Market or consuming Pacific Foods turkey broth.
At its downtown suite on Southwest First Avenue, BillerudKorsnäs offers advice on "lightweighting" packaging and brand solutions for clothing and shoemakers that have offshored manufacturing to China and Southeast Asia.
"What we do is optimize the packaging, choose the right materials, and take a lot of waste out of the system," explained Tor Lundqvist, who has worked in the Portland office for about two years.
Recently, the company launched "D-Sack," a new type of cement packaging that dissolves when chucked into the mixer along with the product. Long-term R&D focuses on attempts to build a battery out of paper or a paper bottle for fizzy beverages.
BillerudKorsnäs also helps fund the Tara, a floating research institute that sailed from Hawaii through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in order to dock next to OMSI's submarine.
"It's not a war against plastic — it's a war against waste. Plastic is very important for many, many things we use today," said Romain Troublé, executive director of the Tara Expeditions Foundation.
Troublé said most plastic in the ocean breaks down into tiny particles, which attract colonies of microorganisms that eventually coat the plastic and cause it to sink. Besides carpeting the ocean floor in a plasticine layer, the microorganisms smell like food to fish, and the upstream effects on this consumption are still largely unknown.
As it travels, the Tara allows onboard scientists to study and photograph microplastic and plankton by constantly pumping ocean water through sieves — except when the ship is floating in the Willamette River, of course.
"If we sampled in the river it would clog all of our filters," said microbiologist Grace Klinges, who studies samples from the Tara as part of her graduate work at Oregon State University.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was on hand at the "Challenge 2018" forum to tout his own plans to ban plastic straws, which passed City Council on June 20. The resolution calls for the Planning and Sustainability Bureau to create a "reduction strategy" for single-use plastic by October.
"BillerudKorsnäs and companies like this are showing that sustainable policy protecting our environment is not in conflict with economic opportunity," Wheeler said. "It's where the clientele are — they want the product, they want the service delivery, but they want us to be responsible stewards of our planet."