Wes Carter is riding a wave of environmental concern. It’s a totally different balancing act than surfing his beloved Carolina shore, or the coastlines he’s skimmed along in Africa, Costa Rica, Indonesia. Right now, the Wilmington native’s not riding for his life, but for the Earth’s life. And the chop’s so thick, he’s utilizing his three-generation family business to generate the energy needed to stay afloat, ahead of the curling wall of water that could come crashing down at any moment. The irony is that the industry the 43-year-old operates within is part of the pollution problem. That’s like taking a header inside the barrel for the president of Atlantic Packaging. It hurts. Wes is eager to chat about his hope to save the oceans for all, with A New Earth Project.
I can hear the urgency in your voice when you talk about the Earth.
When you look at all the hurricanes, wildfires, and melting Arctic ice caps, the Earth is sending us signals that are a serious issue. Unfortunately, climate change can get politicized, but you can’t ignore pollution. Just travel around and it’s hard to deny. I focus on the pollution piece of this because of the business I’m in.
Your grandfather founded a small newspaper in Tabor City, North Carolina, that grew into Atlantic Packaging. You’re now president of the company, which has 1,435 employees across 28 locations and is on track to earn $830 million in revenue this year.
I took over when I was 36 or 37. I knew I was standing in the shadow of two giants. My grandfather was a larger-than-life guy, sort of a legend, and my father was an incredible entrepreneur.
Your grandfather famously fought the KKK and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1952, the first to ever go to a weekly newspaper. And your dad recognized changes in the textile market to help Atlantic diversify and grow into what it has become.
The part that gets me misty-eyed is my grandfather’s work and the moral imperative to fight injustice with the newspaper. I feel the same way about sustainable packaging. As the largest private packaging company in the United States, we have a moral obligation to care about environmental issues.
If folks order from Williams-Sonoma, Urban Outfitters, QVC, Bass Pro Shops, or Procter & Gamble, they’re most likely handling packaging you’ve produced?
Yes. It’s humbling. We recognize we have a seat at the table and if we can influence these companies and others, it can have a global impact. Our key customers are all major consumer-product companies in food, beverage, and e-commerce. If the supply chain doesn’t shift, nothing will change.
In addition to guiding companies to use sustainable packaging, like your new fish-bone carrier to replace plastic six-pack rings, you’re collaborating with the world’s surfing community on A New Earth Project.
Fifty percent of the plastic in the ocean is from fishing nets. I don’t have the ability to reverse that. The thing I see beyond fishing gear is single-use packaging in particular and that’s my business. Plastic takes 400 years to degrade. Those six-pack rings? They’ve been choking turtles my whole life. A friend who knows I surf introduced me to surf documentarian Peter King, who wanted to raise global awareness for the plastic pollution problem. I’m very excited to bring the surfing community together with the industrial packaging supply chain to fight this.
A New Earth Project has spawned the Zero Waste Offshore campaign. But specifically, what can viewers expect with the documentary?
It’s surfers transcending their sport and becoming advocates. They see the ocean more than anybody and have a unique view of the problem. It also presents consumers with sensible things we can all do. We’re in discussion with multiple streaming platforms to bring this to as many homes as possible.
The stats are frightening. The Ocean Conservancy reports 8 million metric tons of plastic hit the ocean each year, joining the 150 metric tons already there. Straws, grocery bags, bottles.
At the end of the day, the Earth is going to be just fine. Humans may not be. The thing that is encouraging is that we live in an age where major collaboration, across huge geographic areas, has never been easier. With innovative spirits, and everyone moving in the right direction, we can fix this. Cleaning up the planet is our generation’s moon landing. If we do this right, generations after us will say, ‘Look what they did for the planet.’ I see no greater privilege.
To find out more about Wes Carter’s mission, go to ANewEarthProject.com.
Photograph by Katie Charlotte