Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results
Maris Masellis: This is Maris from Zero Waste Trash Talk and today we’re talking to Alex Truelove, the director of US PIRG’s organizational efforts to reduce waste in order to improve public health, protect the environment and conserve resources. Their work includes campaigns to eliminate the most harmful and least recyclable single use plastics and to promote producer responsibility. Amazing. Follow him on twitter @alexctruelove.
Maris Masellis: Alex Truelove is someone that Michael you found his article on The Hill.
Michael Britt: Yeah, the article that he wrote, “The insanity of plastic recycling” and it seems spot on for the what we’ve been talking about internally and on the podcast that plastic recycling is broken. And so I reached out to Alex, because I thought, Hey, if we want to talk about this, let’s bring somebody on that’s got some street cred, some writer credibility. Not just us talking about it here in our east Nashville neighborhoods. So Alex, thanks for writing that article. And do you want to tell us a little bit about what you do and what led to writing this article and these this conclusion?
Alex Truelove: Yeah, absolutely. So my official title is The Zero Waste Director with a national nonprofit called the US Public Interest Research Group that is often shortened to USPIRG because that’s easier and it’s stuck with those who know of the PIRG’s. And I’ve been in this position for almost three years, the organization largely has been working on Zero Waste issues for a long time.
Alex Truelove: We were pretty active in a lot of like the early bottle bills and container deposit laws like Massachusetts and Oregon back in the 80s. And so it’s always been a part of the organizational DNA. But it was really only about three years ago when I joined the organization that everybody sort of collectively decided to launch a national program focused on zero waste. I think part of it was just the emergence of a lot of related issues of plastic pollution in the ocean and sort of discovery of how much of it had accumulated there and kind of a lot of other things at the same time. So it’s been really fun to kind of work in this space as it’s gotten so much attention and momentum. Even if, you know, I think some of the solutions are, you know, a little misguided. I work a lot with our state groups. So we have a pretty utilitarian named naming system where we have USPIRG, Massachusetts we have MassPIRG and Pennsylvania we have PennPIRG and CalPIRG in California. And so I suppose that’s what makes us different in some ways from other kinds of environmentally, or public health focused nonprofits because we do so much work at the state level, and kind of as a network, as opposed to just sort in DC or something. Although we do a lot of work at the federal level as well and that’s why I was following the hearing that the Senate was holding, which I mentioned in my article a couple weeks ago now. And I kind of knew what was coming because the hearing itself was being organized by Republicans because they control the Senate right now. And the framing of the hearing, I forget exactly what it was titled, but it was all about recycling. And so I was kind of afraid that the same conversation was going to happen in this hearing as it has been for the last, I don’t know 40-50 years, which is basically how can we recycle our way out of this problem. How can we deal with plastic pollution, and fix it through recycling. I think you guys know as well as anybody that we failed to do that for a long time now. And I think the most frustrating part was that there are so many other more interesting and creative solutions, I think moving forward in terms of kind of designing our world and the products we use and all that kind of stuff. And there is no mention of reusability there is no mention of, maybe a little bit of composability in terms of compostable plastics, but really was just so focused on this old idea, and one that has consistently failed and I thought this is insane. And so hence, the insanity of plastic recycling, and I sort of wrote it in the heat of the moment as I was watching this hearing and then kind of had to you know, dial it back.
Michael Britt: I always have to dial back. Maris and Jess are always like Michael dial that back take the curse words out quit being so angry!
Alex Truelove: Yeah, exactly. I think the passion kind of helped me find a thesis at least.
Michael Britt: I like how you started with the quote about what insanity is: “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. And I think it was clear when we saw, and I think Alex, you and I talked about this on the on the phone the other day, the PBS Frontline Plastic Wars documentary. They go back and they traced the beginnings of the plastic recycling business and interviewed people that were involved. And they basically were like, yeah, we didn’t think it was going to work, it’s just a way for us to keep making plastic. And so it’s pretty clear. I’m a cynical person and I kind of thought that anyway, but then to hear them say that and have them dig up all the paperwork and letters and then later emails and all of that corroborated that this is a big smokescreen. It just It’s infuriating and I don’t blame you for being irritated and knowing what was coming on the the Senate hearing because dark money from the fossil fuel industry flows into all the pockets of these people that are making laws that they want to protect their industry. And it’s, it’s, anyway, I hear you. I agree.
Alex Truelove: Yeah, I think that realization to that plastics really is an extension to the fossil fuel industry. It’s not new to anyone who understands the plastics are made primarily from natural gas byproducts. But to see especially more recently, people sort of make that connection like, oh, all of those, you know, the Chevron’s the Exxon’s are the same ones that knew about climate change and buried that evidence, they’re also the ones who are supplying a lot of this. In many ways, my understanding is the fossil fuel industry sort of sees declines in gas and oil powering the electricity grid and our automobiles, the petrochemical growth is kind of where they’re turning their attention, which I think for me makes it feel even more important to be doing this work.
Maris Masellis: Did you watch the Front Line video? Wow, I thought that was so incredible. One thing that I thought was really interesting was the marketing and the advertising. Immediately after they printed the first productions of plastic and how it went from convenience, convenience, convenience, you don’t have to worry about anything anymore, you can literally just throw it away. Then eventually it transformed into the Indian with the tear. Everyone remembers that and it was a pivotal moment when they transferred all of the responsibility to us, as the consumer when we had absolutely no control over it whatsoever. It tells the story so well. Was that in the 80s?
Alex Truelove: Yeah, yeah, I think so.
Michael Britt: Oh, no, no, the Indian in the America the Beautiful recycling program was in the 70s. I remember seeing it on TV. I’m older than you guys. It really affected everybody at the time.
Maris Masellis: It’s been happening for that long, like, we have been convinced that it’s our fault for that long. And that’s why it’s so hard to change people’s minds about it because this has been a way of life for a long time.
Alex Truelove: And you still hear that too, like, I won’t name names, but in the same Senate hearing, there was a lot of industry representatives that were witnesses and representing, you know, consumer packaging associations and that kind of stuff. And you hear them saying the same thing. You know, we want to be good actors, but consumers have to, you know, it starts with them. It’s the same sort of transferring of guilt and responsibility. It’s kind of incredible.
Michael Britt: I’d like to see some witnesses on the other side of that, like 10 years or so from now, when they’re all going to jail for corrupting the environment and killing millions of people.
Maris Masellis: This has been a very eye opening for myself. I have not known a lot of these things until this last year when we started this group. Truly and honestly it really made me feel bad at first. I thought, well, we’re all doomed, there is no turning back now. And I think a lot of people feel that way. They think, well, why should I care then? If this is just a downhill thing? Why should we bother ourselves trying to change when we’re such small pieces in this? And I think creating the the alternative idea is what we’re trying to do, and help people see that no, this is going to change. It has to change and it will change. I’m interested hearing you talking about the newer solutions or these creative solutions. What are some of those? What are some of the creative solutions that you’re talking about earlier?
Alex Truelove: I think I kind of looked at it as a multi step process. And I think there are a few promising things that I see going on that could represent a better future versus just the efforts around trying to get rid of like the most common most hazardous single use plastics. I’m not gonna sit here and suggest that banning plastic shopping bags or styrofoam containers is gonna change the entire market. But I think those conversations in places where they’ve asked for those policies. I think that’s really gotten people’s attention in terms of both, you know, this is a problem that we need to fix, but also sort of realizing, hey, like, we actually don’t need a lot of these things and some of the most most common and most hazardous single use plastics out there are also in some ways the most replaceable. And so I think that’s been a great place to start in terms of kind of winning hearts and minds. So I think there’s kind of that, you know, getting rid of the worst stuff. But then at a certain point, obviously, you have to figure out a different system in terms of what we’re moving towards. And I think that’s where I get really excited about what what at this point is mostly pretty local small scale solutions, but it really focused on reusability almost kind of bringing back the milkman model in some places. And there’s a number of different versions. There’s an organization called loop that has been partnering with some kind of big consumer brand companies about basically providing a lot every day things that you need. Toothpaste, shampoo, that kind of stuff in reusable containers that you can return which you know, I’d like to see that system being offered to smaller companies and things like that, but I think it’s a start. I think it shows that at least people’s heads are in the right place in terms of understanding that could be something we can move towards. I think a lot of other similar programs like that, so like restaurant takeout programs, there are six I think happening and more in Europe to my understanding, but it could be wrong. There are towns where they have like a almost like if you can imagine like a Nashville branded reusable takeout containers. Then at any restaurant you might go to…
Maris Masellis: Michael’s laughing because we have to tell you something.
Michael Britt: That’s what we were working on and we actually pitched our idea to the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and were given a scholarship to take our reusable takeout container program through their whole system of starting a business. We were ready to launch some tests here in East Nashville and then the tornado came right through our neighborhood. We decided to regroup, and maybe focus on big industrial cafeterias and collegiate cafeterias and institutional type cafeterias instead of takeout. And then COVID shut everything down. So we were on that track and actually we started this podcast as a way to connect and bypass the whole social media algorithms and really connect with our group here in Nashville, and to promote that idea. Then we were just sitting here after what two weeks of being stuck at home going why don’t we just buy the recording stuff because we can’t use the studio anymore and make podcasting our business right now. So that’s where we’re at. We feel like our job now is podcasting. Instead of this reusable takeout program.
Maris Masellis: The reusable to go container program. That was our baby. We were avidly studying the logistics of it and trying to make sense of how we were going to do this using East Nashville as our main market or test market, if you will. And we were branding, we had everything in line and just one thing after the next kind of shut us down. But it didn’t stifle us and it’s really inspiring to hear you talk about reuse, because even with the pandemic, there are barriers to entry but reuse isn’t dead. We have to figure something else out otherwise the linear economy is going to drive us all into the ground sooner than later. I think that the reuse idea that you’re seeing in Europe if if they can do it somewhere else, then we can do it too.
Michael Britt: Yeah, just takes political will.
Alex Truelove: Well, I’m sorry to see man, a tornado and a pandemic.
Michael Britt: Yeah, the tornado hit like March what was it sixth March 4, something like that. Then then we locked down for the pandemic on the 15th. So it was literally back to back.
Maris Masellis: It was a pretty dark. There were some pretty dark days here.
Michael Britt: Here we were out of toilet paper, hand hand sanitizer and paper towels because we’d all been buying it to donate to people who lost their houses. S so we’d cleaned all the stores out before COVID even hit so there’s really some shortages down here.
Alex Truelove: Wow, I mean there’s interesting recycling story with toilet paper too.
Michael Britt: That’s actually gonna be an upcoming episode of ours. Bidets. I posted a question on our Nashville Facebook group and ask if they want to talk about their bidets and the conversation blew up. It was like, wow, everybody wants to talk about their bidets. I ordered one and have been using it and we’re gonna kind build our episode around talking about that and toilet paper. I mean, there’s a lot of interesting solutions. I mean, even here in Nashville, you’re talking about the reuse stuff we have refill stores. The first one in our neighborhood was The Good Fill where we have our place that we can buy shampoo bars, and refill soaps. She (Megan the owner) researches the origins of everything and makes sure that they’re made ethically and produced environmentally friendly. And we’re pretty lucky to have that in our neighborhood. Do you have anything like that, where you live in your neighborhood?
Alex Truelove: Yeah, probably a half mile northwest of where I live there’s a great place called, I think it’s called refill ( Joy fill)
Maris Masellis: Yeah. The package free stores are so exciting to me. I see pictures on online all the time. They’re like, would you want something like this and it’s just fruit and vegetables all over the place. We actually just had Ellery Richardson (recorded but not published yet) on about coops, food coops. I had not really known anything about that beforehand. I think that whole idea of local food, package free sustainability at its finest. That would be a great solution. But in order to get those things off the ground, there’s got to be money and that’s the hardest part.
Alex Truelove: I have enormous respect for these entrepreneurs for coming up with the zero waste shops and stuff and thankfully the one in my neighborhood is back open again. It was you know, closed down for a while and they figured out a way to negotiate around the pandemic but not only in, I mean, I love having access to all these kind of bulk things, these giant vats of like laundry detergent, I can just refill you know that you guys I’m sure have very similar across the country. But I’ve also discovered products that are not only Zero Waste but in some ways actually better versions of what I have before like for washing dishes now I have basically a loofa like the actual gourd, which I’m embarrassed to say until a few years ago I didn’t even realize was actually a thing as opposed to the plastic version that you can get. And it’s incredibly effective. Mine has been lasting for months, but eventually when your finished with it, it’s composted afterwards. Brilliant.
Michael Britt: There’s a lot of those changes that I don’t think people realize how easy they are. Some of them seem more expensive at the time but in the long run they aren’t. They save you money, like switching to a safety razor, the old fashioned type of razor with razor blades. The analogy that I use all the time is that you pay what $15 for three, Gillette or Schick, triple or quadruple blade, plastic disposal heads for your razors at the store (correction, probably closer to $10). Yeah, where I get the finest Platinum razor blades in bulk it’s like literally the finest cutting edge you can make and if you buy them in bulk you know for nine cents each like can use both sides. Yeah, it’s probably about two cents of shave if that.
Alex Truelove: Yeah, the proprietary ones are so expensive. Yeah, it’s crazy.
Maris Masellis: Also toothpaste tablets.
Michael Britt: Oh man, we love us some toothpaste tablets
Alex Truelove: Okay, yeah, that’s my next thing.
Michael Britt: It took a little bit to get used to. It takes at least two or three times before you realize the change but for me it was easy because the foaming in my mouth kind of made me gag anyway. I didn’t like the regular toothpaste very much. I used so little all the time and now the toothpaste tablets are a great thing with no packaging. I don’t know if I told you Maris, I wanted to fill up on tooth tablets from The Good Fill. I usually like to fill a little mason jar only I got kind of carried away and dumped it into a big bag. It was $70 of toothpaste tablets!
Maris Masellis: So you’re the reason why I couldn’t get them! It’s OK, I usually just go over to Michaels and get them from him anyway.
Michael Britt: It might be. I didn’t mean to hog them. I just I just wanted a jar full. I don’t want to mess around with little packets. Oh well. I’d recommend trying those Alex.
Alex Truelove: It’s easier to borrow from a friend.
The chart shows that by 2015, the world had produced 7.8 billion tonnes of plastic — more than one tonne of plastic for every person alive today – Link to article
Michael Britt: So back to the plastics issue. Something that keeps coming back to me over and over again is that as a society we’ve produced 359 million metric tons of plastic since plastic was invented and went into use in late 40s early 50s. That seems like this enormous figure, but also keep in mind that plastic is lightweight. So the mass and the bulk of that has got to be huge. 10% of that’s been recycled and I actually think that’s generous, the 10% number. That’s a pretty small amount of the overall plastic in the world. And so you think about the volume then you also think about how plastic can only be recycled 2 sometimes maybe 3 times, and then it just buried in the landfill. So we’re really only slowing down the process of sending it to the landfill. The best case scenario is we’re just slowing this down. I mean, I don’t think we should be recycling plastic at all. I think if we took that recycling mentality away from everybody in curbside pickup. Here in Nashville, we do curbside and they keep shrinking the numbers and types of plastics that they can accept, because they don’t have a market for them. I kind of feel like if we just said no plastic that it would get rid of a lot of the contamination with diapers and weird stuff being put in there. And we wouldn’t be spending good money after bad and it would make people have to come to the realization that plastic isn’t really recyclable, and it’s not the best thing to be doing. Is that is that off base? I keep saying this and everybody looks at me like you’re crazy. You should be recycling if you can.
Alex Truelove: And that’s it. Yeah, I think that’s a really thought provoking question because even if there are some plastics now that have a decent recycling rate, and those I mean, we’re talking about a pretty narrow like, numbers one and two. And they, you know, have to be typically clear and they don’t have any shrink wrap labeling, so you know, that’s a pretty small sliver of the plastic pie. Is it worth sort of perpetuating this whole thing that we can recycle our plastics just because there are a few plastics that are recyclable? I don’t know, I don’t have a good answer. But I think it’s a really thought provoking question. Are we doing kind of more harm?
Maris Masellis: Right? I wonder if that awareness for people in general, because there’s already people that will have stopped recycling? And I don’t think that it was with that thought in mind, Michael, I don’t think people are thinking what you were thinking. They thought, we’re not recycling with China anymore so there’s obviously no recycling being done. And so I’m not going to do this anymore. And that was kind of like a loss of hope. Whereas I feel like your idea, Michael is kind of, Hey, we understand the system. It’s stuck. It’s not working. There’s not a future in this. So we’re just not going to recycle it. Or we’re also going to try to not buy it, because we know we can’t recycle it. But it’s impossible to do that. Plastic is on everything.
Michael Britt: Yeah, you’re right. Our choices are limited at the store. When they say that you should make better choices, like when they say you shouldn’t fly. Not flying means you can’t participate in modern society because you want to be green. If we talk about that 10% number and realize that means that 90% of the of the business model of recycling plastic for cities is a failure. What else do we do that can fail 90% and we keep supporting it? I mean, there just really isn’t that many other things like that in society that we’re willing to just throw money away at? We saw with the National Sword when they announced the ban on clamshell containers, plastic containers, everybody got all worked up. Some people said, “We’re gonna recycle them anyway”. It made them deal with the fact that their favorite restaurants to-go containers and their produce containers were no longer recyclable. People were angry about it. I just wonder if we said no plastic at all if it makes everybody really angry and then they start focusing that anger at the plastics manufacturering?
Alex Truelove: Yeah, this doesn’t necessarily answer your question, Michael. But I do think moving forward for a couple reasons, we might have more of an opportunity to really hold producers responsible for their claims. I think there’s a liability. Part of it is that we’re finding out more, unfortunately there’s no national clearing house with info about exactly what gets recycled. Is it collected? Then is it actually sorted by the local facility? And then is there actually a market you know, so each one of those, it’s less and less material that actually makes it through? Which is why I agree with you, Michael, that I think 10 percent is probably a pretty inflated number because I think often that really refers to the collection rate and not what actually gets turned into new products.
Maris Masellis: I think the others statistic is 2% of that is actually recycled. 2% of that 10%.
Alex Truelove: You guys might be interested in a report that came out like six months ago, I think over the winter that Greenpeace put out. I know some of the folks who did the the survey and the aim of the study was to survey as many recyclers across the country and actually find out, and it’s kind of crazy that nobody has really done this before. I mean, the EPA collects the data every couple of years, but it’s pretty vague. The (Greenpeace study) aim was to find out all the different things that you actually collect and don’t collect? And then how much of that stuff actually goes to sorting facility and gets sorted and has a market and how much of that stuff is actually sold and then turned into something else. So there are numbers behind all those things and what’s interesting is that the Federal Trade Commission actually has definitions and standards for what can actually be called recyclable. Basically it has to meet a threshold and only number ones and twos in very specific situations, met that threshold and everything else didn’t. What is interesting about that is that now that we have more information, I think Companies can be held more legally liable. There was actually a suit last year, I think a woman in California, sued Keurig, because she found out that those k cups weren’t actually recyclable. They were making claims that they were but in her community they weren’t. And so I think obviously, you guys know, there’s this disconnect between what people say, like the plastic bag Association, or I forget what it’s called but there’s there’s a group out there and one of their claims is plastic bags are recyclable. There’s this theoretical term of recyclable and then there’s this actual, you know, what’s happening where less than 1% or even less than that of any plastic bags are really recycled if any?
Michael Britt: Wait, what? That’s one of our questions. When you go back to the grocery store and take your plastic bags for recycling, which is a small amount statistically, it’s just who bothers to bring their bags back to the grocery store. Our question is, do they really recycle those bags?
Alex Truelove: My understanding is that has been part of a massive failed experiment. And I can’t remember the name of the organization that collected that information or was participating in it. But that was kind of part of a greater effort by I think a lot of industry groups, not just plastic bag returns, but a lot of like those bubble mailers that you’ll get like the ones from Amazon, which you can return at a lot of big box stores. They collected I don’t know how many tons, thousands of tons of these bags and different kinds of film and stuff and then they ended up I think just landfilling it, or incinerating all of it because there wasn’t actually a market. And I will, I promise after this conversation, I’ll point you in the direction of that information – link. But I think that is just another example of it’s collected but that doesn’t mean it actually gets recycled.
Michael Britt: We do a transcription of the episodes now. When you send it to me, I’ll put the link in there so people can go read the article.
Advertisement: Hey, zero waste squad. We’re gonna take a minute and run an ad for a company that we love, compost Nashville. Composting doesn’t have to be complicated, messy, or even time consuming. Compost Nashville can set you up with a little bucket to store all of your food scraps and compostable materials that gets picked up once a week from your doorstep. It’s that easy. By signing up, you’re not only diverting 30% of trash that would normally go into the landfill, but you’re also getting finished compost. Who’s your own Twice a year, not into gardening. No problem. Compost Nashville lets you donate your finished compost to a local farm or community garden. Last year, your fellow nashvillians use this service to divert 730 tonnes from the landfill. This 1.5 million pounds of compost removed over 1400 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the air. Taking 3687 cars off the road. Use the code trashed for 50% off your first month when you sign up at compostnashville.org
Michael Britt: So there’s two things that come to mind here. First of all, the plastic film is easily recyclable, correct? From what understand plastic films like plastic bags and stuff is that they can be made into other plastic bags. So like a one to one thing, right? Am I wrong about that?
Alex Truelove: Not to my knowledge, but…
Michael Britt: Well, maybe that’s what I get for reading the plastic film manufacturers website. Maybe I need to get my information from somewhere else.
Alex Truelove: My understanding is that film is tough for a couple of reasons. I mean, anytime you have layered film, it’s really hard to take apart those layers and they’re easily contaminated. There’s also just not a whole lot of material per weight. So I think even if it was theoretically possible, the cost of doing so is way more expensive than just extruding a new virgin plastic. So I think there’s kind of financial barriers and then technically, most plastic recycling right now is what’s called mechanical recycling. So there’s actual instruments that chop up different kinds of plastic into tiny pieces, and then it can be kind of re-moulded or turned into different things. And there are just a lot of limitations in terms of what can be recycled or as you guys know, down cycled. I think a lot of those kind of containers that you find for strawberries and those clear clamshells are usually like second phase of like, number one plastics. You know, so there are some kind of dependable markets but I think the new frontier when it comes to recycling film and a lot of other really hard to recycle plastics, numbers 3 through 7, film, all that kind of stuff is something called chemical recycling. Where instead of mechanically breaking plastic down and turning it into something else, they’re actually in some cases melted down into its original Polymer. I’m not like a chemist or a chemical engineer. But there are different technologies called hydro pyrolysis and pyrolysis and gasification. But they’re all kind of different versions of the same thing where they take a plastic products and then usually turn it into either some sort of base polymer or feedstock, or in many cases like another fossil fuel, melted into diesel fuel or something. And that is, it sounds maybe good at first, but I think it’s a technology that really kind of scares me because I think it’s just perpetuating the same thing that I think is a fundamental problem with plastic and I wrote about my article, which is that it doesn’t maintain value over time. Like you look at metals and glass and stuff like that, you know, you there is a certain ability to infinitely recycle. So if we started building facilities all over the country to chemically recycle all of these Mix plastics and turn it into a diesel fuel, just like a whole nother, you know, should we keep burning fossil fuels. And you know, you kind of create this situation that we’ve created with a lot of incinerators over time, that’s where you have to feed the beast, you have to feed the beast with more single use plastic waste, and we know that a certain percentage of that is going to escape into the environment or, you know, be too contaminated or, or whatever. And so I think that’s, I think it’s really kind of a trap more than anything I there may be and I don’t know, I think you know, the only acceptable version of the technology in my mind is if there is a way to preserve the quality of the polymer if you can actually melt something down and then turn it into a product of equal or better value. And there may be a way to do that with plastic bags. I keep hearing promises, although I have yet to see people deliver on those promises. And my understanding is this. All those technologies are also pretty expensive and would require taxpayer subsidization and stuff like that. So you know, There may be opportunities like that to, to actually keep those, you know, polymers alive and not have to keep producing new plastics but we were forefront we’re far from that. Well, that was wonky.
Michael Britt: It’s interesting that you bring that up because one of the places on my radar here in Tennessee, the Eastman Chemical Company, it actually used to be part of Eastman Kodak and in the 40s, they were created because there was a shortage of fossil fuels because of the war efforts. And they were created to continue to develop technologies to let Eastman Kodak make film stock even if they couldn’t get fossil fuels. And so they have been spun off into their own company and I saw an article recently on Earth 911 or one of those, talking about that facility and that they’re doing chemical plastic recycling. And so that was the other part I was going to mention earlier is just because you can, should you and is it the best use. You probably know about this study I saw one it’s from Oregon and I can’t remember the organization that did it. They did a lifecycle analysis from every single step along the way from digging things out of the ground and making it and the energy and delivery costs to ship things to the stores, using the item and then putting it in landfill or recycling. What they came up was that a lot of times it was better for the environment just to put things in the landfill. Make them lightweight and put in the landfill. This wasn’t as clear cut as I thought it would be and was actually kind of confusing to even wrap your head around. One of the examples they gave was a tuna can, having more impact overall than one of those mixed material plastic aluminum, tuna packets and I was a little surprised that they’re saying that if you just bury that packet in the in the earth, in the landfill, you’re done the environment a favor because of the energy used to recycle it even though it’s tin/metal and can be made over and over again into another can. That article started me thinking that sometimes maybe you shouldn’t be recycling just because you can. But I don’t know where that leaves us.
Maris Masellis: You (Alex) said by continuing to reduce our disposable plastic and build innovative systems to collect and reuse instead, we can avoid having to order from the same old recycling menu. We need to convince our leaders to reclaim their sanity and do the same. And I want to transition into that. How do we convince our leaders to reclaim their sanity and do the same, how do we make this federally? A law? How do we get the truth out and change the system from that level? Because that’s where the magic is gonna happen. And it just seems really far fetched for people like myself and Michael, like, how do we, how do we do that?
Alex Truelove: Man, it’s such a great question. I do think in some ways people underestimate their ability to change the system like as a voter, as a constituent of our various levels of government. I think it’s great that people, including myself in this, try to be better as consumers and try to make small changes in our lifestyle. But I think there are just limits to how far we can take that. There’s actually a town in Japan, a colleague of mine was writing a blog and I’ll forward it to you. I think it’s gonna be published next week that basically tried to go zero waste. This was like, maybe starting 15-20 years ago
Maris Masellis: I saw a video on YouTube about this
Alex Truelove: They made incredible progress, but like, to a certain extent you just can’t avoid it because our system surrounds us with these choices, or I guess, lack of choices. And so I really think there is a lot of potential over the next few years for systemic change, especially through policy. I mean, I’m a policy person, I’ll say that. So I tend to view things through the lens of policy, but I believe in the power of good policy. And I think things like limiting our use of plastic bags and styrofoam containers is a great start. And there is stuff happening right now. I think we just have to make sure to voice that to our elected leaders who are pretty easily convinced by some of these arguments around chemical recycling. The industry’s always been really effective in terms of that kind of messaging that improves their own bottom line. But I also think there are alternatives that are being proposed at the same time. And I think we just need to get more of our elected leaders on board with those ideas. So there actually is a federal bill right now that I and many other people have spent a lot of time working on. It’s called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. There’s a number of ordinances within the bill itself, including bans on certain single use plastics and requirements of recycled content for certain things to ensure that the number 1’s and 2 containers that are recycled are actually bought and used by companies in new products, which is a whole another thing. With cheap oil prices, companies will immediately just go back to virgin. There’s even a moratorium on new plastic facilities, basically saying stop all of this refinement. We need to figure out what we’re actually putting into the air and water as a part of these manufacturing processes, which another really interesting conversation upstream and about the local in places where we’re doing a lot of that stuff like the Gulf Coast, Ohio River Valley and Appalachia. I think the core of that bill, or maybe the thing that I’m most excited about in terms of systemic change is something called producer responsibility. So right now, if your Coca Cola (not to pick on Coca Cola) you make a plastic bottle and there’s really no incentive for you to make a bottle that’s more recyclable. You don’t have to pay a dime for the cost of collecting that bottle or sorting that bottle or whatever happens to it. Whether it’s recycled, or landfilled or incinerated, that’s all on us as taxpayers paying for the collection paying for the trucks paying for the optical sorting and the manual sorting in these facilities. There’s really kind of an old idea which is that the polluter pays. You know, some of our most fundamental environmental causes policies are based on that idea of polluters should pay for the cost of the pollution and the things that you create. And so without getting kind of too wonky and detailed, I think that has a lot of promise because I think as soon as companies have to pay for the cost of their products on the environment, the cost in terms of collection and all that kind of stuff, they’re going to be incentivized to make more reusable products and make more products that actually might be recycled.
Maris Masellis: Yes. Have you heard of the citizens climate lobby, CCL? I just got involved with them. And I was involved in some meetings. They just had a conference a few probably a few weeks ago, and I learned about the bipartisan climate solution, the energy innovation and carbon dividend act or all those things, basically along the same lines. They want to basically have these companies, the fossil fuel companies be responsible for what they’re doing. With fees, carbon fees, carbon dividends, things like that.
Alex Truelove: Yeah, I think in many ways it is very similar. It’s forcing companies who were doing bad things to cover the cost of correcting those things. And yeah, you could call it fees in the plastic packaging space they’re often called eco modulated fees. How you actually structured these fees ends up being pretty important because if you prioritize products that are lightweight, you might actually be incentivizing people making more plastic like Michael, you were saying plastic is pretty lightweight. So I think how you actually set up these systems to prioritize things and hopefully disincentivize things that are wasteful is a big part of it. We’ve actually seen these systems work really well. The whole idea is actually not very new. There’s a lot of specialty and hazardous products that have been part of producer responsibility policies for a long time. So things like paint, and car batteries, and in some places, carpets and mattresses, things that are really hard to recycle, or in some cases, hazardous. Yeah, I think tires as well. Often people don’t even know that they might be paying a little bit extra for these items. But that money goes towards a system where they can safely collect and recycle. These products are breaking down as best as best they can. And at the same time, because of that added price, the idea is that those companies are going to be, you know, a little bit more incentivized to make a more recyclable product. I think that’ll be especially true with packaging.
Michael Britt: I think that’s some of the writing on the wall because like you’re talking about the history of this like from our Superfund sites here in America. If you polluted a site that’s designated as Superfund cleanup, your company is responsible for 75% of that cleanup. And my theory is that Coca Cola and Pepsi when they broke away from the plastic Manufacturing Association, they see the writing on the wall for some of that coming. Because there is historical precedence for it as well as legal precedents. I also think there’s probably a switch that flips somewhere where they are suddenly like, you know, we’re in the sugar water soda business, not the plastic bottle business. Why do we need to go down with the plastic and the fossil fuel companies? So regardless to me of their motives they’re making some moves that I appreciate. Some people yell greenwashing at the big companies all the time, but I like to point out that if Coca Cola who sells like, I’ve said this statistic before, I don’t remember it’s been over a billion bottled drinks a day (correction the world buys over 1.3 billion plastic bottled drinks per day but Coca Cola is responsible for 1.8 billion per year). If they even cut 1% out, it’s more than most of us can achieve in our lifetimes of working as activists. So I’m glad to see them do that. There’s also precedent for that in the German packaging bills, that you know, we’ve talked about that on our podcast before from as far back as 91 they (Germany) makes the producers responsible and that works there. So how do we support and find out more about the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Bill because I keep hearing that come up, but I haven’t gone and looked up the actual bill before. So is there somewhere that we can go to look at it, not just the legalese, but the synopsis of what’s going on so that we can easily understand it?
Alex Truelove: So there’s actually a Senate bill and in the House, there’s companion bills. The sponsor in the Senate is Senator Tom Udall, from New Mexico who has been a big champion on this issue. And in the House side representative Alan Lowenthal, and I believe both of their websites have kind of a more condensed, reader friendly version of the bill. In fact, I think I’m looking at the one from Utah right now. They have an outline of some of the components of the legislation. And they also have a bunch of quotes from all kinds of leaders and environmentalists on why they think it’s such a great thing. I’m in there somewhere. Also, yeah, so I think if for the listeners out there, if you Google, Tom Udall or Senator Udall break free from plastic pollution act, probably that might be even the first hit on your search engine. You should see the outline which is I think, much more friendly than reading the actual bill on Congress’s website, which you can do if you really want to but…
Maris Masellis: I have friends that do that.
Alex Truelove: Yeah. I’m one of those people, but…
Michael Britt: I’ll read it sometimes to get into the nitty gritty. Read the manual, read the fine print.
Maris Masellis: Alex you are now my translator
Michael Britt: Okay, we’ll just call you for translation. So are those bills going up with in the current cycle? Or will that be pushed down the line? Do we need to immediately call our our representatives and say vote for this or is it not up yet?
Alex Truelove: For vote? It is. I mean, it’s a live bill. And there are we’re gathering co sponsors, trying to get other senators and Congress people to support the bill. So now is definitely a great time to reach out to your representative and tell them that they should support the bill and why you think they should. It has been assigned to committee but it hasn’t been actually heard yet. So there’s still time even for more congressional leadership to jump on in official support the bill. So now’s a great time to do it, look up who your Congress people are, and give them a call or write them an email. I really do think those actions make more of a difference than people think. And I think plastic free July, I don’t know if you guys have been finding that it’s now kind of like a theme. So I know a lot of organizations are working on this issue and are putting together some organized efforts to get calls and emails into Congress people this month. Actually, I don’t know, to your question, because of the pandemic, so much of congressional action has been focused on relief and you know, that kind of stuff. So I don’t know exactly how things are going to move forward, but it’s definitely not too late. I still think the idea is revolutionary enough that I would be shocked if it really got all the way through the process in a serious way this year. But I still think it’s an incredibly important statement. I think there are a lot of things in the bill to be proud of and what’s kind of cool and interesting and different than any other real life experiences that usually these ideas kind of start at the local level and state level and then eventually kind of the federal level. And it actually has happened a little bit backwards where no state yet has put together a package of all these ideas in one bill. It almost skipped ahead. And in this case, Senator Udall, and Representative Loewenthal said, You know what, let’s just put it all together and do this. And make it the sort of thing that we can all aspire to. So I actually think what will happen over the next year or so is that we will see, state governments kind of take this bill or a lot of similar elements and try to move it through at the state level. I think there will be tons of opportunities as advocates and constituents for us to also reach out to state leadership because I think what’s more likely to happen if history is any indication, is that we’ll see these ideas of producer responsibility and all of the elements that are in this bill, we’ll see those actually passed at the state level before they pass it the federal level.
Maris Masellis: Yeah.
Michael Britt: So we’re gonna work on that even at the local city level because we need to be involved with local politics and find out who’s on team climate, who’s on team planet.
Maris Masellis: I think the next step for you and I Michael, is to just really get into that bill and and figure out all the key points to it and how to communicate that with our listeners. It really is that easy to look up your representatives. I’ve done it quite a few times these last few months and I’ve never I done that before. We can link that in our website in the transcription – Link here
Michael Britt: this is like one of the things we were talking about with styrofoam recycling and answering questions on the forums about if it’s recyclable and where can I take it? My answer is that your time would be better spent for the environment and you’ll help more if you stopped and emailed the manufacturer and your representatives your displeasure about these products than it would be driving 20 minutes to take your styrofoam to recycle. And I think that I think you’re right that a lot of us do have more power and Maris, you know, I do this all the time. Every package, everything I buy, I look at it and like right now I’m going through coffee packaging I just ordered from a sustainable company that actually has compostable bags for their coffee. And I’ve been trying to find that and I email every Coffee Company, all the local ones here in Nashville and I get on their social media and ask them why their bags aren’t compostable? And I think if they hear that enough they will no longer say, no one’s asking for it.
Maris Masellis: Lets talk about coffee for one more second. Coffee is a great ingredient for compost. You can compost your coffee grinds, and why wouldn’t we have a bag that can also go in there too? Why not? Exactly. Anyway, anywho Alex Truelove. Thank you so much for taking time out of your Sunday to speak with us. And we will be looking for you is are there any things coming up that we can support you in? Or basically we can keep in touch?
Alex Truelove: Yeah, let’s keep in touch. I think supporting this stuff that’s happening is important. We talked about the federal Bill and I mean, a lot of stuff in the in the policy space, like I said, is focused on pandemic relief and that kind of stuff. So I think it might be a little bit until our elected leaders are focused on all of the other problems that are still happening during this time like plastic pollution? They haven’t disappeared at all. It’s tough because there’s only so much oxygen in terms of, you know, public attention, but yeah, I think there’s plenty of opportunities to work on stuff. I’ll do my best to keep you all updated. In the meantime call your representatives about this…
Michael Britt: Yeah. I’d like to give one quick idea real quick. Because it’s about getting people to call and it always baffles me that big organizations or even small, powerful organizations, don’t do this. I would like to see organizations like what’s your acronym again?
Alex Truelove: UsPIRG
Michael Britt: I think your social media people should be active on every single city’s Zero Waste Facebook page. I mean, I know that I go on Sundays and drink coffee and I find other groups and other cities and I connect with them and I get involved in those conversations. As you’re trying to help pass this this law it seems like the target audience would be zero waste Facebook groups. I don’t see a lot of organizations do this. We even had to invite the Nashville Metro solid waste people to post. We were like, look, we approved your membership on our site so you should post and put information there to share it. It baffles me that we don’t see a lot of that happening. So I’m just gonna put that out there and get some big organizations to start surfing the web for zero waste groups. We’re out there.
Alex Truelove: All right, I hear you. And I will, if it helps, I will send a link through USPIRG if people want to write their congressperson where you basically put in your name, zip code, there’s like a message already there that you can tweak if you want to. You guys can share that too. Link Here
Maris Masellis: Well, this is another successful episode of Zero Waste Trash Talk with our special guest Alex Truelove. My name is Maris and that’s Michael Britt. Thank you guys. Appreciate it was great meeting you, Alex. Thanks. Keep up the good work.
Alex Truelove: Yeah. It’s great to have these channels where we can have these conversations.