In this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan is joined by Doug Woodring, Founder and Managing Director of Ocean Recovery Alliance. They discuss the importance of healthy oceans for biodiversity and greenhouse gas reduction, plastic pollution, and how the Ocean Recovery Alliance organization adopts innovative thinking, technologies, creativity, and partnerships to establish new initiatives and scalable prospects for enhancing the oceans’ well-being.
Doug Woodring is an environmental entrepreneur, an ocean advocate, a writer, and a sought-after speaker at events on plastic pollution, ocean, and environmental-related topics. He has served in multiple industries at the forefront of technology, finance, and the environment for over twenty-five years. In 2018, Doug was awarded the 2018 Prince’s Prize for Innovative Philanthropy by H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Ocean Recovery Alliance is a non-profit organization focused on bringing innovative solutions, technology, collaborations, and policy together to impact positive improvements for the health of the ocean. The organization works with the UN Environment, World Bank, several brands, companies, municipalities, and institutions on their respective projects and programs aimed at reducing plastic pollution.
Discover additional information about Ocean Recovery Alliance’s mission to enhance the health of our oceans by checking the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.
- 06:43 – 09:51 – How plastic impacts the environment – Plastic’s impact extends beyond the ocean. It poses a threat to marine life. We often witness distressing images of turtles with straws in their noses or whales stranded on beaches with stomachs full of plastic. However, the number of animals that perish in the ocean is difficult to determine since their remains are seldom visible unless they wash up onshore. Furthermore, land animals are also prone to eating plastic. While the ocean serves as a dumping ground for our harmful actions, the root of the issue lies in how we manage waste, package products, and sell them in our cities. Thus, the challenge lies in raising awareness about the issue and spreading this message to inland communities.
- 10:06 – 13:33 – The plastic waste management problem – Plastic possesses desirable properties such as lightweight, durability, flexibility, moldability, and colorfulness. However, its recapture, collection, and recycling pose a considerable challenge. During storms, poorly managed plastic waste flows into rivers, ultimately finding its way into the ocean. So the key to preventing plastic waste lies in addressing the issue upstream. Developed countries are more adept at managing waste due to their infrastructure and resources, while developing countries struggle with waste management. Shockingly, an estimated forty percent of the world’s waste is burned in front or backyard, leading to respiratory problems, toxic emissions, and carbon black from soot that contributes to global warming.
- 16:38 – 19:05 – It’s always better to recycle – Annually, the manufacturing of new plastic accounts for seven percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Research indicates that utilizing recycled materials in your product or packaging could reduce energy usage by 70 to 90% compared to the energy required to extract and refine new plastic. Adopting recycled materials on a large scale would significantly benefit the climate, potentially leading to nearly twice the amount of CO2 savings. Nevertheless, the difficulty lies in sorting and returning waste material to the recycling process. This is why standardizing plastic materials has become a top priority for environmental advocates like Doug.
- 27:38 – 30:28 – How many times can plastic be recycled? – While it may not always be possible to transform a plastic bottle back into an identical plastic bottle, there are still a myriad of ways to repurpose the material. For instance, it can be transformed into fabric or used as a component of other products. Governments play a significant role in creating demand for recycled content since recycled plastic can be blended with other materials to make them stronger and lighter. Concrete and asphalt are just a couple of examples. Additionally, advanced methods, such as chemical recycling, are quickly gaining popularity to expand the range of recycled plastic products.
Dylan: Hardware to Save a Planet explores the technical innovations that are giving us hope in the fight against climate change. Each episode focuses on a specific climate challenge and explores an emerging physical technology solution with the person bringing it into reality. I’m your host, Dylan Garrett.
Dylan: Hello and welcome to Hardware to Save a Planet. I’m here with Doug Woodring, the founder and managing director of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a non-profit that is focused on improving the health of the ocean. I’ve been learning just how critical a healthy ocean is for biodiversity and greenhouse gas reduction. So this is an important topic, and you can’t talk about ocean health without talking about the plastic problem. And that’s an area where Doug has particular expertise. According to a UN report, plastic makes up 85% of marine litter. And despite all the talk about reducing plastic and improving recycling, the quantity in the ocean is expected to triple by 2040. That would mean 50 kilograms of plastic per meter of coastline globally. This is a good topic for our audience because people in the physical product industry can influence material usage and also design for circularity. And also, Doug has some ideas about where new hardware can help solve the problem. To introduce Doug quickly, I’ll start by saying that he is a competitive and accomplished open water swimmer. So he experiences ocean health in a more personal way than many of us. What has struck me in the short time I’ve known him is his passion and dedication to the problem and the diversity of ways in which he has tackled it. So, Doug, thank you for joining this show. It’s really an honor to have you.
Doug: Thank you, Dylan. Thanks for having me.
Dylan: Yeah, I’m excited to chat and I’m excited to learn about open water swimming, too. Tell me a little bit about that. I didn’t actually say this in the intro, but I saw you were inducted to the Marathon Swimming International Hall of Fame in 2020, right?
Doug: Yes. So I actually swam at Berkeley. I grew up in the Bay Area. I’m a sprinter by training, so I’m not a huge distance swimmer. I like the English channels and things. But I’ve lived in Asia over 30 years and the water in Hong Kong is actually great and warm most of the year. You don’t need a wetsuit. And after doing a few races in California, the Tahoe Crossing and the Maui Crossing in Hawaii with relay teams, I said, My gosh, Hong Kong needs one of these. So I, for 15 years, ran the biggest races in Asia, which were the only relay races. Usually open water swimming is solo events, but in a relay you have a support boat and five or six people on a team and you basically leapfrog. But one of the reasons for the impetus is that obviously, when you’re in the water, a lot of people think of animals and they’re afraid of jellyfish and, of course, sharks. And when you’re in dirty water, if you’re swimming in dirty ish water or water with plastic in it. If you’re swimming along in your zone and all of a sudden a plastic bag comes right in front of you, it almost gives you a heart attack because you think it is the mouth of a shark and you can’t avoid that. And so I’ve had a few of those cases. I also race outrigger canoes competitively and internationally. And when you get a plastic bag on your rudder on a surf ski or an outrigger, especially during a race, it’s a big bummer. It’s like having a parachute open up when you’re going ten or 12. So it’s the access to the water that I have and through sports that really, I guess, got me thinking about this issue much more than others. And we started twelve years ago, and especially in Asia, was not a topic at all. Just because people don’t touch the water here, don’t use it, don’t appreciate it, don’t recreate in the way that we might have done in the west. So they don’t see it out of sight, out of mind, and it’s just not something they thought about. But now that’s changing, luckily.
Dylan: And when you say we started twelve years ago, that’s the Ocean Recovery Alliance.
Doug: Yes, that’s my NGO. So I’ve done a few different projects and work before that actually used to be in finance and outdoor media, and I’m really more of an entrepreneur. So when you think about our NGO, what I’m really doing is entrepreneurial environmental solutions and programs. In every program we do, whether it’s with kids or with a corporation or with a government, we have to restart and raise money for that one program. So it’s like little startups all along the way. The challenge for an NGO is you don’t have anything to sell, you’re not selling a product, you’re not making revenue. So every time you do that, you need to get some kind of funding and support and sponsorship to run that program of outreach or education or solution for recycling or packaging, whatever it is that keeps life interesting. But it’s also challenging, especially in Asia, where donating to the environment is not so popular. It’s usually for other causes. The foundation system out here in terms of family offices is very opaque and not as developed as the west. And so it was tricky being in the right place because I can see things more than most other people who are in the west on a daily basis in the region, but also don’t have the funding mechanisms to really grow as fast here. So just one of the challenges of space.
Dylan: A lot of your initiatives depend on philanthropy, on donations from groups in Asia to support them.
Doug: They get them globally. So from foundations, from multilaterals, we’ve done work with UNAP, the UN Environment or the World Bank, and individuals. But we don’t seek small money individual donations, really, we appreciate them, but we do have to go to corporations sometimes. They like to do employee engagement programs for getting their employees out and volunteering and doing things. But yes, we do have to find it from somewhere, and that’s a challenge, especially when we go into other countries which are not developing countries and they have their own money. So that means we have to find external money to run those things on those programs. But we made it work over twelve years, so it’s been happening.
Dylan: You said your kind of introduction to the problem maybe was through recreating in water and kind of really experiencing the pollution firsthand. You seem very driven and you’ve taken it to great lengths to go address the problem globally. Are other things motivating that level of dedication to it?
Doug: Well, sure. I’d say two. One is that I grew up in California, so California is a nice place, and I did a lot of outdoor activities, camping and everything. So my baseline was beautiful. And when I came to Asia, the baseline for everyone was not beautiful. Maybe it was beautiful, but it was polluted and beautiful. The air pollution was a huge issue in our 20 or 30 years ago. A lot of cities have cleaned that up. Water pollution, obviously, depending on what country you’re in. Plastic pollution. So I used to be in the asset management business, and in 98 I set up a framework for a global environmental tech fund, which was when the Internet was first starting. and.com boom number one. But you really need the equipment and technology to do the remediation of the air water recycling, and you need the hard goods to fix these things. It’s not just all digital and apps and that, and we can’t forget that because you really need to have that material, whether it’s big or small, doing that remediation or bringing in the renewable energy. So that’s one thing. The other is that when I left Berkeley, I went to work in Japan, and I was the first foreigner guy, Jean, working in probably one of the biggest fishing companies in the world. And I was trading seafood and I didn’t see anything bad and nasty, but I certainly learned about the daily volume of catch around the world that was both coming to Japan and going to every other big city in the world. I thought, this is absolutely unsustainable. The amount of fish coming into tsukiji fish market every single day from all over the world, all different types, all different depths, all different species and exoticness. And I said to myself, someday I want to make a difference and slow that industry down in the sense of making it better and less damaging for the ocean. So that’s what I’m doing. Now, I don’t focus a lot on overfishing and the ecosystem part, but certainly we do talk about that when the time comes and it’s opportunity. But mostly we focus on plastic in the last ten years.
Dylan: And why is that? What is it about plastic that’s so damaging to the ocean?
Doug: Well, I think it’s got to remember, it’s not just the ocean. We always see the images of a turtle with a straw on his nose and a little seahorse and a whale when you open its stomach. Years ago, when the whales would die and happened to land on the beach, they were so smelly and they bloated people literally, they blew them up or they buried them, and they never inspected what was inside the stomach. So I’m sure that even 30, 40 years ago, they had plastic in their stomachs. We just never looked for it. But one interesting thing to remember is there’s no body count in the ocean for dead animals. It’s impossible to see any animal that dies unless it happens to land on the beach, which is probably 0.1%. Otherwise they sink and they get eaten by the other animals in the ecosystem. And that’s nature. But I would propose that there’s many, many more animals out there that have died as a result of plastic that we just don’t know about. But the point here is that it’s not just the ocean. Every land animal will eat plastic if they can get it in their mouth. Giraffes, goats, dogs, pigs, birds. Anything that sees a color or smells a bit of food, or thinks it looks like food will mistakenly try to eat it. And that means that this obviously is a huge land problem. And all plastic comes from land, except for a bit from the fishing industry. So the ocean is just the recipient of our bad activities. But all of those are on land, in what we do in our cities, how we manage our waste, how we recover it, how we package things, how we sell products. All of that is land based. So the challenge in the early days of our work is how do you migrate this ocean story into the inland communities, who maybe don’t even think about the ocean or don’t care about the ocean, they don’t recreate at the ocean. They’ve never been on a holiday to the ocean. It’s not their space. The brands think it’s not their space. I’m not a tourism company. I don’t have a resort on the ocean. It’s not my zone. It took a few years for people to understand that this was everyone’s problem. And the reason why it is such a problem is because plastic simply doesn’t go away unless you burn it. So polymers are great for everything. They’re meant for. They’re lightweight, durable, flexible, moldable, and colorful. But all those things are the exact reasons why it’s so hard to recycle them, recapture them, gather them. And remember, in big rain, big storms, which much of the world has, this material floats very quickly, very easily, and it moves away. So it can get lost very easily down the drain. Down the streets, down the rivers, and we’ve never put focus on the bleeding rivers and the bleeding creeks ever. Even still, today we’re not really doing that very well. And that’s where it all joins the ocean. So a lot of this can be saved upstream. And that’s where there are a lot of things that we work on today.
Dylan: That was one of my questions is that how a lot of this plastic ends up in the ocean is kind of runoff from streets or getting into rivers and then into the ocean eventually. It’s not just the practice of dumping plastic into the ocean.
Doug: Yeah, I’d say 99.99%. It’s that reason you don’t get people at the beach blatantly just throwing their garbage into the ocean when they’re done with their picnic. Maybe it used to be that way, but not really anymore. There were times when the US used to dump our waste offshore. New York took barges out before that and dumped them in the middle of the ocean. So it still did happen, but it’s happened in some countries a little bit. A good example of birds in places in Asia, maybe not so much today, but only five or eight years ago, a truck driver who’s meant to be the waste hauler for a hotel. Many hotels all book this waste hauler and they say please take our garbage to the landfill. Well, the landfill is 30 km away. Fuel is expensive, traffic is bad. It takes him two or 3 hours to get to the landfill. So instead he parks his truck, has a nap, waits for dark, goes to a ravine which is only 3 km away, and just dumped the trash in the ravine. That happens a lot. Then the rains come and then the brands logos of the garbage that came from the hotel washes up on the beach right in front of the hotel. A few days later that happens, but not as much as it used to. So when you think about the loss, the western countries contain the waste much better than other developing countries. Just because they have the infrastructure and the money, the resources. They have the trucks, they have the curbside pickup. So in California, in the US, you don’t see that we have landfills. In the US, the biggest competition to recycling is landfill. Because landfill is a giant hole and all you need is a truck to drive there, dump it in a hole, cover it up. You don’t need many employees, you don’t need innovation, you don’t need anything. But for recycling, you’ve got to compete against that. You have to get the waste, you have to sort it, clean it, turn it into its different families and types, process it and then sell it again. And then hope that the value and the margin you can get on that is more than the guy who is getting the tipping fee or the dumping fee, who just sits there and runs the landfill, that is another big challenge. But in many countries, they don’t have that containment. And 40% of the world’s waste is estimated to be burned just in your front or backyard, roughly, and that’s huge. No one is talking about this today. And this is a giant issue for three reasons. Immediate respiratory problems. If you go to the Philippines or some countries in Asia as soon as it’s dark, because it’s illegal to burn trash as soon as it’s dark, all you smell is burning plastic. Because it’s dark enough to hide your burning. Because they’re not giant bonfires, they’re just local neighborhood burns. But you’ve got to get rid of your waste because there’s no trucks that come by and do it for you. But then that puts the toxins in the air, which is where we’re getting all the toxin movement into the food chain. And it causes carbon black from the soot. And that’s very bad for global warming because the soot attracts heat in the atmosphere. So that’s one area we really have to stop is the burning. So where does it go? It’s got to go to a landfill, hopefully a trolled landfill versus just an illegal dump, which often breaks up and runs away in the rains and the wind. So when you do have monsoons and typhoons and big rains in much of the world, and you might have seen the graphic that came out about ten days ago that showed the Philippines as the number one polluter to the ocean or the country. It’s not as if they try to pollute, but it’s just the country that has the most loss of their own waste to the environment because it’s, I don’t know, 80, 90 million people now, 7000 islands. All the islands are mountainous, so they all live right near the coastline, and they get huge typhoons and giant rain events and wind events. So imagine when you don’t have the capacity for waste management and these storms happen. It all gets just washed down, washed down, washed down every single time. And that’s a challenge we all have to really address. Even before we get into the recycling discussion. We have to slow the flow of what’s coming out of the rivers. And that’s why we create our global alert app to do just that.
Dylan: Yeah, I was looking at that. That’s a way for people to identify and alert where there are trash hotspots, right?
Doug: Right. So we made this a number of years ago. It’s partly funded by the World Bank. It’s even in Spanish, but it’s a bit like a way for traffic. So it lets you report hotspots of trash. Not a single piece like a candy bar wrapper, because a minister of sewers or tourism isn’t going to come pick up a candy wrapper. But if you show them a swath of trash along a riverbank or flowing in a river, on a creekside or on a coastline, then there’s reason with GPS points. You can’t hide from that anymore. You can go into any meeting with any stakeholder group and say, hey, this is where my 8th grade class reported that there’s all these hotspots along our watershed, we need to go clean that. So it’s a way to engage the community. You don’t need thousands of people to do it. You could have two people on a bike and a boat and walk in a watershed area of two or 3 miles and report three times a month. It’s already more data than most people ever get. And that’s enough to then create a story of maybe putting up a boom or a net or attachment device in that creek or inlet outlet so that you do slow the flow. Then you’ve cleaned the water, the surface water. The local community then builds trust in what you’re doing. So trust is a key thing that we have to rebuild here, both for recycling and for just keeping a waterway clean. Then people don’t want to re-pollute it. And then you can look upstream and say, hey, where did that come from? I know it’s not downstream, but it’s upstream. Who’s it from? What is it? Maybe we can prevent it, maybe we can recycle it, maybe we can avoid it. But this gets to that next discussion. We’ve had reports in 40 countries, more than 40 countries. But the thing is, with our app, we are not big enough and able to connect to every single watershed manager on the planet. So if someone in a country does a report, it’s up to them to talk to someone in the watershed who’s a stakeholder. It could be an NGO, university, Rotary Club company, or the government that says, hey, we’re reporting on these spots and here they are. Can you help us arrange weekly, monthly, daily, whatever it is, cleanups and maybe management of that water through a boom and attachment device? Pretty powerful if we start using it the right way.
Dylan: No, it’s amazing. Tell me if I’m thinking about this right, but when I think about the plastic problem and kind of the need to figure out recycling specifically, my understanding is the production of virgin plastic is pretty impactful from a greenhouse gas emission standpoint globally. You probably know this better than I do, but what is it? Like 7% of total greenhouse gas emissions annually are due to producing virgin plastic.
Dylan: Which is if I just think about the kind of motivations for solving the plastic problem and improving recycling, that feels like a good one as well.
Doug: Yeah, recycling. Most studies show that if you use recycled content in your package or your product, you can save 70% to 90% energy versus the energy used to extract and refine virgin plastic. So the movement to recycle content is huge for a climate benefit. Obviously the real benefit is you’re getting it out of the environment, getting it out of the water. So there’s no health problems, fishing problems, tourism and ecosystem problems. I think the US. EPA has a number that if you use recycled content, you actually save 1.8 times the amount of CO2. So there’s a positive impact from using recycled content. So the challenge is how to get that feedstock that waste material back into the recycling stream. One comment you mentioned, I just want to plant this seed because I did used to be in the fishing industry. A lot of people say, oh, that by 2050 there’s going to be twice as much plastic in the ocean as fish. Based on consumption and loss. No one really knows that number. But one thing is, when people mention that number, they never think about how fast the fish are being lost due to overfishing. So when you have less fish, you’re immediately going to have more plastic than fish. And I actually think that number will be in 2035, not 2050, because of the overfishing on the fish side. I just want to put that in there.
Dylan: Yeah, interesting.
Doug: So back to recycling. I use this analogy that recycling is as difficult as unscrambling an omelet. So if I make you an omelet of cheese, milk, ham, peppers, mushroom, and you say, Doug, that’s great. Thanks for making that omelet, but please put it back in the original components, ingredients. That’s pretty tough to do. And in today’s waste system, when we put all of our garbage in one big bag, of course not everyone does exactly like that, but most of the world does. With all the food waste and all of the messy things, it’s simply too expensive, too costly. No one wants to pay the labor for it to unsort and unscramble that omelet to put it into its own parts. And many of the old recycling facilities around the world were okay for the last many decades dealing with paper and glass and metal. You can have magnets and the paper can be mulched and you can dry it out. But plastic came along in so many forms. In fact, there’s over 40,000 types of plastic that all live in seven families. But they all have different melting points, different chemicals, different colors. And you can’t just put them all in one batch and then make a new iPhone cover or a new toy. You have to sort them. And that’s the costly, difficult part. So when you talk about design and technology, designing for standardization of materials is a huge thing because the more that the products are standardized, the easier it is to not have to sort them as much and put them in the right family so they can be reused. And standardization of colors and everything will make a big difference. That’s where a lot of people are pushing for. But it’s tough when the brands all want differentiation, different size, different shape, different color, different functionality. So that’s one of our challenges.
Dylan: Yeah, you’re saying you’d really have to influence all the way upstream when people are designing products in the first place and making those choices about materials and colors and things. And if we could all agree on one color of toy or one color of food packaging or something, and one material type, that would make this problem a lot easier.
Doug: Yeah, that’s going to be super relevant. There’s a couple design angles here that are interesting, too. People years ago had challenged Coke to not use a red bottle cap because red colors, red, orange, yellows are all known in the ocean world that animals eat bright colors. They think it’s a fish. I mean, it’s not a fish, but they think it’s food. It’s a dead animal, dead shrimp. Its bright color means it will eat me. Just designing for colors can make an ecosystem difference. But the other thing is with bioplastics, and we do support bioplastic as a way to get away from the virgin petroleum type of plastic. Of course, they all have some issues, but if you take a biomaterial product and some people say, well, they don’t biodegrade as fast as they should and it takes two years, but if it’s two years, that’s a lot better than 400 years, which is the existing product with petroleum. But the problem is the recyclers, and the consumers often don’t know which materials are actually bio. And so when you mix the bio product in with the non bio product, it can mess up the batch and contaminate the batch for recycling. Some biomaterial is meant to be recycled, but people don’t often know which one is meant to be recycled and which one is meant to be composted. So just labeling and color coordination or something that can help us all understand these different types will be very important.
Dylan: bYeah. What a mess.
Doug: It is a mess.
Dylan: Just seems there’s so many factors.
Doug: That’s why it’s so tough. That’s why it is so difficult. I believe this is more difficult to solve than climate change. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bigger problem, but it is definitely more difficult because there is too much variability in everything with CO2. We’re just trying to get to CO2. There’s only so many things we can do in that space.
Dylan: And that must be so I’m a lifelong recycler and I’ve always tried to really improve my personal habits around plastic usage and recycling and stuff. But there’s been so much in the media recently about how recycling is kind of a myth and it’s not doing nearly what sort of we all hope it’s doing. And Greenpeace put out this report, I think late last year, saying, or sometime recently saying, yeah, basically that recycling just isn’t working. And I guess this is why. Right. It’s just so complicated to actually get the materials separated enough to get value out of them.
Doug: Right? Well, there’s a few price vectors there that are not working, and it’s sad that people are saying that because that’s our only real hope. We can alleviate, we can tax, we can reduce a bit, but that’s not going to solve any of the problems of all the inventory and all the stuff that we still have to use. So the price mechanisms that are challenging is one is tipping fees. If it’s free to throw your garbage away then there’s no incentive at all for anyone to collect it or spend any money to recover it. So case in point, I live in Hong Kong. They’ve been debating for 15 years. It’s still free for everyone to throw away all of their garbage anywhere. So there’s zero incentive to sort it and gather it. In the US, we have so much land that it’s just a lot of states, a lot of waste is exported to different states because it’s cheaper to landfill in a state that only charges 25 a ton versus a state that charges 200 a ton. It’s worth driving 8 hours to do that. That is a problem. Another problem is subsidies on oil and gas production. That means it’s just cheaper to make virgin material because there are subsidies there that the recycling industry doesn’t have. So when you put all these things together, it’s tough. Now, what I was going to say with the old recycling systems built for paper, glass, metal, plastic then came along kind of contaminated the waste stream and the machinery and equipment is not built to handle thin films and multilayer films and it gums up the process. So the way that we are actually collecting and grabbing it from our houses and getting it to a facility where it can be sorted is outdated in almost all of the countries in the world. And as soon as you contaminate things with food waste then you really have zero as a byproduct unless you burn it and incinerate for energy or something. So in the US, the labor cost is too high in the western countries, labor cost too high for hand sorting and everything. We don’t have enough mechanical, optical and automatic sorting and recovery. So we were exporting a lot of the feedstock material to be processed in big scale plants in other countries that got out of hand. People were sending waste, people were sending waste illicitly as part of the batches of material really meant for recycling and then it would get to the buyer of that material in another country. He or she didn’t have the skills and machinery to process that whole mess of which maybe 60% was valuable and the rest wasn’t valuable. And that’s what started dumping illegally and burning in other countries when they couldn’t handle it. So a lot of that has been closed down in terms via regulation and whatnot, but we still need to be able to recycle. And one of the things we’re promoting is just to sort waste by wet and dry. What that means is organics and. Wet is totally separate and dry is everything else. It doesn’t have to be perfectly dry, but if you have plastic, paper, glass, metal, any community can sort that somehow if it’s by hand or by optics and whatnot. And then you have a recovery rate of two to three, four times higher than today when it’s mixed with all the food waste and everything from households and our normal waste operations. So we think there needs to be a real mindset change in the way that we just hone in on plastic and get that out of the waste stream vis a vis the other materials. Now going back to climate, this is a huge angle which also no one’s really talking about. Most mayors in the world have signed on to CO2 reductions. They want to be a clean, green city with less CO2 impact. So they put some solar up, maybe they have wind, maybe they have geothermal, do some building efficiency projects improve a little bit on the transport, that’s about it. They rarely talk about waste and landfills, but landfills and organics create methane and that’s 23 times more powerful than CO2. So that should be the number one place that we’re looking at to make a big reduction in any given city. And if you weed out the organics from the plastic and vice versa, both of those feedstocks now have value, much more value than they would have otherwise. So the organics can be dealt with in the right way for the soil or gasification and the plastic now doesn’t have to be cleaned and sorted and that omelet doesn’t have to be unscrambled in such a difficult manner, then you can really drive the scale on recycling. And that’s where we really have to be thinking about this. Because if we poo poo the failure of recycling in the past, which in a way is not true because anything can be recycled, the problem is the system is not set up properly to get all those families together again in economies of scale to be able to make it happen.
Dylan: So your response to Greenpeace and others saying recycling isn’t worth the effort, is it our only option?
Doug: They offer no solution that I’ve ever seen except for not using it and if we don’t use it, we won’t be able to run any of our lives. There’s not one person on the planet that can survive without plastic in some way, shape or form I would argue. So we have to be realistic about this. You need it for food. Food waste in itself is such a big problem with 30% to 40% just wasted either at the shipment level in the production supply chain, but also at the household restaurant level. And if you can’t preserve food, which you can’t do very well with glass, paper, metal, then we have a problem on the food side. People need to eat. You don’t want to grow crops and then have it be wasted in shipment. We need this material for the time being until something else is invented. And so now what we’re really trying to promote is how do we get that material to be useful in its second life, its third life, its fourth life, fifth life, whatever it is. But it’s got to keep circulating here. This is the whole circular economy angle.
Dylan: What do you think about reuse of plastic containers? So I think when we talk about recycling, we’re talking about melting down and creating new products with the same material again, but actually taking my detergent bottle, cleaning it, filling it with detergent again and selling it again. Is that a viable solution?
Doug: We should be pursuing it completely? So there’s no one solution anywhere that’s going to solve everything. But Tupperware called me one time a few years ago, because at that time, India came out with a very quick edict that said we’re banning all plastic. And everyone was in shock. And Tupperware has been in business for decades, and they said, what can we do? All of our products are plastic. And I said, yeah, but what you’re doing is incredibly useful and positive, because if someone uses there, and they do use this for this purpose in India and everywhere else, to carry your lunch for 20 years, one container. Imagine 20 years of saving from Styrofoam lunch boxes, which they still use in Hong Kong and many other places, 365 days a year. Times 20 styrofoam lunch boxes for one person can be saved from one Tupperware reusable container. You can’t just dismiss plastic forever. And if you can reuse models, it’s a great thing, because if one piece can save 100 from being used, that’s already a big scale of improvement. And then maybe at the end of 100, it gets ground up and becomes a piece of furniture, or it becomes a car part. There’s so many new ways with innovation and design that can take recycled content into new products. It’s just that a lot of brands aren’t thinking that way yet.
Dylan: Yeah, let’s use plastic for what it’s really good at lasting a long time, and use it for products that need to last a long time.
Dylan: Have you seen a good implementation of actual reuse or recirculation of existing products without melting them down and recycling them?
Doug: There’s groups trying to do that now with programs in the US, new York, Paris, and even in places like the Philippines where they use sachets very small packets for selling toothpaste and soap and detergent, because people can’t afford buying a big bottle that you’d buy from Costco, maybe from the US. They also have nowhere to store it. So they now have little trucks that drive around which have all kinds of bulk containers where you can come in and fill up your small jar of soap and whatever. But that’s only so scalable. And people are all about convenience. So to force people to bring their big jars and jugs. I’m not talking about the Philippines, but even in a city like New York and Paris and really being able to do this across cities around the world, that’s a real big reset in products and packages. So some can work. And I think it depends on how convenient that city is in collecting things back. And you have to remember, if it’s used for your own purpose, you don’t have to necessarily wash it and be so hygienic. But if it’s going to be washed and reused for another person and hygiene and food is related, then it has to be done in a proper manner. You’ve got to have the proper washing and all of that. That’s one of the reasons that glass bottles are not being shipped around everywhere and reused because it’s too expensive, they’re too heavy. You have to do all of the washing again for hygiene and it just becomes much more expensive than making a virgin plastic bottle, unfortunately. So there’s consequences each way, but there will be space for that for sure. It just probably won’t solve every problem.
Dylan: Last question about the recycling process. Isn’t it true that plastic can only be recycled a certain number of times? The polymer chains get shorter every time you recycle it and after a few cycles it’s not a useful product anymore, right?
Doug: So that’s a good question. So when I talked about going into the second life, third life, fourth life, in fact, the reincarnation coming from Asia and Buddhism, the reincarnation of that product, at least the material should have a second life, third life, fourth life in some cases you can’t take a plastic bottle and turn it exactly into a plastic bottle. Again, technically it’s very possible these days and much more possible because there’s more machinery and equipment to do that. But if you don’t have the right equipment, then you can’t do it because of food grade packaging laws and cleanliness and purity. But you can still take that product and change it to be a fabric or a different part of a different product. So when you look at governments and large companies who have tenders and purchasing orders, if they’re buying, just say a stadium. Imagine you’re buying and putting in a new stadium with 80,000 chairs and they’re plastic. A lot of people still will not think about whether those chairs are just bought from someplace in virgin plastic or they could have ten or 15 or 20% recycled plastic blended into them, which they 100% could have done that way. But the persistent guys are not thinking that. So the governments have a very big role to play to drive the demand for recycled content, because you can always blend some recycled content into most things. So it might not be from the original state back to the original state, to the original state, but it can be a blend that mixes and you have a chemical additive. Make it strong. Maybe there’s a color issue. But it’s all very possible that way. And at the end of life now there’s huge development. This is to me the biggest thing around because a lot of people don’t want incineration or they don’t want to waste fuel. Waste to fuel still is a viable option in many places. Many countries do it. You have to think that it’s much better to get rid of that waste and at least get clean energy. They all have scrubbers, at least in most developed countries, then to just leave it in a big landfill and have it bleed and leech and cause a problem. So that’s one thing. But going into concrete now, or asphalt, you can take mixed, dirty plastic, mixed meaning you don’t have to sort it, process it in a certain way, but not melting or burning, and get it in as an additive to make concrete stronger and lighter and asphalt roads stronger, less potholes, less wear and tear on tires. This is coming very, very fast and very interesting because it’s a way to absorb and make value from all the stuff that never will get recycled in a normal 90% of the normal world today.
Dylan: Oh, wow.
Doug: Another area that’s coming very fast is chemical recycling or advanced recycling, which is basically repolymerization of the dirty stuff. So you again take out all the clean recyclable material and that’s mechanically recycled, which is what we were just talking about. But you can take the dirtier plastic, which won’t get sent into a plastic bottle factory, and reliquify it, essentially relique it, refine it back into a polymer, clean it, and that new polymer comes out as the quality of a virgin polymer. That is pretty amazing. So those machines are huge. They’re multi hundred million dollar, $2 billion machines. France just announced a billion dollar plant. They need a lot of material. They need trade to happen. This is something we haven’t talked about, but trade and a global circular economy. But if they can do that with all of the dirtier stuff, then we take the clean stuff mechanically and the other goes to chemical recycling. There’s some options there. Some people believe that it takes too much energy and it does this. But it’s all being innovated, it’s all being done by multi billion dollar companies. They’ll probably find a way to do this, but it’s not going to be a machine that you can put in your village. These are giant, big, super Wally type machines, but there’ll be space for those in different hubs of the world.
Dylan: On the topic of machines, you told me when we met earlier that you have some ideas about where hardware can play a role in solving this whole problem. I’d love it if you could talk about that a little bit here.
Doug: Sure. So going from the machines and the Wally size, big city pieces of equipment, a lot of big companies go around the world and oh, I can make a contract with that big city and that big city and that big city. The problem is waste is distributed just like solar and wind. It only happens where there is wind or sun, which isn’t everywhere, but waste is everywhere because people are everywhere. And waste is in every village in every town and every community. And most of these smaller communities and towns do not have the facilities, the capacity, the technology to even do semi-processing just to get into the supply chain of recycling. So if your village of 200, 800,000 people at least had a grinding machine or a shredding machine, you could take all the plastic bottles and thick rigid material, which really is just air wrapped in a rigid piece of covering, which is horrible for waste maximization and efficiency. They grind that up. Now all of a sudden the size of their material is this big, but the weight is the same. But now they can create a huge we’ve done studies as eight to nine times. You can densify the material if you have a shredder and if you do some hand sorting, all of a sudden you might have 20 kilos or 100 kilos of the same material just by this one machine, which can now be sold quite easily to the entrepreneur or the recycler in the next bigger city who says, oh, now you have 100 kilos. I’m willing to buy that from you because I don’t have to do all that work of unscrambling the omelet and taking away what you just did. I’m willing to pay for it. But no one today has access to that. So what we really need is thousands, millions of small shredding machines, grinding machines, compressing machines that can help the smaller communities of the world get into the demand cycle, which is quite big now, and the recycled content supply chain. So we don’t need big machinery and equipment that goes into a big city. Most big cities already have their own sort of solutions. Whether they’re good or bad, they have them. And a big opportunity here.
Dylan: These smaller communities, they have a lot of plastic waste, but because they don’t have the means to sort it and grind it down to a size that makes it easy to ship and marketable, the next step in the supply chain. What this waste is just going to the landfill because that’s the easiest place to put it and that it’s getting burned, it’s burning.
Doug: This is the stuff that gets burned in your front yard or thrown in the ravine and the river takes it away. Yeah, that’s where a lot of our loss to the ocean comes from today, is that whole industry. And the whole problem is you’re never going to get funding for this from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and USAID because the machines and equipment is just too small. They’ll never get a bank loan for it because they don’t know how this thing works. And these machines may only cost $3,000, maybe a used one is $1,500. But you need to get these out into the province so that there’s 85 of them. So there’s definitely going to be an opportunity to aggregate the use of this machinery and equipment and propagate it into jurisdictions. But it’s not there yet. But this is where there’s going to be opportunity. Small scale. Mirfs Merf is a material recovery facility and to have a small scale one in the bigger city or the bigger town of a province or a county where people aggregate to, so the village is bringing to that and it’s a hub. And this little material facility covers employees, ten or 50 people. And now they’re sorting even by hand, especially if they use wet and dry. It’s much easier, it’s much more pure. Now they’re in business and they can now sell it to the next bigger city. And that’s what we need to propagate and that’s what we’re working on to try to bring in as well.
Dylan: Do the machines exist? And it’s just about the business model.
Doug: It’s all off the shelf. Okay? It’s all off the shelf.
Dylan: So it’s just about financing them.
Doug: And financing is a loose term because it’s cheap in a relative sense, but it’s so cheap that no one’s even looking at it in a way. There’s no VC is going to do anything in this space because it’s way too little of a price. But a village chief who needs $800 or $5,000 to get a couple of machines, he doesn’t have eight or $5,000, how is he going to get it? So there’s a big funding gap that exists right now, but once that happens, a lot of benefits start happening. You’ve cleaned the community. The community is engaged in this kind of material. There’s jobs for sorting and there’s great manufacturing sales opportunities for countries that can make good equipment and export it. What we don’t need is the giant super duper, high tech machines from the west that are just too expensive for most of these places and too big at scale for the communities. Of course, they can be very effective at the large aggregator, large processor end to make really good quality final product of feedstock and pellets. But you don’t need that kind of technology and equipment to be on the ground, localized in all the communities around the world.
Dylan: It’s frustrating because it just feels like that’s such a clear opportunity and there should be business value there and everything, but there must be something preventing it from happening.
Doug: Well, I think it’s close, but it’s not as easy as you think. There’s not that many people out there who know all the different countries, and they don’t know where to get the machinery, and they don’t know that there’s an export opportunity on that island. There’s just not the people like we’re doing. I’m only one person, and I have a few with me, but we can’t conquer the world. And I don’t make machinery equipment, but I know people who can, and I know where the projects can go. This kind of comes back to funding donors. Often, if they’re just giving philanthropy money to build a school, buy some books, build a latrine, they never ask for a payback on anything. They just donate that money. But if you think about impact donations and impact philanthropy, why don’t you donate to the entrepreneur who needs a $5,000 machine? And why do you need to ask him for a payback just because he’s making some money? Why do you need to get money now on your donation? This is where the whole system breaks and people, the donors, think they can’t donate. If someone’s going to make money. Well, this guy’s never going to get out of the starting gate if he doesn’t have that machine. So give him a machine, and it would change the whole economy. You gave him a school, why don’t you give him a machine? This is something that really has to change, I think, in the impact philanthropy or there’s a big opportunity to make it happen. For those people thinking that way, thinking.
Dylan: About the future, what do you think the long term solution looks like? Do you believe there’s a world in our future where we don’t have plastic at all? Or do you think it’s more about really solving the recycling problem? Where do you think we’re headed?
Doug: 100% impossible to have a world without plastic unless we all want to be cavemen again. There’s not one thing we can do in our daily lives without it. I like, okay, there might be a few, but in general, cannot. Cars, medical, food, computers. So we’re going to have it.
Dylan: Okay, maybe a world without petroleum based plastics.
Dylan: Single use or single use plastic. Sure. Yeah.
Doug: Or single use. There’s a lot of silly plastic, stupid plastic that all packaging. And you don’t need to have a lunch box with styrofoam and a plastic bag and a plastic spoon and come on. So all of that can be weeded away, but that might be 20% of the overall global inventory. We’re still going to have 80% that we’ve got to deal with. Even if it’s a chair that’s been around 20 years and then it gets degraded by the sun. What are you going to do with that chair? You could throw it in a landfill. You could burn it. You don’t want to do either of those. But you could grind it, chip it, it could become concrete, could become asphalt, could be part of another chair because you blended it now with a new way to do that, with recycled content. So I think there’s a huge opportunity in this space. So a lot of your listeners might know about the UN plastic treaty that is being negotiated right now. It’s due to be finished by the end of 2024. The feeling of this treaty, obviously, is meant to reduce plastic pollution. So 190 countries have signed on to at least say that they want a treaty to reduce pollution. A lot of the themes and discussion is around reduction and punitive measures, taxes, bans, but reuse, alternative use, different use. But that’s only going to solve some parts of the problem, not a lot of it. And recycling has to be a huge, basically reboot. We need a big reboot for recycling around the world in a way that we recover material and allow it to be traded. And this is contrary to what a lot of people are talking about. They think that the trade of plastic is the trade of waste. In the olden days, meaning even five years ago, there was illicit trade, there’s corruption. Sometimes the plastic that was meant for recycling was mixed with other bad batches of stuff. But a lot of that has been alleviated because of the eyeballs and focus on this issue in the last few years, even with COVID a lot of the illicit recyclers who were the buyers of material in different countries went out of business because they just simply couldn’t get material and survive during COVID So a lot of the illicitness is gone, regulations are improved, but that doesn’t mean we should lock our borders down and not have trade. So a circular economy we have to think about. A lot of people don’t really think about this. Is it meant for my county only? Is it meant for materials in my state, or is it meant for materials globally around the whole world? And we would argue that for plastic, it really needs to be global. Because if you force every single country to have its own circular economy, its own processing, its own big equipment, its own manufacturing to absorb material into, to use again, that will never happen. There’s just not the resources. There’s too much replication. That’s not taking advantage of competitiveness, competitive advantages. So we need to do what we’re talking about: get all these smaller machines and equipment into communities that can get into space and get into the supply chain. Even at a pre and semi processing level where they’re granulating it, they’re chopping it, maybe cleaning it, sorting. Then they can enter the economy. They can be part of money making, job creation, but then they sell it to the next bigger aggregator. And the bigger aggregators in the other countries have the bigger machines, the high tech machines, the quality control, although this material can be checked, verified, and it’s legitimate, but it has to be allowed to happen. And one of my fears in the treaty is that the feeling is we want less trade and we don’t want any trade in plastic material. And I think that will be a giant backfire on the world if that happens. So that’s a space to watch, that makes sense.
Dylan: And to tie it back to something you said earlier. If I understand right, France I think you said France has this billion dollar facility now to do what you call it chemical recycling?
Doug: Chemical and advanced recycling, yes, chemical and advanced recycling.
Dylan: With a good trade system, we could get enough material from around the world to that facility to make that make sense.
Doug: That’s exactly right. What is not being discussed at all, really, even by this industry, is how to make that happen. Most of the trade talk on plastic today is for mechanical recycling and that’s the cleaner, easier stuff. So if you get a whole bunch of plastic bottles and you bale and flake it, everyone can see that that’s a nice bale of plastic bottles and it’s going to go to a bottler and become a new bottle. That’s easier to trade. If you’re trading the mixed dirtier plastic feedstock, which the chemical recycling industry could use, that is not where the regulations are really focused today. So moving that is even going to be harder. And that’s where a big focus should be if those guys want to be able to get feedstock across borders.
Dylan: Okay, I have a few last closing questions that I ask everybody. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of our planet and why?
Doug: I am cautiously optimistic.
Dylan: All right.
Doug: There’s a lot of the technologies, actually all the technologies, many people say that could solve all our problems already exist. They’re out there. The problem is we can’t find them. We can’t get them scaled, we can’t get them funded. The policies don’t allow them to be used. So I think there’s going to be a bit of pain in the fluctuation of everything we’re seeing today. The weather, the dryness, the storms, the problems, food. But there’s a lot of new things coming out and there’s a lot of opportunity. This is going to be the next revolution, really the environmental revolution for sure because it will take that to really make all the changes we need. So this is a giant time for entrepreneurs and the environmental space. Just my word of advice would be please think globally when you’re creating these technologies and exporting and using them for everyone, not just trying to sell it into your own local domestic market. That’s one of the problems. A lot of people aren’t thinking of how to get it into markets all around the world that need to use it.
Dylan: Good advice. It is a global problem. After all, who is one other company or person doing something to address climate change that’s inspiring you?
Doug: So what I see is an amazing opportunity, and I think I mentioned this before, is the ability to use mixed dirty plastic. To me, that is the holy grail of a lot of this problem. The good recycling material is easy enough to get even though we’re not doing it well. It could be done better, but it’s still relatively easy. But it’s the mixed, dirty plastic, whether it’s coming out of the river or ocean or just mixed with food and everything in the city life, to be able to turn that into concrete and be an additive that makes it stronger, lighter, insulated and even more valuable than it was as mixed plastic for a long term product is a company called CRDC out of Costa Rica, and the product is called Resonate, with an eight at the end. This, to me, is taking the world by storm. It’s still relatively small, but it’s highly developed. It’s not just grinding some plastic together and trying to mix it with concrete because that doesn’t work. They don’t bind the way this is done, it is incredibly binding and it does make it stronger. So to bring three or 5% weight differential in concrete moved around the world, that’s a big transport and fuel savings. So when you actually here’s an interesting factoid. If you took all of the world’s plastic made every year, which is 370,000,000 tons, roughly, that’s in a dead weight, not blown out into all the products that it becomes, and you threw that all into the world’s cement industry use annually, it would only be 3% by weight. So everything technically could be absorbed in concrete and no one would even flinch at it. To me, that’s a giant opportunity. So watch the space on that one.
Dylan: Yeah. And if I understand correctly, one of the big values of that, it turns something that’s otherwise not really useful or has almost zero value, this mixed plastic, into a valuable item. It creates a demand for that, right?
Doug: And imagine low cost housing you can build, put this into concrete blocks, the local community can collect it. You can get a whole engagement program going on getting that material, as long as it’s processed the right way to then be able to bind with a concrete, which is what this technology has the patents for. But it’s, again, the interesting thing. It uses machinery and equipment that is off the shelf. So it’s easy enough to be able to put this into communities around the world and localize, both collection and the use of it, as long as people taught the right method to do it. But you can get the machines and equipment from any country and that’s pretty amazing.
Dylan: Super cool. Yeah, I love that. What advice do you have for someone who isn’t working in climate or the environmental space today, but wants to do something to help?
Doug: Well, all hands on deck. I mean, there’s so many things you could do, even if it’s donating money, if it’s volunteering, if it’s reading up about some causes that you’re interested in, it might not be plastic. It might be water, it might be animals. We’re losing ecosystems and species very rapidly. We really need everyone to be aware of something that they like. Pick something that you like and that you want to protect and learn about it. Go to a lecture, go to a podcast like this. Go to a museum or wherever it is to learn more about it and then be an advocate. You don’t have to be mean about it, you don’t have to force people to do it. But if you have a few facts and figures and bring it up in a good way, you can inspire young and old, and I think that messaging is very important for all of us to be able to do.
Dylan: Awesome, Doug. That was really fun. I learned a lot and I’m really impressed by the scope of the work you’re doing and all the impact you’ve had over your career. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.
Doug: Thanks for having me, Dylan. Look forward to seeing you again.
Dylan: Hardware to Save a Planet is brought to you by Synapse. To find out more about us and how we develop hardware solutions for the world’s most ambitious companies to synapse.com and then make sure to search for Hardware to Save a Planet in Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts, or anywhere you like to listen, make sure to click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at Synapse, thanks for listening.
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