CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this inspirational new podcast series entitled This Is How We Planet, brought to you by Nestlé Waters and iHeart. I'm your host, Charlie Arnolt, also known as WWE personality, Charlie Caruso. So, the question, how do we planet? And why is it important? I’ll tell you why. Because Earth is it. It is our only address. There is no other home we can just skip off to if this one doesn't quite work out. It deserves and needs the best from us, all of us. And the only real way to help protect, preserve or change it for the better, is to do it together.
Now, each episode takes an in-depth look at the people, and the organizations, that make our planet a better place in ways big and small, in our communities, across our country and also around the world. We'll focus on areas such as disaster response, children and health, water stewardship, recycling and so much more.
We’ll also recognize PLANET HEROES in each of these areas whose work goes above and beyond. And the best part - you, our listeners, will even have the chance to nominate your own Planet Hero to possibly be featured on a future episode.
In this particular episode, which we're calling “Stop Trashing Plastic,” we'll examine the role of plastic in packaging, why plastic waste continues to be a major concern, albeit the solutions aren't always clear, and finally, what some companies and corporations are doing about it. Joining us are several experts and environmental leaders who can help us better understand some of the topics that I just mentioned. So, what do you say? Let's get to know our special guests.
Our first guest is Ron Gonen. Ron is the co-founder and CEO of Closed Loop Partners. It's a New York-based investment firm and an innovation center that is focused on building a circular economy, and is the only company of its kind in the U.S. So hello, Ron, welcome to This Is How We Planet.
RON GONEN: Thank you. Glad to be here.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: We are so happy to have you. And let's move on to our next guest. Her name is Helen Lowman. She is the president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful, which I'm sure we've all probably heard of before. For 67 years, it's been their mission to inspire and educate people to act every day to improve and beautify their communities by ending littering and improving recycling.
HELEN LOWMAN: Hi. So glad to join all of you today.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: We cannot wait to get your insight on what we're going to discuss coming up here soon. But before we get to that, let's introduce our next guest. And she may as well be called “The Queen of Recycling,” as she is your go-to if you're ever confused on what to recycle or even where to recycle. She is Keefe Harrison, the founder and CEO of The Recycling Partnership. The Virginia-based organization is on a mission to clear up the misunderstandings and misleading information about community recycling services. Hello Keefe.
KEEFE HARRISON: Hey Charly, very glad to be here today.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And with that, please allow me to introduce our final guest on this episode. Her name is Julie Gehrki. She is the Vice President of Programs for the Walmart Foundation. In this role, Julie leads philanthropic investments for Walmart and the Walmart Foundation and helps to shape shared value strategy for the company. The Walmart Foundation invests in initiatives focused on sustainability for people in the planet throughout the supply chain. Hello Julie.
JULIE GEHRKI: Hi Charly. Thanks for having me.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Of course. I'm so excited to have all of you here. I know this is going to be a super interesting and compelling discussion. So, I say we get started and I want to start off by asking you, Ron, why do we use plastic for packaging? And with that, is all plastic created equal?
RON GONEN: We use plastic for packaging because it's lightweight. So, it requires little energy to transport. It's also very malleable, so you can use it to form around a number of different products. So, there are a lot of advantages to the use of plastic, but there's also a lot of risks to the use of plastics, meaning if it's not properly recycled after its use, all of the great benefits of plastic move over into the risk and destruction side because of the harm it can do to the environment if it's left out in the open.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And how often does that happen, where it is not properly disposed of or recycled, like you said?
RON GONEN: It varies widely, depending on where you are in the world. We have parts of the world where almost 100 percent of the plastic is recycled. We have parts of the world where it's recycled usually around 30 to 50 percent. And then we have large parts of the world where none of it is recycled. And so, the good news there is that we have great examples of how to ensure that plastic gets recycled, and we should all strive to try to replicate those models.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: So, I guess with that, Keefe, I'm wondering...we've just mentioned there are some parts of the world where there are large amounts of plastic that aren't recycled. So, how does discarded plastic impact the environment?
KEEFE HARRISON: I think the stat that listeners should keep in mind is that if we don't change the way we manage plastics, meaning the amount of plastics that are lost to the environment, by 2050, there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish.
And that should be enough to motivate us to make sure that this valuable resource, something that protects goods that are delivered to home, end up in the places where we can make sure that they don't accidentally escape into the environment. I also think it should be our big alarm bell that we need to do more to make sure that more types of plastics are recyclable, but that we also think carefully about when we use those plastics in the first place. They provide a benefit, but only if they're appropriately applied.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: What you just said really alarms me. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish…
KEEFE HARRISON: Yes, and…
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: ... in the ocean.
KEEFE HARRISON: ... it's in the food you eat; it's in the air you breathe. We need to understand that it's not just the big particles that we see or the big pieces that we see. It's easy to put it on a container, to think about this container floating in the ocean. But it's also about microfibers that come off of our clothes and go into major waterways and build up over time. So just as, you know, I think we're all tuned in to the fact that mercury is a challenge in eating seafood because there's a buildup as smaller fish get eaten by larger fish. Same is true with plastics.
HELEN LOWMAN: Charly, could I just add…
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Yes…
HELEN LOWMAN: ... something?
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Of course.
HELEN LOWMAN: This is Helen at Keep America Beautiful. And I mean, I think that your question is really interesting because it's about how plastic or an item that's made of plastic is discarded. And there's a correct way to discard of it and then there's an incorrect way. And the correct way is for it to be recycled, as Keefe and Ron have said. And the incorrect way is it being littered. And when it's littered, that's what they're alluding to, is that it ends up in the ocean.
And so, most of what's in the ocean starts on land. And so, it's easy for us to prevent that just by discarding of it correctly. And the impacts of litter on the land are more than environmental. They're also economic. You know, home values in littered communities are much less. Crime can be higher. There's health consequences to litter and to things not being discarded correctly. So, the impact of how we discard plastic, and anything for that matter, is much greater than I think many of us realize.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Julie, talk about some ways that Walmart is trying to promote proper recycling of plastic and using its different resources and affiliates.
KEEFE HARRISON: One of the things, and the concept we talk about in this space, is a circular economy. So, instead of waste and products really ending up in landfills or various things, how do we close this loop? How do we, for everything we take out and produce, how do we make sure it stays in use? Whether that's because the product is really designed from the beginning to stay in use, or through recycling. And that's really the aspiration I think is shared by all of us on this call, is building a system where that happens.
And so, for example, in Walmart we have in our operations plastic waste. Two examples I'll use are once we ice the cakes in the bakery, the tub the icing comes in, the flowerpots that lawn and garden is shipped in, that is plastic waste from just keeping things safe, food safety, plastic is often tied to those kinds of things in our operations. We work with a company called Olivette, who takes those plastics back and turns them into things like dog bowls or kids' potty seats that are made out of plastic. And we sell them as Walmart private brands. And so, that's an example of a closed loop where what could have been waste, instead it's turned into something that has additional life and functionality. And in 2019 alone, Walmart was able to use 4.7 million pounds of plastics from our operations to create private brand goods. So that's what you want to see.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And can someone else speak on closing this loop? I know that that's the goal. It's always the goal, but how often do we see individuals and corporations and companies actually going forth and closing the loop?
RON GONEN: We are starting to see it more and more because more companies are seeing circular economy business practices as a major business opportunity, not just something that's part of their environmental initiatives. And I think we'll continue to see it accelerate in the coming months and year.
KEEFE HARRISON: This is Keefe…
JULIE GEHRKI: And Ron, I don't know if it's worth talking about. You know, some products are easier than others. So, we're working with people like Ron on some of the tougher products. Things like a plastic bag, that's a great example. In the U.S. alone, there are about 100 billion plastic bags used a year.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: A 100 billion.
JULIE GEHRKI: A 100 billion.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Wow.
JULIE GEHRKI: They last... the average life span of that bag is about 12 minutes and then only about 10 percent of those are recycled. Now then, how do we solve that, and how do we build industry coalitions that are really working together? And Ron, I don't know if you want to share some of the work that, that looks like.
RON GONEN: Sure. I think everybody's aware of the environmental challenges around plastic bags when they get out into the environment and the harm that they can cause, but let's take a moment to talk about the economic damage they do today without any type of recycling or circular economy solution. Plastic bags can't be recycled, so they have to go to a landfill. American cities today, in total, spend over 100 million dollars in tax money landfilling plastic bags. What we've been doing with plastic bags is no longer sustainable from an environmental standpoint, and it's actually no longer sustainable from an economic standpoint. And so, an initiative where Walmart is one of the leaders, along with Kroger and Target and CVS, is to build an industry consortium that looks at what are some of the next-generation solutions for an alternative to the plastic bag, or we stay with the plastic bag and we find a way to recycle it. But this initiative is important because if only one company tries to solve it, it ends up not getting adopted by society because the recycling infrastructure that's out there, or if it's compostable, the composting infrastructure that's out there is unable to look out into the field and say, "Oh, that's a Walmart bag" or "Oh, that's a Kroger's bag." There needs to be a uniform solution across the industry.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: … So, they're being singled out.
RON GONEN: Absolutely.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Keefe, did you want to jump in a little bit earlier?
KEEFE HARRISON: Here's what I'd add. When we're thinking about the circular economy and we're thinking about plastics in the ocean, I think everyone can very quickly jump to recycling. And as the newly dubbed queen of recycling, I feel like it's fit for me to say that recycling alone will not solve this. Recycling will not solve for all the material in the ocean. Recycling will not solve for the circular economy. Really, what we need is a system change. And what gets me excited about collaborative initiatives of competitors, like we just talked about, is we're seeing really forward-thinking exercises of not just how do we put a Band-Aid on this? How do we do this a little bit less? We're thinking about how do we reinvent our approach so that we have a better solution for the environment.
I really get excited about system solutions and then I very quickly move through the seven stages of grief of how hard they are. And I think we’re all doing that as a world right now, where we know that we're going to have to dig in and do serious work. And the challenge that I often put out to the public is to think about their expectations of who is going to do the work. There's NGOs like ours and Helen, there's investment groups like Ron, there's companies like Julie and Walmart. And the truth is, we need all of those. We need private groups. We need retailers. We need the very companies that are extracting the natural resources have to be at the table for protecting them for the future.
HELEN LOWMAN: I'd love to add, just to emphasize what Keefe just said, I think this idea of a shared responsibility around waste is so very important. And I think there's, also along with government corporations, nonprofits, organizations like those that sit here, is also the responsibility of the individual. Individuals need to put plastic bottles in the recycling bin. And so, it is a shared societal responsibility to take care of this.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Now let's focus in on what we're experiencing right now with COVID-19. I mean, it has created a lot more difficulties. We're having to adapt, but I also think that we've seen some positive changes as far as the environment goes. I don't know that they've been longstanding, but at least for a while we were. So, Helen, I want to direct this next question at you, but I'd love for all of you to jump in because I think you'd have something to add. Has COVID-19 created more challenges when it comes to plastic waste?
HELEN LOWMAN: So, one of the things that Keep America Beautiful focuses on is litter. And really what we've seen is that the face of litter has changed. So, I spend a lot of time looking at litter, I know that sounds really exciting, but in the past, we would see a chip bag or a drink bottle or, you know, your regular normal litter. And now what we've seen is this enormous increase in litter made up of PPE. So, medical masks, gloves, plastic gloves and lots of wipes. You know, if you walk out of your grocery store and you look down at the ground in the parking lot, it's, at least here in my little town, it's full of PPE litter. And this is a real challenge because those things are ending up in our waterways and in our oceans. And I get that people are fearful of COVID, but we need to do more to make sure those items get into trash cans. Unfortunately, they can't be recycled right now, but it's really important that as individuals, we put those things that we use in trash cans.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Okay. So, I want to stop you right there. You said they can't be recycled right now. What do you mean?
HELEN LOWMAN: So right now, they're not, they aren’t items that we have the ability to recycle. And I'm not a technical expert on this, so I'm going to turn it over to Keefe, who is the queen of recycling and could tell you why those things can't be recycled.
KEEFE HARRISON: Yeah, masks and gloves are made of materials that are often multilayers and different types of materials. They're hard to sort. They're not recyclable and I think this gets to the heart of recycling can't solve for all plastics. You can't design away the challenge. You can't just educate the public to do it, so what we really need is a systems change. But COVID-19 has brought some real emphasis on what does recycling mean. So, we track carefully communities that have been impacted, so much so that they've had to stop their program. And right now, we know that there are still 65 communities who have stopped their curbside collection program, but that's half of who had temporarily stopped. The other half have restarted right away.
So, we know cities like Burbank, California; Baltimore, Maryland; Columbia, Missouri, they stopped for a very brief time because they were concerned about human safety. They were concerned about their workers and they put them first and then recommitted to reopening that program. And I think that's a pattern that you see regularly in recycling, is that there's a dedication to safety, a serious commitment to safety. And what silver lining comes out of this COVID impact when it relates to recycling, I think there's two things. One, safety. I keep saying safety, but that means that we are advancing more technology to aid in the collection and sortation, so that it's not just frontline workers who have to touch things, that they have technology to protect them.
And then the second thing I think has really become apparent because of coronavirus is that recycling is a supply chain. And by that, I mean, we were all scrambling to find toilet paper at one point over the past few months. You know, where a lot of toilet paper gets its start is from the recycling system, that a lot of recycled toilet paper is made from recycled content and that is a good thing. So, we understand the importance of keeping this infrastructure up, improving it, growing the technology that supports it so that we can have reliable stores of toilet paper, cardboard boxes, everything else. And so, I think that we're seeing interest in that from citizens all the way to Congress, of understanding that recycling is a way to protect our natural resources, and this is a good opportunity to make sure it's protecting our people as we protect the natural resources.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Julie, Ron, do you want to comment on how COVID-19 has created more challenges in terms of recycling or plastic waste?
RON GONEN: There's a much greater focus on local manufacturing coming out of COVID, which I think in the long term will actually serve to be a great benefit to the recycling and circular economy industry and to major brands and retailers. This is something that was talked about and recognized for the past few years in supply chain manufacturing, consumer goods circles, but COVID was kind of the kick in the pants to, "Hey, let's not worry about quarterly earnings this quarter. Let's focus on the long term."
JULIE GEHRKI: And I would say Walmart sits in the center of the comments my fellow guests made because we're in this ecosystem. We're trying to keep our customers and frontline associates safe and so are using PPE and various things, trying to keep that in the appropriate place. We're thinking about the long-term systems change. In those cities where recycling is pulled back, we're impacted by that. And then really have been for about, little over five years, have a big initiative on U.S. manufacturing and bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. That's really been beneficial in COVID and it strengthens supply chains. And so, I think what Keefe has said a couple of times, I couldn't agree with more. It is a whole system where we're going to have to use lots of interventions and lots of problem solving to get it all to work. Because like any system, when one piece changes, it has impacts across. And if you're a company, you often are impacted all along the lifecycle and can play a role at multiple intervention points.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Keefe, I want to ask you about a problem that you mentioned. Now with COVID-19, there's a lot of items that can't be recycled - the masks, the gloves. Do you foresee now these companies maybe realizing that these are being consumed like crazy and now maybe finding a solution so that they can be recycled?
KEEFE HARRISON: Yeah, so finding a solution really means that you have to start with, what could they turn into? So how do you turn a mask that's made from a lot of different material into something new, and then how do you collect enough of those masks or things that are very like it, to amass a whole system to turn it into something new? I think when we ask the question of “When are companies going to figure out that they have to do something about that?” that's a good question. The next question is “How are they going to do something about that?” And then it really becomes a challenge of understanding in markets and manufacturing, how do you turn something new? Because only when the economics of that manufacturing into something new work, do you get the environmental impact.
So, you're trying to build a whole system by that very pivot point of an old thing becoming a new thing, and that's what triggers the entire recycling system to come into play. So I think it's, you know, as we're thinking about how do we make more things recyclable, I think it's important to stop and say, "But are we recycling all that we can right now?" And we know that we're only getting a fraction, a third of the bottles and cans, boxes, and cartons that we could be collecting right now. So, what's holding us back? Well, the truth is only half of Americans can recycle at home as easily as throw something away.
So, Charly you're in New York City, if you have a trash shoot for your trash, but you have to haul your recycling somewhere else, I'm not sure how your building works, that's a challenge for you.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Absolutely. I mean, fortunately, my building, we do have a, in our trash room, we have an area designated for recyclables, so that's great, but 100 percent I used to live in a walk-up, six stories.
KEEFE HARRISON: Yeah.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: So, I would have to take my trash bags, carry them all the way down, put them in the trash here. I mean, so if I were to have to do that with recycling, too, I can imagine that it would make my life a lot more difficult. So, for sure, I think that convenience for a lot of people is going to be what encourages them to recycle.
KEEFE HARRISON: Convenience and cost. So, we're really serious about pairing up pointing the bin and making sure that everyone has the same opportunity that you have where they don't have to work harder to do the right thing, to be engaged. And then only from there, can we start to expand the type of things that could be recycled. So, what is it going to cost the U.S. to level up the system from where we are now? To recover just the standards that we know, all know of as recyclables? That's at least a $10 billion price tag just to level up. That means everyone has the cart, cities have new trucks, we've got proper sortation at the MERFs. And then we really need to give everyone the opportunity. There is an environmental justice point to this, of that, when you look at the populations that lack access, it's not just one state, it's not just one place, it's spread across our entire country. And there's a lot that we can do to make sure that every human in our country has the same opportunity to engage in the sustainable lifestyle. And with that, then we start to get the critical mass, so we can do the hard work on specific material problem solving. So, whether it's plastic bags, tubes, think about all the tubes that are in your bathroom right now, you know, more and more products are shifting from bottles to tubes. We've just built a coalition around tubes to help solve problems around that, polypropylene like yogurt containers. There's so much momentum that's happening to do that hard work, and I think people listening to this podcast might be thinking "What should I do about that?" Use your voice. Walmart is very interested in what their shoppers need. They want their guests to be confident that when they shop at their store, what they're leaving with, are things that can be accepted in their community for recycling. So, they're leaning into problem solve not only what gets put on their shelves, but what happens in the communities around the country, to make sure that solutions are there. And I think that's the sort of thing that we need to see more of. So, what will it take to make masks and gloves recyclable? A lot. Will that happen soon? Nope. But what we can see is a lot more opportunity for expanded recyclability of common things and then the growth of more things that can be recycled.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Well, you just said so many different things and I think it kind of begs the question, because you mentioned recycling or the convenience of it, the cost of it, happening on a national level, on a citywide level, on an individual level, on a corporate level. I want to ask all of you, and Helen I'd like you to begin the discussion, where does the responsibility of recycling lie? On what level does it begin?
HELEN LOWMAN: I would say what I said before, and that is, that it's a shared responsibility. You know, it's circular. We've been talking about closing the loop, this is a circular issue. And so, it doesn't start anywhere, it's a shared responsibility and everybody has a part to play.
JULIE GEHRKI: I would echo that, and Keefe shared this stat about the fish and the plastics in the ocean, I think part of it recognizes with us having a shared understanding that the trajectory we're on is not okay. You know, the World Bank says we'll have a 70 percent increase in waste by 2050, at just the path we're on. And you don't change trajectories like that with just one actor. You do it in coalitions; you do it with lots of people intermeeting around the chain.
Corporations have a role to play, whether it's early in the design process of packaging and products, what materials are used. Do you really need that piece of plastic over a doll as it goes to shelf, can you reduce? All of those pieces are early-stage design pieces that are important to be really thoughtful about and test new, more recyclable products so that what's on the shelf is better for the consumer. There are pieces of educating consumers. You know, Keefe's team does a ton of this, but the average person is really confused by what to recycle and how to recycle. And so, there's better labeling like how- to-recycle labels that are much clearer than kind of the numbers that many of us grew up with. Walmart's made a commitment to make sure that is on all of our packaging so that customers really understand what to do.
And then collaborations, like the groups in this podcast have, because it is through collaborating to make sure there's curbside recycling that Ron's work does that we've invested in or bringing municipalities together to really make plans and think together and share best practices that we've invested in with Keefe and The Recycling Partnership. Like, that work of really collaborating to solve at a systematic level is what it's going to take. Responsibility can't just live in one place because systems don't work that way.
RON GONEN: I echo the comments about it's a shared responsibility. There's multiple actors that need to take responsibility as part of the circular economy. At the same time, we oftentimes do need a leader to step up amongst those actors. And sometimes it's a political leader, sometimes it's a business, like what Walmart did in helping Closed Loop Partners get launched. Sometimes it's a community advocate, sometimes it's a bank. And that's why I think the comment about consortiums and industry groups is so important, because sometimes I think we kind of wait around for somebody to step up and be the leader, and I think it's really important as much as possible to try to build these industry associations and consortiums that cross political lines, get community groups involved, get brands involved, get all the actors involved because that's ultimately where we'll build comprehensive solutions.
KEEFE HARRISON: The other place that I think we could really lean into leadership is on the policy front. The U.S., compared to other nations, many other nations, is really lacking comprehensive policy that helps level the playing field between trashing something and recycling something, that rewards businesses that are foregoing the bottom line to instead invest in us more sustainable future. And that's a role that policy can play in this country. And we are actively working as an organization to look at, and advance pieces of policy that could fight some of the major headwinds that are holding back the success of future recycling.
So, we're thinking about the fact that landfill prices have not changed in this country in 30 years. So, it's for a community to make a choice to recycle, they're very often paying double, sometimes triple, to send something into the recycling system than into the landfill. That shouldn't be their burden to bear, right? That's some of the examples of the headwinds that we could fight and make a better system for all of us who are working so hard to make this a wide-cast reality, wide-cast solution. I am eager about the role that policy will play in building better solutions.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: So, the responsibility is shared, as we've just discussed. On what level should a consumer really take the time to be aware about what they're purchasing?
JULIE GEHRKI: I think even in that it's shared. We've made it really complicated for the consumer. We can do better at making it simpler, easier to understand. There are also economics at play. We often see customers on a budget buy smaller quantities because that's what their budget allows and that ultimately means more packaging because they're buying it more frequently. And so, there are things we can do to innovate to solve recognizing that, but we have to keep real people at the center of that, and really think about what day-to-day life looks like.
We really have to make it work for everybody, recycling and reuse can't be something that's elite. It's gotta be accessible and designed for real lives and how people live.
KEEFE HARRISON: I think that equal access piece is so important, Charly. We very often look at the case of global marine debris and see lots of little pouches as part of the problem in some countries. Those little pouches are delivering hygiene in the form of soap and shampoo that these communities might not have had before. And I cannot fault the pouch's ability to deliver something that allows those humans to live safer, healthier, better lives. I think what we really need to get to is, you know, when we're asking the question of, “What do we do with the plastics in the ocean? What do we do with little pouches? What do we do with things that are hard to recycle?” We're talking about them after they have been created and created a problem. Really, what we need to do is step back and say humans need certain goods. What goods do they need and how are we delivering to them?"
And we see that in shifts of packaging type, but I also think we see that in reuse models, so it's a balance. As consumers, it's our job to buy what we need, need what we buy and think carefully, because everything we touch, whether it's an elite green brand or not, has an impact on this world. That doesn't mean we shouldn't ultimately do them, but quantity matters. The other thing we can do is really lean into supporting companies that are putting the advancement of global health front in mind above profit by investing in firms, by investing in innovation, by partnering with nonprofits, like Keep America Beautiful and The Recycling Partnership, because they need helpers to get this done.
I often say, when we see a company that makes a pledge around sustainability, it is the role of The Recycling Partnership to insist and assist them in delivering that pledge. It's our job to, be there, to hold them accountable and help them. Because companies who make products for consumers are really good at that. They're not necessarily really good at providing the solutions to get them back, so they need legitimate partners.
HELEN LOWMAN: Charly, I know this podcast is about recycling, but both Julie and Keefe have emphasized the other two Rs, which is reduce and reuse. And I think it's important that we remember those, that they're also a part of managing waste. So, Julie talked about the packaging, taking the little piece of plastic off of the doll box because is it really necessary? And that's a great example of reducing. And then, refilling a bottle is a great example of reuse. And so, consumers have other options in addition to recycling that I think we should keep in mind.
RON GONEN: Can I offer an example of this specific to COVID? So, what used to happen in hospitals is that they would buy protective equipment, they would use it once and then they would throw it away, and then they would buy more. And that system went on for years, and no one in hospital management ever asked, "Could we save money if we could just sanitize all of this protective equipment? Because, if we were able to do that, then we wouldn't have to pay to send it to landfill and we wouldn't have to pay to buy new ones." No one ever questioned the status quo system, and so that's what just kept going on and on.
Then you have something like COVID and all of a sudden demand far outstrips supply and people start to innovate and say, "Wait a second. Now it's a life or death issue if we can't sanitize this protective equipment because we just can't get access to enough of it." And it took only a couple of weeks for some innovators to figure out how to sanitize protective equipment, and now you have hospitals where they no longer spend tens of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars buying new protective equipment, and tens of thousands of dollars landfilling it every year, they just continually reuse it by sanitizing it. That's a perfect example of how the circular economy helps an industry save money, save the environment, and in the case of the health care industry actually save lives.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Yeah, silver lining for sure, in the midst of what is absolutely a crisis going on in the world.
RON GONEN: I think one part of the story that's important to make sure always comes out is the alternative to recycling is very costly. It means sending material to landfill. And more often than not, when I'm interviewed by someone in the press, they'll say, "Well, this city spends $40 a ton to recycle. That seems like a lot. I know it's good for the environment, but it seems like it's very expensive. Why should we be subsidizing recycling?" And my question would be, "Well, let's say we didn't pay the $40, what do you think happens to the recyclables?" And I'm always shocked at how stumped the reporter is. And they'll kind of say, "Well I guess it," and they sort of take a guess like, "I guess it goes to the landfill?" "Yeah, it goes to the landfill, and how much do you think the landfill costs?" And they'll look it up and come back like, "Oh, the landfill cost $65."
And I go, "That means that if you don't pay the $40 to recycle, you pay the $25 delta to send it to a landfill." And that's a really important part of the story that I think needs to come out, that in most parts of the country, recycling is not a zero-sum game. It's not like you do it and you get a badge for being a good environmentalist or you don't do it and life moves on. If you don't recycle, your tax dollars need to be used to send it to landfill, and you then also miss the local business development opportunity of your local recycling facility, hiring people to process that material and sell it.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Wow. That's fascinating. Is there anything else that you can tell us? Other items that people think they're doing good, but really they're not.
KEEFE HARRISON: Oh, you're ready? All right.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Oh, I'm ready, let's go.
KEEFE HARRISON: And Helen, can you jump in here too, because we can, we can play some ping pong with this one. So, I think the number one thing that we see is people who really care about recycling often put all their recyclables inside a plastic bag and then put that plastic bag inside the recycling cart. The number one takeaway I hope you have is don't bag your recyclables, leave them loose inside your recycling bin because it's really hard to get them back out of the bag. So that's the number one aha that people often have when I'm talking about, when I'm talking about recycling.
Number two is questions about caps on bottles. Those are different types of plastic, but yes, recycle your bottles with those caps on. Number three would be the wild world of pizza boxes. I think people are often concerned about pizza boxes, are they in or are they out? We just finished partnering on some new research that decidedly went with, keep them in the recycling bin. They can be effectively recycled back into new things, and although pizza boxes are recyclable, pizza is not, so just get rid of the pizza before you put the box in the bin.
When we get to the world of plastics, it's the most challenging. And I think I'll leave you with one final thing that, even if it has the little arrows on the bottom, you know, the ones, when you flip a container over and there's the little arrows, that doesn't tell you that it's recyclable, it really just tells you what kind of plastics it's made from. It's more about its history, not so much about its future. I see your face, Charly and…
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: I'm…
KEEFE HARRISON: ... that makes…
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Everything I thought I've ever known, it's all been one big lie. What?
KEEFE HARRISON: So, I think this gets to the point of like, why is it so confusing? Why is it different when I go to work, back when we used to go to work, why is it different when in my office, than in my home or in my, this town where I used to live? And it's because recycling is determined by each local town or region. There are more than 9,000 individual recycling programs and they're all doing their very best to figure out how they want to recycle, how they interact with, how they send it to markets. And what could really benefit would be policy that helps us level the playing field, so that it's consistent across the country. Then all my party tricks about what is and isn't recyclable will go down the drain because it will just be very easy.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Well, I guess that's a game that you would like to go away, if it can produce some really great results.
KEEFE HARRISON: I'll find a new hobby.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Is there anything that anyone else wants to add? I know we've touched on a lot, but there's still so much when it comes to plastic waste and recycling that I don't want to leave any stone unturned. Is there anything that anyone thinks might be valuable for listeners to hear, if they would like to start recycling as a whole, or maybe they'd like to start recycling more?
HELEN LOWMAN: I'd like to emphasize something that Keefe said, that I think is really key, and that is that literally you can live in one town and move two miles down the road, that has a different recycling service provider and what goes in that recycling bin can change. So, it's really important that individuals find out what's accepted to go in their recycling bin, no matter where they live or where they work because it is literally different, as Keefe said, in 9,000 different places.
KEEFE HARRISON: You know, people think about recycling as a way that they can engage in a more sustainable lifestyle, and they absolutely should. I think that we think about recycling as a gateway to bigger thinking about the materials that you have in your home, the exercises that you conduct as you're with your family, the way that you live your life. And it's really an outlet to this bigger concept of how you opened up part this conversation, Charly, of this is our planet. This is, this is our life, and it's so beautiful.
And if, COVID hasn’t awakened all of us in the importance of appreciating every moment, then we're, we're really missing out on something.
So, I would just end that I do this work because I care very deeply about this planet and it has been a long, hard, sometimes frustrating road, but never have I seen more commitment, more momentum and more opportunity for the real system change we need, to deliver a better outcome.
JULIE GEHRKI: Yeah, I'd build on what Helen and Keefe just said, which is there's reason for optimism, as hard as it is, and as much as we need to grapple with the reality. A recent study showed that plastic flow to the ocean could be reduced by more than 80 percent by 2040 using existing solutions. So that means scaling it so that the person living two miles and working two miles apart, doesn't have different realities. That the solutions that are in play really are available for everybody.
And then I would say we've never seen more energy around innovation than we have today. And the number of circular economy companies that are coming to play, the number of large companies like Walmart that are collaborating with others to really think differently. I think there's a lot of reasons to be hopeful. The consumer is more aware of waste than they've ever been. But we have to keep that energy up. I love the idea that recycling is a gateway to larger thinking because it really will take this holistic approach to our planet to really get where we want to be.
HELEN LOWMAN: And the generations coming up care about this topic more than we've ever seen, and that's so hopeful. It's so great to see them so passionate about this. I mean, they get it. They get that we have one planet, and we have one place to live and this is it. And so, I think there's just that innovation that Julie talks about, is going to come from them. I mean, they're an amazing generation.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Well, I think that we've really just come full circle from the introduction of this podcast, to Helen, your latest comment. You know, we do only have one place to live. This is it. Earth is our home, if we destroy it, there's nowhere else to go. So, it really is up to us to help sustain our resources together.
Well, I truly appreciate speaking with each and every one of you. I think your passion is incredible. I appreciate your insight and your perspective, and I know I for one, have learned so much, so I want to thank you.
KEEFE HARRISON: Oh, thank you. This is a lot of fun.
RON GONEN: Thank you, Charly.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Well, as you just heard, this episode touched on just a few of the dedicated organizations and individuals who have made it their mission to reduce, reuse and recycle.
And now we would like to highlight a very special family that has been committed to closing the loop for a very long time. In the mid '90s, the only commodity being actively recycled in a commercial setting was white paper. Texas residents Kerry and Becky Getter saw the need to change the way their state recycled, and so they founded Balcones Resources in 1994, in Austin, Texas. Fast forward more than 20 years and Balcones Resources is now the largest independent recycling company in the Southwest and one of the top 50 in the United States and Canada.
So how did the company take a concept to not waste resources that can be reused and turn it into a thriving business that now includes commercial and institutional recycling, residential recycling and more? Well, I recently spoke with Kerry and his son Richie about Balcones Resources' amazing growth. So, let's hear from them about why the idea that drives Balcones Resources is simple - that being, don't waste resources that can be used again.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: All right. Well, without further ado, I am so excited to now welcome in Kerry Getter, the CEO of Balcones Resources and his son Richie. Hello gentlemen.
KERRY GETTER: Good afternoon.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: I'm super excited to talk to you guy. What an interesting background and how innovative you two were at a time when people weren't even thinking in the same direction that you were, so let's get right into it. I'm curious, how did you take the concept to not waste resources that can be recycled and then turn it into a reality?
KERRY GETTER: Well, my brother and father started a recycling company in Dallas, back in the mid-seventies. And there was a lot of material being thrown away and we first started out as a service provider to the commercial printing industry, which was supplying material to tissue and tallying mills, which first used paper to recycle much earlier in the last century. But it grew out of necessity and one thing evolved to the next and we find ourselves here today being one of the top 25 recyclers in the United States.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And how do you now, how do you work with businesses and also organizations to improve their personal recycling programs?
KERRY GETTER: One of the things that we do, and have done for a long time, is really tried to understand what the makeup of a waste stream is. And we look at the materials that go to the landfill, and if there is value in those materials, we try to figure out ways to integrate a collection program nearest the point of generation as possible. And in many cases in the large manufacturing settings, we've been able to reduce waste hauling costs by close to a million dollars a month. And we've been able to document that and demonstrate that over and over. And that's a tremendous benefit to corporations and we're able to work with their environmental and sustainability folks and been quite successful with that, but really it's about evaluating the waste stream and trying to understand what the possibilities are, what can be diverted and what has economic value.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And it seems that over the years, more and more resources or items are able to be recycled. Is there a certain business that you've begun working with that makes you really excited about the future of recycling or any item that you now have begun to help recycle that wasn't possible in the past?
RICHIE GETTER: Yeah. I think, I think that plastics recycling has really matured over the last 10 to 20 years. And that's something that we just got into handling about 15 years ago. And so, understanding the chemical makeups of different types of plastics and packaging that's being produced out there and trying to understand how they best fit it into a circular supply chain has been a big learning curve for us, but it's also been one of the most interesting and most innovative part of our business today.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: And the guests on this episode of This Is How We Planet, all of them are so passionate about their work and recycling, so, I want to ask both of you, what makes you so passionate about your work?
KERRY GETTER: We have an opportunity to wake up every morning and do something positive for the planet and that's exciting stuff. And in the last 10 to 20 years, we've begun to get some recognition for that and that's exciting. Everybody likes a pat on the back and it's widespread enough now that we have about 250 employees, 250 families that we have to support and create a paycheck for every two weeks. That's a big responsibility and all of our folks take tremendous pride in what they do. So, as far as our company's culture is concerned, and the positive things that we create for the jobs that we've created and help sustain, as well as the benefit to the environment, are all things that get us charged up in the morning when we get out of bed.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Awesome.
RICHIE GETTER: I have a little bit of a different answer, but that was a good one.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: That was a good one. I mean, I feel like your father is a very wise man.
RICHIE GETTER: He is. He's been doing this too long. But, for me personally, I'm an outdoorsman, so I spend a lot of time on my mountain bike and doing volunteer work with various trail advocacy groups. So, for me, being in this industry and being able to create change and make a change and protect our open spaces and all these beautiful places we like to go and spend time in is really what keeps me motivated to continue to strive to improve what we do and how we look at the environment and how we handle materials that should remain within the supply chain that create value and enhance our environment from an outdoor standpoint.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Well, both of your responses certainly sound like amazing motivations to promote recycling and be in the business that you are. And I know that as individuals, we thank you for it, but also, I know our planet thanks you for it. So, thank you so much for your time.
RICHIE GETTER: Thank you, Charly, for having us.
CHARLY ARNOLT/CARUSO: Thank you so much, Kerry and Richie, for inspiring us to be our own PLANET HEROES, and thank you once again to our incredible guests, Ron, Helen, Keefe and Julie, for sharing the good work that they do when it comes to recycling. They truly make our planet better for all of us, not just for now, but also for the future.
Now I want to ask, do you know someone who is a PLANET HERO? How have they made your community or state a better place to live? We would love to hear about them and the work that they do. You can nominate them at www.thisishowweplanet.com, and we may feature them on a future episode. If you would like to learn more about the people and the organizations we've just spoken with, please visit that same site, www.thisishowweplanet.com.
Now, we hope you enjoyed this discussion about recycling. Thank you so very much for joining us, and we look forward to having you with us again for our next episode of This Is How We Planet. Until next time, I'm your host, Charly Arnolt, and This Is How We Planet.