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Episode 65: Ocean Plastic Solutions from Cities, Brands & Waste Collectors (Transcript)

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell with Susan Ruffo from The Circulate Initiative. Welcome, Susan. Thanks for being on Nothing Wasted today.

[00:00:35] Susan Ruffo: Thanks so much for having me.

[00:00:37] Liz: We're looking forward to talking to you and getting into a lot of what you're working on in terms of the ocean. Can you talk a little bit about The Urban Ocean program and how your group is working with cities to improve their waste management practices?

[00:00:53] Susan: Yes, I'd love to. Urban Ocean is a new program that The Circulate Initiative, Ocean Conservancy, and the Global Resilient Cities Network has just launched with five cities, primarily in South and Southeast Asia, but also including Latin America.

Our goal is really to get all of our partners working together on the issue of ocean plastics, but also unrelated issues that touch on waste management, circularity, public health, and other sorts of sustainability and economic development issues. Our theory is really none of us can do any of these things alone and we can advance all of our priorities if we're working together.

[00:01:37] Liz: Absolutely. Susan, how key are cities in addressing the marine plastic waste problem?

[00:01:43] Susan: To me, they're absolutely key. I take inspiration from the leadership that cities have shown on the climate issue. If you look at places around the world, what cities are doing in terms of reducing emissions, changing transportation, changing buildings, and really leading a lot of the discussion on what can be done on climate, I think cities can do this same thing on the ocean plastic.

I think that's because they sit in a place where they really have a lot of the authority to do what needs to be done in terms of thinking about waste collection, waste management, recycling systems. They also have direct access to their citizens, so they can do public awareness campaigns and education campaigns. They can pass regulations and incentives, like tax incentives, that really can help move things forward. I think they're an absolutely key actor that hasn't been engaged as much as they could and should be, and we're trying to change that.

[00:02:41] Liz: That's great. You've also said that part of the problem is that ocean waste isn't a priority concern for developing nations. How do you make it more of a concern for these governments?

[00:02:53] Susan: I think it's just a question of-- ocean plastic is very hard to put at the top of the agenda when you're dealing with, "Can you fight Covid-19?", for example. Or in the US, some of the issues that we're having now around racial equity. It's just a really hard issue to stand in isolation against some of the other things that governments are dealing with, whether that's poverty, or feeding people, or public health.

I think the key it's not a standalone issue. Ocean Plastic is not just about the ocean, and as soon as we start thinking about it in that way, it becomes much more interesting to city governments.

I wouldn't expect any mayor to tell me this is a number one priority is keeping plastic out of the ocean, but I would be really surprised if a mayor said they weren't interested in public sanitation, picking up trash, their public-- the job that they can create in South and Southeast Asia talking about the informal sector, their safety, and their dignified work. I think when you start to think about it as a broader issue it comes much higher up on the priority list.

[00:04:00] Liz: Definitely. Do you think it's necessary to customize solutions for each country?

[00:04:07] Susan: Every city and every country obviously has its own characteristics. You would never see a Seattle trash truck getting through the streets of Jakarta, for example, that's just not going to work. But cities are facing a lot of the same challenges. I think what we've seen when you look at city networks like the Global Resilient Cities Network is that they can learn from each other when they talk about the fact that they're trying to do a lot of the similar thing.

While Seattle may not be the best example for Pune, India, which is one of our cities in the Urban Ocean program, some around Indonesia may actually have some solutions that are directly relevant to Pune. And there may be some ideas from Pune that are really relevant for Seattle. If we start to think about some of these systems, in some places we're thinking about new ways of doing things. We're not parroting legacy systems like a New York trash system that's been in place for over 100 years.

Some places we're really starting from a very different place and there's an opportunity to think about what can be done.

[00:05:11] Liz: Definitely. That's a great way to look at it. Now, how in general do you envision the circular economy addressing the ocean plastic waste problem?

[00:05:19] Susan: The ocean plastic waste problem needs a whole spectrum of solutions. We need to start right at the beginning with the same principles that the circular economy has, so really thinking about how do we reduce what we're using and buying, how do we redesign and reimagine those products and different ways to deliver them. We need to think about how we really can collect, reuse, recycle the waste and the products that do come from those products, and then get them back and keep them into that system.

If you look at the circle, I always think about essentially waste management and ocean plastic as being a critical piece of filling that circle and keeping it whole. If you only think about the materials, redesign, and all of the other maybe sexier pieces of the puzzle, if those materials, no matter how recyclable they are, no matter how cool they are, if they end up in the ocean, they're still ocean plastic. They're still marine debris and they're still a threat to the environment.

[00:06:21] Liz: Definitely. Regulation is another means to address the problem, but what's the most effective way of doing that?

[00:06:30] Susan: I think regulation is going to be a key piece of the puzzle. I like to talk about policy because I think regulation always has a negative spin on it. It doesn't have to be negative, there are definitely incentives good to be put in place too, so I like to think about both sides of the coin. You need regulation to make sure that you don't have any [unintelligible 00:06:47] and you're keeping everyone up to a standard, but I think there's also incentives that you can put forward that you'll really see people start to innovate and take leadership.

I think there are really good examples around the world of some of the regulations that are having an effect. You can see new things like deposit schemes that have a measurable difference on the amount of plastic and bottles that you find out in the environment when they're put in place. I think there was an interesting lesson we can learn from EPR systems in different places in the world. I think there's also things like patching some things for recycling plants, or even allowing recycling plants to be in different parts of cities that can actually have a big difference in how those systems can work.

I think the key is really no one size fits all. You can't take a system that works in Germany and a few minutes you can plug it into Vietnam and make it work exactly the same, but I think there are definitely lessons we can learn.

[00:07:45] Liz: For sure. I like your positive spin to it because I think that's where you gain traction.

[00:07:51] Susan: Yes. I think there's a lot of commitment out there now on this issue, whether by government at a national level, a local level, from the private sector, from civil society. I think there's a lot of momentum there, and if you can get those leaders working together, I think that's a really critical piece of the puzzle.

I think we are seeing a lot of leadership in developing countries too. Indonesia has some of the most ambitious targets when it comes to reducing marine plastic pollution, so I think we have momentum that we can be taking advantage of. I think the opportunity is to look at how we bring all of those actors together in different ways, because clearly these aren't new problems, and clearly we've always known that everyone has a role to play, but the thing I liked about bringing together our panel was that for the first time you're really getting people thinking about how can we help each other get to where we need to be on our commitment.

[00:08:48] Liz: Absolutely. Speaking of the panel, can you give us an overview of what was discussed and what you see going forward?

[00:08:57] Susan: Yes. We had a great panel as part of the Virtual Ocean Dialogue. We brought together the chief resilience officer from Pune, India, which is one of our Urban Ocean cities. We brought the Global Resilient Cities Network, a representative of Coca-Cola, a representative to the Asian Development Bank, and representatives from WIEGO, which is an organization that works with the informal sector.

Not surprisingly, I think the key conclusion of that was really every one of those sectors is really important to solving the ocean plastic pollution problem, as well as working on waste management. For me, the most interesting conclusion is how they started talking about how they could be working with each other. If you look from the lens of the informal sector, there was a whole discussion about how city policies could really recognize those workers and help them to be more efficient at the same time that it's improving their livelihood.

If you come at it from Coca-Cola's perspective, Coca-Cola has committed to bringing back at least as much material and packaging that they're putting out in the world, but they don't have enough. They don't have the ability to actually go out and collect it themselves, they need to work with cities and others in order to make that happen.

For me it was about how you bring these different pieces together in order to show how they can be woven together in a more efficient way and, at the same time, basically deal with different problems. Not just the ocean plastic problem, but also employment, health, and economic well-being.

[00:10:29] Liz: What a great start, though, to get that pull together, all those constituents, and really growing in the same direction. That's huge, Susan.

[00:10:37] Susan: Honestly, it was a panel, so we could only have so many feeds, but if you really think about that picture, you also need someone from a national government up there because they're going to be key in setting some of the bigger frameworks and making sure systems are funded. You need private investors there, like Circulate Capital, who can really come in and help the small and medium businesses in that chain really develop and succeed.

You need small business people who are out there really being some of the innovators, whether that's a recycler in Indonesia that's going to add a new line to deal with the new material, or someone who is developing a new app in India that will help the informal sector be more efficient in their collection and actually sell directly to a recycling plant that needs what they're collecting.

[00:11:24] Liz: Amazing. I can't wait to watch it. If it's okay with you, we can put a link in our description of the podcast and let our listeners watch at their convenience as well.

[00:11:36] Susan: Yes, that would be great. Thank you.

[00:11:39] Liz: Okay, great. How valuable do you think it would be to reduce the types of plastics? What's been suggested, limited to three, PET, HDPE, and polypropylene. Do you think that will be helpful?

[00:11:55] Susan: I do think that'd be helpful. I'm not saying that those are the right three, I'll let the experts discuss that, but I think the key is simplification. Right now we talk about plastics as if it's one big thing, but when you actually get down to it, it's so many different things with so many additives. Even one product can have multiple different types of plastic in it.

In order for a recycler to be able to handle that product, in order for a city to be able to know how they're supposed to recycle it, it can actually be incredibly complex. Even for the average household. How many times have we all stood in front of a recycling bin and wondered, "Can I put this in or not?" That changes in every city you're in, no matter where in the world you are. Yes, I think simplification is important.

I also think simplification in concert, not only from the plastic manufacturers, the packaging manufacturers, the brands, because a lot of what they want out of their marketing adds to color, complexity, and other things in recycling. Then the cities, who actually receive those materials, they often get no say in what comes into their markets and what they have to deal within their waste streams in their recycling stream. Having the cities actually have a seat at the table and understanding what's coming into the market and how it can be simplified so they can handle it, I think it's critical.

[00:13:15] Liz: Definitely. We hear that a lot from our listeners and our readers, it's, "Okay, we did not have any say in this. You say it's recyclable, but by the time we get it, there's nothing we can do with it, so it ends up in a landfill." I think that's great to get those conversations going and actually find the solution.

[00:13:33] Susan: Yes, exactly. Technically, recyclable isn't good enough, we have to actually be able to recycle it.

[00:13:39] Liz: It's estimated that ocean waste represents more than 100 billion in lost recycling revenue. How much can that economic incentive be a persuasive argument for solutions to this problem?

[00:13:51] Susan: I think it's part of the picture, for sure. I do a lot of work in South and Southeast Asia, so when I think about an economic incentive, I think about the very first piece of that chain which are often informal collectors who were out there picking up things that they can then sell. The only reason they're going to pick it up is if it's worth their time and they can make some money off it because that's how they make their living.

You'll see in a lot of places, because PET bottles have value you won't see them at landfills, you won't see them on the street, you won't see them in the water, because those communities and those collectors are incredibly efficient when they have the right incentives. What you do see are a lot of flexible packaging, small little one-serving sizes of things like shampoo that come in very flexible thin plastic. Those have no value, so they don't get collected and you see them all over the place.

I think you start right at that level all the way up. I think the reality is -and this is where politics comes in- if recycled materials have to compete with virgin plastic, particularly when oil prices are incredibly low, the economics are really just not going to be in our favor. I think that's where policies can come in and help to adjust the scale to basically correct for some of the externalities they can be dealt within the market.

[00:15:16] Liz: Definitely. Did COVID set us back a little bit in dealing with the plastics crisis? With single-use plastics and the bans retreating for a bit?

[00:15:30] Susan: I think it did a little bit. I think the perspectives that we need to go back to single-use plastics because they might be safer, or that people might be afraid of reusable bags, or reusable cups, I think that did set us back a little bit. For me, I think it's also an important reminder, though, that that's, in a way, the tip of the iceberg.

The ban on very specific materials, they're really important. They target some of the materials and some of the things that are most found in the ocean and that cause the most harm to marine life, like straw, like plastics bags. But at the same time, they're a very tiny percentage of the plastics that actually ends up in the ocean. I think it's also as a friendly reminder to us that while that's important, we need to fight this fight on all fronts. That's why I think the waste management piece is so important, because you're dealing with it directly at the source, you're dealing with everything that's coming into the system and you're making it more efficient overall so that those materials never leak into the environment.

I think, yes, we have some grounds to gain back, but I also think that the fact that COVID has highlighted some of the issues that we have within our waste management system -and that's true whether you're in Thailand, or the US, or Europe- I think that will also help us shine a light on the fact that these systems are vulnerable. They're important for many reasons, not just for ocean plastic, and that we can actually do something about them.

[00:17:08] Liz: Is there anything happening in Asia, since you are such a big part of that, that would be a good lesson in the US?

[00:17:16] Susan: Yes, I think there are really interesting discussions that are happening in Vietnam about setting up an EPR Extended Producer Responsibility system and how that might work. I think that discussion we haven't had as much in the US, but I'm aware of. It's interesting to see other countries trying it. It's been in place in places like Germany for a long time, but obviously everything that works in Germany is not necessarily going to work in the US or Vietnam.

I think the discussions around how you apply some of those lessons are interesting. Not that Vietnam system will work directly for the US, but how you can adapt them to local circumstances. For me, those are some of the really interesting discussions. I also think there's a lot of interest in actually investing in innovation in these countries, both because of the priority to start up new businesses, have new jobs, get economic development. I think there are lessons to be learned in terms of how do you bring new entrepreneurs into the sector.

No offense, but the way sectors sort garbage and trash pickup isn't always the first thing that entrepreneurs want to when you think about a startup and what that looks like, so our work has been really focused on how do you show people that this is a really exciting sector and you can have a real impact, you can actually make money, and that there's room for innovation. I think there's some lessons that the US can learn on that front from places like Indonesia where there's a lot more open, I think, to these new ideas.

[00:18:56] Liz: Definitely. Data seems to be a key in making change in a lot of areas. Is collecting data on ocean plastic waste really challenging?

[00:19:09] Susan: It is. I'm not an expert on waste systems, but my understanding is those can be challenging in and of themselves. When you think about where the materials go after they are saved from a waste system, how they might leak out, where they go into the environment, how they get to the ocean, it becomes really difficult. This is still a relatively new field. We really only got the first estimates of how much plastic is going into the ocean in 2015.

There was a paper that was published in Science by Dr. Jenna Jambeck and a group of her colleagues. That was the first time that we really were able to actually get a grip on the volume, but that was using national-level data, it was done with modeling from the World Bank sources and information. It was a good first estimate, but I think that it's a hard place for us to start because if you're working at a city level or an enterprise level, it's really hard to translate that into, "Well, this is what's coming from my city and therefore I have to do this because this is where it's leaking".

I think one of our big challenges is how do we start to get baselines that are appropriate for action and how do we start to measure the impact that we're having, whether it's a plastic ban, or recycled content standard, or a beach cleanup, because we don't necessarily know how much impact each one of those things would have.

[00:20:44] Liz: Definitely. Like you're saying, to actually monitor and measure what we're doing to see if it's working, that will be extremely important. I'd read a little bit about your Incubation Network, can you talk a little bit about that?

[00:21:03] Susan: Yes. One of our big programs is The Incubation Network. We're working with partners across South and Southeast Asia, incubators, accelerators, we work with SecondMuse, which is an innovation company that looks at how you build ecosystems. The idea behind that is really how do you attract entrepreneurs into this sector, have them thinking about ocean plastic; and the circular economy, the full circle, everything from new materials all the way through to collection, cleanup, and what you do with the materials that you find.

The network is designed to basically find those entrepreneurs, bring them into the system, give them the tools they need to be successful entrepreneurs, like any incubator would. Helping them with business practices, but also to think about what are the conditions that are needed for those entrepreneurs to succeed. You need enabling policies, you need public education, public participation in a waste system, market, as you said, and demand for some of their products. The Incubation Network is designed to help the innovators themselves, but also help create the ecosystems around them that are going to allow them to see.

[00:22:18] Liz: That's great. I'd love to eventually learn more about that too. 

[00:22:23] Susan: Absolutely. We have some very cool innovators that are coming through our programs now, so it'd be fun to talk more about that and love introduce you to them.

[00:22:33] Liz: That would be great. How do you think climate change affects the plastics problem?

[00:22:39] Susan: I think there are complicated relationships there. Clearly virgin plastic, virgin resin is coming from fossil fuels. Developing that industry is never good for climate change, so I think we have to be really aware of that and the loops there, but when we start to talk about alternative materials, alternative delivery systems, that has helped climate implications too.

I think one of the really challenging things is really thinking about, "Well, if we ban one type of plastic, if we encourage companies to go back to glass, or to aluminum, or to paper, what does that mean for climate footprints?" Because a lot of companies actually moved to plastic in an effort to reduce emissions. They were like, "Plastics materials are lighter weight", they're able to transport them with many fewer emissions. I think we need to be honest with ourselves about the types of trade-offs that are on the table when we look at it and we make sure we look at the whole picture. I absolutely think that we need to be keeping climate in mind. It's not the biggest threat to the ocean right now, as well is for the rest of the planet.

[00:23:51] Liz: Definitely. Do you think any green stimulus packages could be part of a solution for this?

[00:23:57] Susan: Absolutely. My hope is that when we start to think about stimulus packages and recovery packages that we're thinking in a much more forward-looking way than we often have the luxury of doing. The way I think about it is I worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery several years ago in the US, and all the federal programs that were basically designed at that time were designed such that they encourage people to think about the impacts of climate change.

When they rebuilt, they will be building for future conditions, not the past conditions. Whether that would sea-level rise, or more rain, or more frequent storms. I think that's what we need to be doing now as we think about our green stimulus packages, our COVID recovery packages, we need to think about the vulnerabilities that we know are in the system, that have been uncovered in the system, and address those.

For the waste system, again, I'm not an expert, but I think if we can find the right experts and really sit down and think about that. What does that look like? What do we need to do about it? How do we start to encourage the simplification of materials that we talked about earlier? Perhaps there are more decentralized waste management systems that are more resilient, but also more effective and employ more people, if you're looking at places like Southeast Asia, in a more dignified manner.

I think there is a really important way that we need to think about this. I hate to use the word opportunity when you're talking about COVID, but I think in this case there is an opportunity for us to learn and do better.

[00:25:37] Liz: Definitely. You need to really take advantage of that when it happens. Whether it's an unfortunate thing like COVID or not, we have to find the bright spot somewhere, I think.

[00:25:49] Susan: Yes, exactly. If you think about it even just from an unemotional perspective, we don't want to be investing in things that we know are going to be vulnerable or broken in the future. It's just smart investment if you think about how we're going to spend this money wisely now to create systems that are going to be much more resilient in the future.

[00:26:14] Liz: Definitely. Susan, the big question, do you think the plastics crisis will be solved during our lifetime?

[00:26:20] Susan: I have to be optimistic about this, but, yes, I do. The reason I do is because I'm seeing groups coming together that haven't worked together before. When you get mayors, and chief resilience officers, and waste managers of cities sitting down with Coca-Cola and informal workers collected on conservation organizations, I think that's a really good sign because I think everyone has something to learn from each other.

I also think this is a solvable problem. We see it, it's tangible in ways that things like climate change maybe aren't always to us, so it's very real and present in everyone's lives. While there is room for innovation, new science, and new materials, there are also some very simple solutions. We know how to do this, we know we can pick up trash, we know reusable delivery models. We started with milkman and glass bottles for beverages. There's a lot of things here that we already know how to do, we just need to think about how we can reapply some of those [inaudible 00:27:30] and work them out in our complicated system. I'm optimist.

[00:27:36] Liz: That's great. Like you said -and I hadn't even realized- you said that the first time that we've seen the volume of plastics, that paper didn't come out until 2015, so I think progress has already been made. Even panels like yours getting those groups together, seeing a bigger picture, and all working toward that, it gives me a positive outlook as well, so thank you. Before we go, Susan, is there anything else you wanted to share with our listeners?

[00:28:08] Susan: No. As I said to you before, I am really excited to be having this conversation with you and that your listeners are interested and engaged on the ocean plastic issue. I think we in the conservation community have a lot to learn about the waste management sector, but I feel it is such a key part of the solution that the more people that are thinking about this and getting engaged, the faster we're going to be able to solve this problem.

[00:28:38] Liz: Definitely. Thank you so much for all the work that you're doing. We look forward to hearing more about the great work that you're doing in Asia and beyond. Thank you so much, this has been great and gives us all a lot to think about.

[00:28:52] Susan: Thank you very much for having me. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

[00:28:56] Liz: Sounds great. Thanks, Susan.

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