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The Human Side of Waste (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.

[music]

[00:00:26] Liz: Hi, everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Denise Patel, a New York based human rights and environmental activist. She's also the US Program Director for GAIA. Welcome, Denise, thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:40] Denise Patel: Thank you, thank you for having me on the show.

[00:00:43] Liz: Denise, we usually start at the beginning, so I'd love to hear a little bit about your background and what sparked your interest in the climate and public health.

[00:00:55] Denise: I am life-long activist, I started out pretty young in elementary school, even, if you want to go back that far, when we were given a presentation on recycling. I actually remember that, we had guest speakers come in and talk to us about recycling. I can also remember the day when I first learned about greenhouse gases, there was this picture in our science textbook of an actual greenhouse, and that's how they explained that to us.

Ever since then, I've been very interested in environmental issues and science. I was definitely one of those kids in high school who was part of the Environmental Club. I went on and decided to study Marine Science and biology, I was always fascinated by the ocean, but as a student in college- I actually went to the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida and I studied Marine Science and Biology there. I also discovered a lot of my interest in human rights work while I was there, I was on campus, I worked as a volunteer with a lot of environmental organizations, I also led a local chapter of students [unintelligible 00:02:13] to that, which was campus-based student-led human rights campaign with students across the country and across the world working and fighting for the freedom of Tibetan political prisoners.

Through that process, I really became more motivated and activated to pursue work in human rights and in grassroots organizing, because I did some of the campus organizing base. After I graduated, actually, instead of going into Marine Science and Biology, which served as a really great science background for my environmental work, I actually pursued activism full-time. I worked as a campus organizer with a student's Public Interest Research Group, I worked to organize committee organizations in New Jersey, where I grew, and then when I landed my first real full-time job, it was at the New Jersey Work Environment Council, I discovered a real affinity for advocacy, organizing and combining all of my interests.

The Work Environment Council is a labor and environment coalition based in New Jersey. I got to know a lot of labor unions really well, I got to work with a lot of environmental organizations really at the nexus of these issues that, often, pull communities and labor unions apart around chemical manufacturing sites and oil refineries. I did that for a number of years, about seven years before I decided to go to grad school to study Public Health. But the thing that really lit the next fire for me was after Superstorm Sandy hited New York and New Jersey. We were one of the first organizations, to recognize the need of protecting workers during cleanup efforts and during the storm itself.

As a state-based organization that works in groups across the state, we kept hearing from community groups and workers who really needed a lot of resources, and one of the questions that we kept getting, especially during the response and recovery stage, was around questions of public health. In the past, while I had worked really on developing environmental and occupational health policy, and worked to train workers in high hazard facilities, like chemical plants and oil refineries, I realized that I was at a point where I really wanted to continue to pursue that work, but wanted to gain a further level of expertise in the area.

I went to Columbia, I moved from New Jersey to New York, and I'm still here. I Went to Columbia, studied Public Health, I did a focus in climate change and health because I recognized, through what I saw during the storm and in the aftermath of the cleanup, that the way that our climate is changing, the way the environment is changing is really going to continue to impact public health at all levels, not just workers, but communities as well. The people who are going to be most impacted are going to be those on the front line.

The people on the front lines, to me, have always been the folks who are working in those facilities or in those places that are really impacted, either by the toxic chemicals that are exposed to, by the changes in the economy that shifts their jobs and leads to maybe losing jobs or gaining new jobs- really, building a green economy was a solution to that. The people who live on the fence line of the toxic polluting facilities or live in places where we see a lot of- in the case of Superstorm Sandy, it was flooding, but in recent years, in places like California and Northwest, places where there are a lot of wildfires. Or if you're seeing in the Midwest, there's more flooding, as we're expecting to see that in the coming week with the change of the season

Those were the things that really made me want to continue to pursue my passion in Public Health, recognizing those communities that I've had, the good fortune, to be able to work with through my work and I want to continue to work to support.

Actually, instead of doing work in public health directly, I recognized that we were also in a place where a lot of activists, myself included since college, have been trying to make a real impact on climate change policies for years, years and years. Clearly finding that the policy changes that were being proposed were not going to meet the needs and scale of what needs to happen to really blunt the climate crisis. To me, what that translated out to millions was people losing their lives or getting sick, to tens of millions or hundreds of millions, so I decided to work as a divest-invest network. I focused my attention on fossil fuel divestment, recognizing that at every policy change there are a lot of actors at play.

One of the things that we really needed to do was to change the politics around how we are addressing climate change. I did that for a couple of years and really felt I was in a good place where I could go back to doing work on public health, which is how I found myself at GAIA. GAIA is a great place where we work on waste issues, we're aiming to build viable solutions, and we do that by working with grassroots organizations around the country, who are building these solutions in their communities.

I'm also able to work with communities who are the most impacted by our waste systems. Those folks are the ones who live around landfills and particularly incinerators, which is where GAIA focuses its attention, we're the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. We are constantly exposed to toxic air pollution every time we burn any piece of waste that we have. We recognize that all the real solution to building a zero-waste system are both downstream, in the way we manage waste, but they're also very much upstream in where we produce the waste in the first place. It's a really great way to work on system change in a way that brings my passions together.

We, also, recognize that building zero-waste systems is a climate solution. For the most part, we spend a lot of time talking about plastic waste and recycling, or we talk about composting and food that gets wasted. At the end of the day, all of those also have significant climate emissions, so by buildings zero-waste systems we're also fighting climate change.

[00:09:45] Liz: Wow. What a background. I love that it started so young for you, that's true passion right there, that you found a way to really panel all of those together in what you're doing now, amazing.

[00:09:56] Denise: I'm lucky that it all came together that way.

[laughter]  

[00:09:59] Liz: True. We can't talk without mentioning COVID-19, since it's on all of our minds and it's impacting us on a daily basis. How is this impacting your work world?

[00:10:13] Denise: It's been very interesting to follow it, both from a personal perspective, as well as a work perspective. Personally, I was in New York, where's the epicenter of the pandemic. I have most of my family in the region, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. We have two nurses and two doctors in our family, a lot of extended families who are in the health care industry, so every day there is concerns for all of the people who are out there who are working so hard to treat patients and save lives and really recognizing that we are at a clear moment where there needs to be a lot more leadership, at every level. Not just government, but even within our communities of people building mutual aid's support and things like that.

For me, personally, it's been quite the journey since we slowly transitioned away from working in our offices. We actually had two weeks of meetings planned where our entire team was supposed to be together in California a couple of weeks ago for global planning, that we do once a year or once every year and a half or so. We made a lot of changes to that planning, but recognizing that the work continues.

Because we are a global organization and we're seeing how the pandemic is spreading in different places, our global team was first hearing about COVID-19 and the coronavirus from our partners in Southeast Asia and China, in particular. I think folks in the US were surprised that it spread so quickly, but recognized that we needed to take immediate action within our own workplaces. Then, our first response, at least I know in the US, as I lead up the US Program, was to check in with all of our community members and our community partners about what their needs were.

A lot of our organizations are very much community based. They are grassroots, their whole purpose is to build their own community, and they focus on waste issues, but they also focus on a lot of other issues. Several of our member organizations have shifted their priorities to ensuring that the members of their community have groceries, have the medicines they need, or are fighting back eviction notices to make sure they can stay on their homes through this crisis, and continuing to build their community through that, but working very hard to see their community through the pandemic.

We're also working with a number of other organizations, part of a national network, to see what some of the other needs are for groups that are not directly impacted or community-based. We're building a support network who can either provide resources, education or be continuing to do some of the work that needs to be done. I got my eyes on a lot of different ways systems, I'm particularly focused on what's going to happen with all of the medical waste because we know that there's a shortage, clearly, of personal protective equipment, but at the same time, every time one of those things gets thrown away, it ends up somewhere, and oftentimes it ends up in a landfill or an incinerator.

One of the things that we've learned about the coronavirus is that people who have pre-existing conditions or have respiratory problems are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. For us, that primarily means the communities are living around those incinerators, and those incinerators, well, they keep burning waste because, even in our own homes, if we're buying a pack of Lysol wipes and we're wiping everything down, you're putting in the trash, you're just accumulating more waste than you used to, and all that stuff is going to end up somewhere.

We're particularly concerned about what's happening with those communities because not only are they impacted by the pandemic itself, but we know that their health is impacted by the existing waste system, how it’s managed and making them even more vulnerable to things like Coronavirus.

[00:14:30] Liz: Absolutely. It seems that, for now, short-term impact of the pandemic is, from a climate perspective, more positive than we would have thought with fewer people traveling and factories operating at less capacity. Do you think this, ultimately, will have an impact long-term on the environment? Other than what you talked about in terms of the single-use waste?

[00:14:53] Denise: I'm hopeful that coming out of the pandemic, we won't just reassume to business as usual, I think we're seeing a lot of flaws in the system that have led to the spread of the pandemic. Particularly, travel is one of them. I'm reluctant to celebrate any emissions cuts that we're seeing because of the pandemic, because I know that it's coming at the cost of what would, in the end, be hundreds of thousands supplies, so it's a little bit hard to be too excited about that.

But at the same time, I think what we really need to do is to understand what we're seeing, and understand that we do need to shift our system, so that we can not only prevent future pandemics, which we know from both the World Health Organization and UN reports of the last two years. Particularly, The Lancet report that came out last fall that claims that we're going to see a rise in things like infectious disease because of climate change. Our travel habits are a part of that, but our changing climate is certainly one of them, as well.

I'm hoping that through this process people are really taking to heart the lessons that we're learning, and seeing opportunities to change the system as we come out of the crisis. The pandemic is going to be going on for many months, as a person who's living in New York, really I think in the last week or so recognizing that it's going to be more. At first, I was like, “Maybe, it'll be a couple of weeks", then, "I think maybe it's a month”, but really understanding that it's going to be before, probably, June or July when thing start to feel a little bit more normal.

We're in it for the long haul, but I'm hopeful that we will really learn some lessons out of this and be able to activate more people to push for not reassuming to business as usual, but for much bolder action that will help save lives and continue to blunt the climate crisis. We should be happy that there are fewer emissions, at some level, but also recognizing that we can continue to have fewer emissions moving forward.

[00:17:03] Liz: Right. I keep reading that they need to be conquered at the same time, climate change and the pandemic. I'm interested to watch that progression and hear your insights as we go down that road too. 

[00:17:15] Denise: Sure. I think these are ongoing conversations I've been into the last two weeks or so. I've been talked to a lot of folks in the climate movement, particularly people who work in Public Health and on climate change at the same time, about what are the things that we need to be doing next and what are the lessons that we're really learning.

From a waste perspective, I think people, as they settle in, over the next few weeks and the next few months, they're going to realize that they don't need as much stuff as they used to, I think we're going to see a change in a lot of economies. From, hopefully, the flourishing of local economies that really build resilient systems, to the ones that recognize the interconnectedness of all of us, for people living the US, people living in China, living in Europe and in Africa.

Recognizing why the impact of globalization has been on society at large, and working to build systems that are more resilient and localized, so that when something like this does hit or when there is another crisis that's maybe a different kind, we're not seeing millions of people losing their jobs as a result of it as we're seeing in the US and in other places because of the way we structured our economies. Really building in the solutions that will, not only be positive on climate change, but also building up society and communities. That's not just healthy from a disease perspective, but from an economic and social justice perspective, as well.

As we speak today, I know that there was a strike that wasn't going to affect with- at Whole Foods at [unintelligible 00:19:12]. Yesterday, Amazon workers in New York walked out. Part of the reason they're doing this was because they're not being given proper personal protective equipment and being forced to continue to work in their job. Some of them are really providing essential services, like the [unintelligible 00:19:29] grocery stores. That's really important work, that's front line work.

I think it's important for people to recognize how essential all of these folks are to keeping the rest of us safe and healthy in our lives every day. Hopefully, what we'll see coming out of that is the things that a lot of these workers are been fighting for very long time, which is good-paying jobs, health care, protection on the job, in order to prevent a sudden loss of jobs. A lot of these people, especially in New York, live paycheck to paycheck, are finding themselves in a place where they're not going to be able to pay the next month's rent. I think it's revealing a lot across society, and I'm really hopeful that we're going to be able to fix it now that people actually can see it.

[00:20:17] Liz: Right, I think it has brought a lot to light. Then, on the plastic side, I know that is near and dear to your heart, as well, the plastic crisis. You've recently testified at the Addressing America's Plastic Waste Crisis Hearing. Can you tell me more about your position on this and what was discussed there?

[00:20:36] Denise: Sure. That was my first congressional hearing, the subcommittee. I justified in other phases before, but this was the first time before Congress. Throughout the course of your career, you do advocacy work, you tend to meet elected officials at all different levels, but this is the first time I was at a formal committee hearing.

We were brought together around the issue of plastics particularly, but this is part of an ongoing series that the House Energy and Commerce Committee is putting together. They're basically holding hearings to learn and be informed about policy measures as they're building and writing the next set of climate bills. We're really hopeful thanks to a lot of the advocacy across the country, especially from organizations like the Sunrise Movement and [unintelligible 00:21:37] who I used to work for a brief moment when I worked on fossil fuel divestment, and really been leading the charge on the green media. You've seen that idea and that concept really activate people because it's got this vision of addressing the climate crisis, but in a very hopeful way and recognizing all of the political changes that need to happen

As those efforts begin to expand, we have most every presidential candidate on the Democratic Party had pledged to advocate for a Green New Deal, they had endorsed the Green New Deal. Not a probably written out concept, but it's really outlined around the new deal, that's the last depressure. The subcommittee itself, was focused on waste issues and decided to focus on plastics. In the conversations that I had with the organizers and some of the congressional staff who are putting it together. I think they've recognized that the waste issue is quite broad and covers a lot of different things, so they chose to focus on plastics for this hearing.

It was interesting. I think the reports that we've seen over the last couple of years have highlighted that there's just plastic waste everywhere, we're finding it in the ocean, which was a theme that we have heard a lot at the hearing. We're finding it in our food, being found in people, it's quite pervasive, plastic carries with it, potentially, a lot of oxidants, depending on what kind of plastic it is, what's in it. It produces toxins when it's burned, it produces toxins when you microwave it. If you recall from a few years ago, there was a movement to successfully get companies to stop using BPA in their plastics because that was found to disrupt development and human health, and then, we're just seeing it across the world.

I think there's a clear recognition that plastics are an environmental problem, they're also a human health problem, we're finding more issues with exposures through food packaging in plastics. The industry sees it and a lot of different members of Congress, also, see it as a positive overall, some of them also talk about it as a positive solution, in terms of addressing the climate crisis.

When you transport things in plastic, it weighs less, and that means you can transport more things at a lighter weight and you're burning less fuel to get it from point A to point B. A lot of that stuff makes sense, but at the end of the day, there's just too much plastic in use in the world. The fact that we're finding it in our table salt oceans and pretty much everywhere, I think it's clear evidence of that, and people are seeing it.

The hearing was really to talk about where the science is on faucets and how we can focus on managing the plastic crisis. We were joined at the table by scientists, who were joined at the table with folks who worked in sustainability at the city level. We had somebody from Eureka Recycling, also Mission-Based Recyclers, we had somebody from the Chemistry Council, and the other group was the Scrap Haulers. We were all there to talk about what the solutions were, and we were seeing that, A, there's lots of plastics in the ocean and that we continue to find plastic in more places in the ocean, there was a conversation about how we get there.

We're seeing that cities and municipalities can't handle the plastic waste at the moment. For the City of LA, there used to be a net processing and collecting plastics to being able to sell it in market, particularly in China. We're able to build a whole system around funding recycling selection through their city systems that were now operating in a net lot.

We're hearing from the Mission-Based Recyclers that there's just too many kinds of plastic and many of them are either contaminated or not actually recyclable. We're hearing from the Chemistry Council that there are solutions that they're promoting around chemical recycling, a new kind of recycling to handle some of those other types of plastics, and we're hearing about how the impact of the change in the economy around dealing with plastic waste is affecting the food industry and all of their members as well.

My place in that panel was interesting because I was speaking about what really happens when we have a system that is completely failing us. From my perspective, the plastic waste crisis it's a failure on several levels, but particularly highlights the failure of our waste management system and its reliance on recycling. There's just not a way for us to recycle enough to get rid of all of that plastic and to be able to manage the amount of plastic that we all use every day. What we really need is solutions that build toward zero-waste system. We need more community-based or local reuse systems and refillable spaces where you could just go to a place and get your container refilled, buy, bought and do things like that. Or switch to the types of materials that are actually more profitable to recycle.

One of the first steps is getting rid of those plastics that we know that we can't recycle at all. For the most part, those are the plastic that, if now you're looking at the latest, are numbers three to seven, are not recyclable. Some of them are, but they require a lot more processing, chemistry and energy to be able to do that. We're not quite there at the point where we're seeing that as a necessary solution to those spaces.

On my ends, I spoke about all of these issues in the context that it's actually not just an environmental problem, it is a human health problem, and the people who are suffering the most are quite often [unintelligible 00:28:02] communities who are joyous members and the communities that are living either on the fence line of an incinerator or next to a landfill. Or the waste pickers in some of the other countries that we work in who are responsible for picking up all that waste. Or the communities that are just living around all of these polluted places.

[00:28:21] Liz: That's a great perspective to bring to them. There does seem to be a wave of federal legislation now around recycling, do you think any of the bills will make it out of their respective committees? There seems to be a lot more awareness around it, and usually when it tips into the mass media sometimes that helps. What are your thoughts?

[00:28:41] Denise: I'm hopeful. There are a number of bills to address the plastics crisis, many of them are looking at waste management systems and improving waste management systems. One of the real flaws that we know exists is that when Congress passed the law on waste management [unintelligible 00:28:58] in particular, where they give the actual ability to handle waste to the states and to localities in particular. They basically set up systems for managing hazardous waste and managing non-hazardous waste.

Hazardous waste is federally regulated at a lot of different levels and in a lot of different ways through Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and some laws specific to different types of hazardous waste. But then, anything that's considered non-hazardous waste, in this case plastics, is managed by states and localities. I think there's a clear recognition as we follow how we got into a plastics crisis, that there needs to be more action at the federal level to help with regulating things like the types of plastics that are out there. I know one of the bills name The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a cultural national Bottle Bill, which enables people to collect deposits for returning recyclables and really calling on producers to be responsible for recollecting the materials that they sell their products in.

There's quite a range of options out there. I don't know that any one bill is going to get through all of the committees, but I'm hoping that one of them will and that it takes a lot of the really great ideas from a number of them to combine them. There's a few bills that we're certainly concerned about, I spoke of that at the hearing, but the one that we are pretty supportive of is The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.

We also recognize that trying to address the plastics crisis, your waste management alone is not going to be enough. We've also joined with a number of other networks in pushing back against the idea that we need to keep producing the plastic in the first place. One of our efforts includes ending fossil fuel extraction for producing plastic in particular, [unintelligible 00:31:13] I think, cracker plants that would be used to create those plastic pellets, which are then turned into lots of single-use plastic products.

Part of that is because we know that all of that is just going to lead to a proliferation of more plastics, and we're seeing the contribution of plastics itself as driving up greenhouse gas emissions significantly, to the point where we should really be cutting those significantly and really aiming to keep things in the ground. Recognizing that the same way that we at GAIA talk about the folks who live around incinerators, it's the same and talk about folks that are living around all that fossil fuel infrastructure. We're finding that a lot of the reports coming out of places where there is a lot of shale gas extraction and around petrochemical facilities, we're seeing real human health impacts there too and recognize that those are just another cost of continuing to rely on and use all the plastics and consume things in a way that is not beneficial for human health or society in general. It's all part of pushing forward to build a circular economy.

[00:32:25] Liz: Do you feel that more manufacturers are coming to the table to find solutions and think about end of life as they're producing? Or is there a lot more work to be done?

[00:32:34] Denise: I do think it's both situations. We're seeing a number of companies that are trying to rethink the way that they package their products. Those are companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, who have recently in the last couple of years been the targets of a number of campaigns that have been organized by breakthrough of some plastic movements.

Our members across the world, as well as the Break Free members across the world, which are hundreds of community organizations and thousands of individuals, did this project that we called The Brand Audit. We basically asked folks to go out and do a cleanup at a site where there was just a lot of waste around, and then catalog all of the waste that they find. They counted the number of plastic bottles they found, the number of [unintelligible 00:33:32] that they found, the number of different types of plastic containers.

They also categorize them by the companies. Were selling their products in this packaging. What we found was that there were a handful of companies that were consistently at the top of the list of plastic products that we were finding in our environment, that included Coca-Cola, Unilever and others. By really highlighting this issue, we've been able to push those companies to reconsider the way that they're packaging their products, and hopefully pushing them towards things that are morally reusable.

Coca-Cola it's one of the funniest things to me to find through this Brand Audit, because I remember as a kid when we would drink Coca-Cola, we would buy it, it would come in an aluminum can that's fully recyclable. Actually, my family is from India, so we grow up and we would go to India quite often every couple of years when my grandparents were living there to visit them, we'd spend entire summers there. The only way to get a Coca-Cola was in a glass bottle that we would have to then return to the vendor because then it would be resold. To me, Coca-Cola is this funny iconic thing of my childhood that was completely sold in reusable packaging and refillable, those glass bottles and aluminum cans are the things that I remember.

I find it so ironic that over my lifetime that they had become the number one producers of, basically, plastic waste in our environment, because to me of all the companies I could think of growing up, that was one of the ones that I always thought as being available in a reusable or a recyclable container.

I think some of the things that we're saying is, as these companies are recognizing that there is a prospect from consumers and a demand for more recyclable containers, refillable and things like that, they're thinking about how they're going to be changing the way they package, therefore, changing their packaging and what they're planning to do. That's one of the ways that we're able to push back the plastics manufacturers as well, because now we've got all these companies with all these products looking at alternatives. That's certainly significant.

We're seeing a lot of manufacturers who are unfortunately in a place where they really need to be rethinking the way that they're producing their products, but they're also thinking about producing different products or producing products that are more environmentally friendly or sustainable.

I was reading about the Dart Company just yesterday, who produces the solo cups and the polystyrene foam cups that you have hot drinks in it and things like that. They're exploring options for compostable and other types of materials, but they're also, on the food side -this is a both ends scenario- they're also really pushing back against any legislation and policies that would ban plastics or force a change in the way plastics are handled in the environment or at the waste management, and they're out there lobbying against a lot of the things that we're lobbying for. We're in the middle of the fight and I think there's going to be a while until we get there. I'm hopeful that in the end the solutions that we come up with, will not only lead to products being delivered and better packaging, but in the end also helped create better and more sustainable jobs.

One of the things that Dart Company [unintelligible 00:37:11], and I was reading a New York Times article from a few weeks ago about this, one of the things that they did in Maryland when Maryland passed its ban on the polystyrene, was to close one of its closer warehouses and a few hundred people lost their jobs because of that. That's the kind of thing that we see as really punitive action towards workers and towards the general public, but we also recognize that if we're building refillable systems, reusable systems and more recycling systems, we can create more jobs.

A study that we looked at from a few years ago that GAIA helped, actually commission and found that for every one job in waste management, there were four jobs to be created in just composting alone. If composting is one part of waste stream and you look at every other, we see that as a multiplier effect that we could be creating tens of jobs for every poor waste management system that we replace with a better system. That's the kind of thing that we're looking to push for now.

[00:38:22] Liz: That's great, there's some real potential there. Denise, what are your thoughts on chemical recycling?

[00:38:29] Denise: I think the devil is in the details on chemical recycling. We have found that there's not a lot of data out there about the chemical recycling process. I know from my day as a subcommittee hearing that there are a lot of folks who are very excited that this is some innovative new solutions to our plastics problems.

What we're finding from looking at the processes and looking at some of the research that's been done around chemical recycling that it's going to be very energy-intensive, there's going to be some byproducts, including potentially plastic ones because of, A, what's actually in the plastics that goes into the process to, "Recycle it. There's a lot of toxins already built into a lot of the plastic that are out in the world. Anything from some of the additives and dyes that could be changed chemically through the process to some of the plasticizers and other things that are in plastic.

We're also concerned about the sheer cost of chemical recycling itself and producing these manufacturing facilities. There isn't one yet in existence in the US that's a commercial production facility at scale. When I say at scale, I mean truly able to handle the amount of plastic waste that we produce. There's very little information available about what the environmental impacts of chemical recycling will be. We already see that the industry is out really pushing for this as a solution to solving the plastic waste problem, but we also recognize that a lot of the plastic waste problem starts way upstream, and what we really need to be doing is taking measures, given the climate crisis that we're in, to cut back on plastics production overall.

We can't just create a new system that's going to continue to allow all those emissions to continue as is and grow over time, and at the end-stage produce more greenhouse gas emissions, it's just not a viable solution in the current global context. That's a big part of the trouble that we have, we just don't have a lot of information about this technology. We see it advocated for the climate solution. We certainly disagree with that because of all of the climate emissions that are associated with the production cycle straight up to that waste management solution as they call it, and at the end of the day, we don't really know what's going to happen and what the environmental implications are at this process.

It's a lot of the same story that we hear often, which is that it's a closed-loop process where they're turning plastics directly into plastics, but you can really only take a fraction of the plastics and turn it into new plastic, so you'll still have a lot of waste that either needs to get burned or needs to get landfilled and it could be toxic. It's the same kind of issues that we see with waste incineration. We're also seeing that [unintelligible 00:41:59] and the plastics industry pushing for chemical recycling as a way to produce plastics that can be used as fuels, and that, at the end of the day, you're just, again, burning more plastic. If you're burning it, then you're certainly not recycling it because the idea of recycling is that you are taking your products and turning it back into a useable product, but if you're burning it, it's no longer useful, it's just gone and usually leaves behind it some level of toxic residue.

[00:42:30] Liz: Thank you. What advice do you have for people who want to make changes in their own lives or communities around being more sustainable?

[00:42:38] Denise: Well, that's a great question. I think there's a lot of things people can do. One of the first things that you can do is look at what you're doing in your own home and really think about ways that you can be reducing waste, either consider the things that you could be doing by shopping differently, using the refillables, the reusables. Be very mindful of the waste that yourself are producing, that's one part of it, and when you are producing waste, being very cognizant of how you're part of the waste management system, so making sure you're recycling the things that are recyclable, that you are composting when you can compost. Composting is a great way to deal with a lot of organic waste.

There's little things you can do in your own home. I think very carefully about the things that I buy, I only buy the things that I need or know that I'll be using for a long time. That's only a small part of the solution, if you stop there, it's certainly not going to be enough, I also encourage folks to take the next step and understand that everything that you're buying, everything that comes through your door and every choice that you're making is part of a system. There are a lot of things that you can actually do yourself to change that system, you can become an advocate just through contacting. You can either contact companies directly, ask for them to change the way they're doing it. Even more effective than that is to talk to your local elected officials who are around a lot of the decision making about waste management, advocating for solutions.

You can talk to your friends and build a community around creating these solutions and advocate for better ones. A lot of the system that's around you is actually influenceable with political change, and all that starts with talking to your local elected officials and talk to your state electives. Think about all those things when you go to vote at election time and participate actively in your local government, I think that's a great way and a great first step.

There are also a lot organizations, I understand, if people are quite busy taking the kids to school, getting dinner on the table and things like that, you can also connect with a lot of advocacy organizations that are doing the same work at the local state and national level and just become an active participant in systems' change. I know it's 2020, we're in the middle of a pandemic, but we're also in an election year, so the decisions that people make in November are going to be the ones that really determine the future, of not just the country, but the planet in a lot of ways, so I also encourage people to really take some time to educate themselves and their friends about what impact that's going to have. You can always talk to your friends, you can talk to elected officials, you can write letters to the editor in your local paper.

Always, as you've probably noticed as we've been talking, is to include a personal story and an element in your advocacy because that's the thing that really helps people connect with you and see why [unintelligible 00:46:02] are so important. A lot of the folks that I see advocating out there, either for climate change or for changing waste systems are talking about it with the perspective of keeping the next generation and their kid's futures in mind as they're doing it. I think that, certainly, it's very self-motivating for people, I think the message resonates really well with others, but it's really true because you're speaking from the heart and you're speaking from the perspective of protecting the health and the lives of the people that you love. Whether it's your kids or your other family members, or members of your community, whoever you see as part of that circle.

Those are some of the things that I would ask people to pay attention to this year and really step up to advocate for the solution that they believe in. Given that we're in the middle of a pandemic, I would say also, do that from a way that keeps you healthy and a social distancing kind of way, [laughs] six feet apart certainly. But there's a lot of things happening right now, I know folks are at home trying to figure out what they could be doing, but there are so many resources online, so many groups that you could be joining, even locally organizing through the pandemics, that you can continue to organize and advocate with after the pandemic is over.

[00:47:20] Liz: Thank you so much. What great advice, from the simple every day to getting more involved, I love it, thank you.

[00:47:26] Denise: I always encourage people to find the thing that works for them, and that they're more comfortable with. Not everyone it's going to be getting on a radio interview or a podcast like I am, but there's plenty of things that you could do, it's really about finding the thing that you're comfortable with and taking that action step and maybe trying something new, because you never know what you might find that you enjoy doing or you might find that you're really good at and be able to pursue that as part of your advocacy as well. 

[00:47:56] Liz: Absolutely. Every little effort helps and every person helps, so I think that's great advice. Denise thank you so much, this has been so informative, I really appreciate your time and all that you're doing to improve the health of the climate in our communities. Thank you so much.

[00:48:13] Denise: Thank you for having me on the show today, I was very excited to be able to talk to you and share what I've learned over my experience with others.

[00:48:23] Liz: Please stay well and I hope your family is staying well. All the health care providers in your family as well.

[00:48:28] Denise: Thank you so much for that, I appreciate it.

[00:48:30] Liz: We'll be talking soon, I'm sure. Thanks, Denise.

[music]

 

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