Episode 24: Plastics with Andrew Almack (Plastics for Change) and Monique Oxender (Keurig Green Mountain)
Ahhh, plastics. Ever heard of 'em? Many thanks to one of our listeners for suggesting we cover this topic. As such a huge issue, we think it deserves TWO interviews! Our guests--Andrew Almack, who works leads Plastics for Change in India to increase plastic recycling via the informal economy, and Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer at Keurig Green Mountain who has been working on the recyclability of those K-Cups we're sure many of you enjoy--provide us with diverse and interesting insights on plastics. After listening you'll never look at plastic - or that confusing number inside the recycling logo - the same way again.
Episode Intro Notes
What We'll Cover
- What is plastic?
- How much plastic are we generating?
- Where is the plastic going and how much are we recycling?
- Are all types of plastic recyclable?
- What can we do to reduce our plastic footprint?
- Andrew Almack (Plastics for Change) and Monique Oxender (Keurig)
What is Plastic?
The term “plastic” is derived from the Greek word ''plastikos,' which means to mold or form. It refers to the material’s malleability, that allows it to be cast, pressed, or extruded into a variety of shapes - boxes, plates, bottles, and much more (2). Plastics are polymers. You can think of a polymer as a chain and each link of that chain is made of an element, usually carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, or silicon. To make this chain, the links are hooked (aka polymerized) together. Some polymers are naturally occurring such as tar, tree sap, and tortoise shells. Synthetic polymers came along in the early 20th century (10).
There are two broad categories of polymers: thermoplastics and thermosets. Most all polymers are thermoplastics, which means once formed, it can be heated and reformed over and over again. In contrast, thermoset plastics can be melted and formed, but once they have solidified and take shape, they stay solid cannot be remelted (10). Oil is often involved in making plastic because many of the units in the polymers are derived from oil (11).
Part of what makes polymers so valuable and in so many of our everyday products is that most polymers are chemically inert and will not react chemically with other substances -- you can store alcohol, soap, water, acid or gasoline in a plastic container without dissolving the container itself (3).
How Much Plastic are we Generating?
Modern plastics really only got started in the 1950s. From the 1950s to today, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, with around half of it made since 2004 (1). Having a hard time conceptualizing that? Consider this. Those 8.3 billion tons of plastic is equal to the weight of (4):
- 822,000 Eiffel Towers
- 25,000 Empire State Buildings
- 1 billion elephants
It’s estimated that by 2050, 12 billion metric tons of plastic will be lying around our planet. That’s a tenth of all biomass on earth! Thats also equal to 1.6 million metric tons, or roughly the weight of a midsize car, for every single person alive today (14).
Where is the plastic going and how much plastic are we recycling?
Plastic does not naturally degrade so it can only end up in three places: incinerated, in landfills, or be dumped, which typically means goes into the ocean. Of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic humans have produced, 6.3 billion tons (about 76%) has already gone to waste (14).
The U.S. incinerates about 16% of plastic generated each year, while Europe incinerates 40% and China burns 30% (1). Globally, 32% of plastic produced annually flows into our oceans. That’s the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute (15). At the current rate of increase, that’ll turn into four garbage trucks per minute by 2050 and by 2050, we’ll have more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plus 90% of all seabirds now consume marine plastic as part of their diet (18). One more factoid. You know how everyone is always saying that bottled water is no bueno? Every second (!) just in the US, people consume 1,500 water bottles (13).
Most plastic can be reused several times if recycled, but not endlessly. In the U.S., 9% of nonfiber plastic is recycled. Compare that to Europe, where they recycle 30%, and in China, they recycle 25%. Most of the world has rates similar to the U.S. (1). We’ve recycled more every year since 1990, but rates lag far behind those of other items, such as newspaper (about 80%) and corrugated fiberboard (about 70%) (5).
Like glass, the problem with recycling plastics is that it’s low density and relatively low-value relative to other materials like metal. There are also numerous technical hurdles to overcome when recycling plastic, like its inability to fully meld if the pieces you’re recycling aren’t of the same composition (5).
Are All Types of Plastic Recyclable?
Most types of plastic ARE recyclable, but that doesn’t mean your local collection facility will actually recycle it. To know if your plastic bottle will get recycled, you need to know which types of plastic your facility will accept. And how do they communicate that to you, dear consumer? The number!
For example, the number 1 is polyethylene terephthalate (say that 10 times fast), a plastic typically found in soda bottles and peanut butter jars. The number 2 is high-density polyethylene, a sturdier plastic that can accommodate heavier products like a gallon of milk or laundry detergent. Low-density polyethylene (“4”), in contrast, is pretty flimsy, and you’ll typically find it used for grocery bags or shrink-wrap (7).
One common question we’ve heard is whether or not you can recycle thin and flimsy plastic, like saran wrap, ziplock bags, and the thin plastic bags you get at the grocery and take-out places (the kind that more and more cities and states are charging for to discourage their use). Though you CAN recycle these bags, many waste collection systems won’t take them because their recycling systems aren’t built for flimsy types of thin plastic, which can jam up their machines.
What can We Do About our Plastic Footprint?
Use plastic alternatives! These can actually be pretty familiar. Try using glass jars instead of plastic cups, and remember to bring your reusable shopping bag each time you go to the grocery store. Stainless steel can also be used in place of plastic for things like cups, food storage, and dustpans. Look for them online, perhaps on sites like Bambeco (which I found by simply googling sustainable gifts).
Also keep an eye out for companies like Newlight Technologies, which converts greenhouse gas emissions into high-performance, cost-effective thermoplastics. They capture methane and turn it into a plastic material called AirCarbon (19).
New Tech to Reduce Plastic
To address plastic in the ocean, the Ocean Cleanup has developed technology that it believes will reduce the amount of garbage in the Pacific Garbage Patch by 50% in five years. The Pacific Garbage Patch is the size of Texas and is one of five garbage patches in our ocean created by circular currents ocean called gyres. Its technology involves a floating pipe to catch and concentrate the plastic to a single point where it is then extracted (20).
IBM is developing a process called “chemical recycling.” In mechanical recycling, we shred the material, melt it down, and then remold it, and this can only happen a certain number of times. In chemical recycling, you chemically react the material so it goes down to its most fundamental unit, which can then be reacted again into the same thing or something different. this process could be repeated an infinite number of times. This would close the loop on plastic. If we were able to recycle all of the plastic we produce, we could save $176 billion a year in energy costs (17).
Andrew Almack, Founder and CEO, Plastics for Change
Andrew Almack is the Founder and CEO of Plastics for Change, a social enterprise dedicated to reducing plastic pollution, increasing recycling rates and creating dignified jobs for the urban poor in developing countries. Andrew and his team are using mobile technology to ensure waste pickers in developing countries doing informal recycling are paid a fair and consistent price.
Andrew has co-founded three award winning social enterprises in the field of waste management. He has worked in slums of South America, India and Indonesia to strengthen the informal recycling economy.
Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer, Keurig Green Mountain
Monique Oxender leads Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. efforts to Brew a Better World as its Chief Sustainability Officer. Monique joined Keurig Green Mountain in 2012 and has helped the company navigate a path for integrated sustainability management.
Prior to joining the company, Monique spent eight years with Ford Motor Company where she designed and developed a leading supply chain sustainability program spanning the company's $65B buy from 60 countries. Issues under her responsibility included human rights, indirect carbon and water footprints, and raw material transparency.
She's also a graduate of the University of Michigan - Go Blue!