Where have you been? That’s the most-asked question I’m getting these days. When I put Mommy Greenest on pause in 2017 to focus on consulting with companies and non-profits, I had no idea I would miss blogging so much. Now I’m entering the next chapter of motherhood — the one where my kids go off to college and I wonder what the hell happened. I need a place to write about this new phase of life, and Facebook doesn’t count. So hi, I’m back. How are you?
In the last few years, my work promoting sustainability — and rallying against plastic pollution — has become more prominent, especially after two TEDx talks. I remember the first time I spoke publicly, when I addressed a group of supporters as Executive Director of Healthy Child Healthy World, and my legs were shaking so badly that I worried the audience would see the podium trembling. It wasn’t that I was afraid of speaking, but the subject matter was too important to screw up: I used the analogy of the canary in a coal mine to describe how the increase in children’s illnesses should alert us to the fact that toxic chemicals in the environment threaten us all.
I felt the same way about my 2017 TEDx talk. By that point, I had done many speaking engagements — one in front of 1,200 people! — but this was the first time that I had to memorize an 18-minute talk. And just like that first time at the podium, my overwhelming fear was that I would misspeak a statistic or inadvertently encourage viewers to misinterpret the theme.
Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened. As I shared in this TEDx talk, which I did in 2019, my theme of “Can one straw change the world?” resulted in some strange takeaways.
My first talk used the idea of refusing plastic straws as an entry point to a bigger conversation about how our dependence on plastic was polluting the world. I asked viewers to refuse single-use plastic and to figure out ways — through personal action, corporate activism, and supporting restrictive legislation — to eliminate our single-use plastic habit.
What did most people remember? Don’t use straws. That’s an easy action, but it’s not a solution. So in the 2019 TEDx talk, I explored the idea of how and why the first was misconstrued.
I explored how the systems that we use to manage waste — landfill, incineration, recycling — were established in the 20th century, and are failing now, in the 21st. I was clear about statistics: 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gases — about 5 percent of global emissions — are emitted each year from open landfills and dumps. Incinerators produce particulate matter and toxic ash that endanger the communities in which they are located. And despite what most people think, the symbol on the bottom of a plastic product does not mean it is recyclable.
About a third of my talk was devoted to the failure of our recycling system, what some are now calling “wishcycling.” We recycle less than 10% of our plastic, and until recently exported a lot to South and Southeast Asia, where the system depended on cheap labor — sometimes in the form of children — to be economically feasible.
I was so nervous, stepping into that red circle. My stomach was in knots. This time, it was less about memorization — I knew the material, inside and out — and more about content. Because I was about to share a solution that was at odds with the activist movement that I am a part of.
Most people involved in the fight against plastic pollution agree that people need to act more responsibly when it comes to plastic, refusing single-use items like bottles, bags, and straws, and bringing our own cutlery, cups, bags, and bottles so that we don’t have to use disposables when eating, drinking, or shopping.
We also agree that new laws are necessary to solve the problem. Last year in California, where I live, Senate Bill 1080 and Assembly Bill 54 were introduced, which included provisions that support bottle deposit and increase the amount of recycled material used in products, establish bans on single-use plastics, and mandate extended producer responsibility for corporations. As California is now the world’s fifth largest global economy, passing them could change the game on plastic. I’ll be working with the nonprofit California Coastkeeper Alliance this year to support their passage into law.
But even when people stop using so much plastic and laws restrict how much corporations can put into the world, there’s still a ton left over. And that’s where my views differ from some of my fellow activists.
In 2019, I began consulting with FullCycle, a private equity firm accelerating solutions to the climate crisis. FullCycle’s first investment was in Synova, a chemical recycling company utilizing technology initially developed in the Netherlands. Synova plants can process trash — including plastic — into energy, fuel, and the chemicals used to make new plastic, without damaging the environment. In fact, because Synova can reduce waste in landfills — which release methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release and 25 times more powerful in the 100 years thereafter — the technology is actually climate beneficial: In the developing world, a $1,000 investment in a Synova plant is as much as 14 times more effective at CO2e avoidance over the first 20 years than solar or wind power.
Before I began working with FullCycle, I was skeptical that any technology could create a closed-loop system to “mine” landfill waste — industrial, agricultural and municipal solids — in the way that Synova promised. I didn’t believe the company’s claims that it could utilize the energy of waste contaminants to power its process, producing only hydrocarbon-free ash as a byproduct. But after talking at length with the Synova team and reviewing extensive documentation, I came to believe that this type of chemical recycling technology should be considered part of the solution to plastic pollution.
Many activists who are against chemical recycling argue that it will encourage the continued production of plastic. Clearly we all agree that the misuse of plastic is a massive problem that’s only getting worse: We’re already making as much plastic annually as the weight of human beings in Earth — more than 300 million metric tons — and production is expected to increase by 40% over the next 10 years.
As I described in my first TEDx talk, current recycling systems are mostly mechanical — literally chipping and melting plastic into new products. Technically, this is a downcycling system, as the plastic becomes weaker each time it is processed. For example, a plastic bottle can become fiber to make fabric, but in order to become a new plastic bottle it must be augmented with more virgin plastic. These systems depend on presorted material — PET to a PET recycling factory, etc. — which adds to inefficiencies, and the recycled material that they produce is typically more expensive than virgin plastic. Meanwhile, communities are literally drowning in plastic, which now makes up 60% of our waste.
In contrast, chemical recycling can create a closed loop system for plastic. With Synova, for example, different types of plastic can be perpetually recycled into their chemical components, which can then be built up into new plastic. This means that we can utilize the plastic that’s already been made, instead of mining and drilling to make more. Especially given the climate impacts of producing plastic — last year, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic were expected to produce the same amount of greenhouse gases as nearly 200 coal fired power plants — this just makes sense to me.
So yes, let’s pass laws that restrict corporate misuse of plastic. Let’s do everything we can to refuse unnecessary plastic, so that the market responds by halting production of single-use plastic bottles and bags. Let’s shut down polluting incinerators and landfills, and make sure that plastic waste management technologies don’t pollute our water, land, and air. But let’s also support new technologies that can utilize existing materials and help us slow — and eventually stop — producing new plastic.