A Little Green

S1 E2: Does recycling work?

Episode Summary

S1 E2: Recycling. It’s something a lot of us do on a daily basis that helps protect our planet. Sorting out plastic, cans, and cardboard seems almost second nature at this point, right? But, in this episode, Christina learns that this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone, and she sets out to learn more about how we deal with our waste.

Episode Notes

S1 E2: Recycling. It’s something a lot of us do on a daily basis that helps protect our planet. Sorting out plastic, cans, and cardboard seems almost second nature at this point, right? But, in this episode, Christina learns that this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone, and she sets out to learn more about how we deal with our waste. 

Is there more to it? What are the big recycling dos and don’ts? And what’s composting all about? What happens when we throw food in the trash?

Sarah Dearman, Vice President of Circular Ventures at The Recycling Partnership, shares the lowdown on recycling today. She also introduces a key concept; circularity. Christina then sits down with TerraCycle, an innovative company that aims to recycle everything, to better understand the science of recycling, and what the future could look like. 

After all of this talk about recycling, Christina decides to see it in action. She visits local recycling hub Sure We Can, and gets a tour from Executive Director Ryan Castalia. A big question presents itself; what about plastic? Svanika Balasubramanian of rePurpose Global paints a stark picture of plastic pollution, and what we can do to help.

Finally, Christina takes a look at another circular process with Rebecca Louie: composting. She hears about the potential to compost in her apartment and community, and what a large-scale compost system might mean for our planet’s health.




Episode Transcription

[Sounds of footsteps on stairs]

[00:00:00] Christina Thompson: I live in a fourth floor walkup apartment in an old, historic building near the Brooklyn waterfront. To get to my apartment, I actually have to climb this winding staircase on the outside of the building. Think castle tower steps. And while I really do love this place, I’ve got to say... those stairs... especially when it's hot out? Oof. Brutal. 

When I'm feeling especially lazy, I've been known to strategically arrange my errands so I can avoid some unnecessary climbs. I'm sure other New Yorkers out there can relate. Each journey up and down those steps has made me acutely aware of my routines. Like, every time I take out the garbage, I have to tackle those stairs.

[Sounds of plastic bags and recycling rustling]

[00:00:47] Christina Thompson: I mean, I can actually do this in one more trip, but I'm carrying a microphone so it's going to be three trips. Cool. 

[00:00:58] Christina Thompson: Trash, and what we do with it, is an everyday reality for all of us, no matter where we live or how many floors we have to scale. Making sure that I deal with my own waste responsibly, specifically as it relates to recycling, has always felt like one of the most tangible ways that I can control my impact on the environment. But recent headlines claiming that our recycling system is broken are, well, disheartening... and confusing. 

[00:01:24] News Anchors: The global market for recycling waste has changed dramatically. 

People are asking, is recycling broken? 

[00:01:33] Christina Thompson: What I want to know is if recycling even works, and have I been doing it right? 

[Plastic bag rustles]

[00:01:38] Christina Thompson: What about plastic bags? 

[00:01:40] Christina Thompson: In this episode, I'm going to get to the bottom of what actually happens to those things I haul down the stairs and place in the blue bin. 

I'm Christina Thompson, and this is A Little Green Podcast.

[Ad break]

[00:01:53] Jane: Hi, I'm Jane and I helped manage Avocado Green Brand's journey to having one of the world's first zero waste to landfill certified mattress factories by 2022. At Avocado, we upcycle all of our material byproduct. We upcycle latex scrap from our mattress layers to recreate wonderfully fluffy pillows. We use leftover wood from our furniture collection to make bed frames for pets. But we still have a ways to go. That's one of the things I love about my job; Avocado is always seeking innovative ways to be more sustainable while never compromising the luxury feel of our products. Better for you, better for the planet. That's the Avocado way.

[End break]

Esther: So one of the most common issues or questions, I guess, that I run into as just a consumer trying to do my small part and kind of do the best I can is, what do you do with those packages for, sort of, toothbrushes, small appliances, sometimes even batteries. Can you recycle it? 

Sidrah: Candy packaging like Skittles or M&M baggies, um, empty toothpaste tubes, you know, that sort of thing. Are these to be put in recycling?

Wes: Does it matter if I rinse my containers? 

Sara: Can you recycle pizza boxes? 

[00:03:11] Sarah Dearman: We are really focused on transforming recycling and accelerating the circular economy. 

[00:03:18] Christina Thompson: That's Sarah Dearman. She's the Vice President of Circular Ventures at The Recycling Partnership. I figured she would have some answers for me since the Partnership works to improve the way we recycle.

[00:03:29] Sarah Dearman: So The Recycling Partnership is a national nonprofit organization. We're the largest recycling and circular economy organization in the U.S. 

[00:03:38] Christina Thompson: First, I wanted to know more about that term she referred to; circular. 

[00:03:43] Sarah Dearman: Within nature nothing is wasted, right? It has a purpose, and at the end of its life, it serves another purpose. It's about making sure that what we're using has another life and an ability to serve that other life. 

[00:03:58] Christina Thompson: Okay. So what I've learned is that in contrast to this more natural approach, our society relies on a linear system. We take these finite, raw natural resources and make them into a product. We use that product and then we throw it away. That material then sits in a landfill or makes its way into the ocean. Think single use plastic, styrofoam, cigarettes, and even food waste. Doesn't sound super sustainable. But in a circular economy, this waste is actually eliminated because the materials stay in use. 

[00:04:31] Sarah Dearman: We need to use less material, which is not always easy. But that's definitely where we need to start, is just using less. And then for the material that we do use, we need to make sure that it can be recycled into something else.

[00:04:51] Christina Thompson: We've all heard of the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. I know they were my first experience with environmental action back in grade school, when those different colored trash cans started showing up. 

Those Rs are the essential pillars of circularity. But I set out to learn more about recycling in this episode, so let's start there. Separating my plastic, aluminum, paper, and trash has become kind of a given. But as Sarah explained, this isn't the case everywhere. 

[00:05:24] Sarah Dearman: About 40% of Americans don't have easy access to recycling. And we consider easy access to recycling being able to recycle something as easily as you could throw it away. In an ideal world it might even be easier to recycle than it would be to throw away. So that's one of the things that I would say is really a misconception, all the way from an individual level to a government and company level. They just assume that everyone can recycle, and it's not the case. 

[00:05:53] Christina Thompson: 40%? Seriously? And according to The Recycling Partnership, only 32% of recyclables are even recovered from single family homes in the U.S. Two thirds of these materials aren't even making it to the recycling facility. 

[00:06:08] Christina Thompson: I have this sort of, like, Willy Wonka factory in my mind of where things go, but what happens? Is that true?

[00:06:15] Sarah Dearman: So what happens when you put it in the recycling bin? So we're going to assume that it's recyclable. Depending on where you're at, that's going to get picked up and it is going to go to what we call a MRF, which is a material recovery facility, where it's going to be sorted out into different valuable materials. So it'll go from the recycling facility or the sorting facility, and then it will go, depending on the material you're talking about, to be processed and go back into another package.

[00:06:44] Christina Thompson: Sarah mentioned that recycling can look different depending on your location. So I asked her if there were any universal, hard and fast rules about recycling. 

[00:06:54] Christina Thompson: What's the best way to tell if something is recyclable or not? 

[00:06:58] Sarah Dearman: Go to your local government website. Now, hopefully you also will have a sticker on your cart or your bin that will tell you what can be recycled. There are a few things that you can feel pretty confident about, though. Most overwhelming majority of places, paper and cardboard boxes are going to be recyclable. Majority of your metals, so think your cans. As well as any of your hard plastics, so think plastic bottles, plastic containers, whether that's tubs or something else.

I would also, on the flip side though, say most of the time, if it's a plastic that you can easily crinkle up, so think a plastic bag or maybe a wrap that came with something else, most of the time that can't go into your cart. And that's really important, that's one of the most commonly wish-cycled things. And it does cause contamination, it causes the facilities to get tangled up. Though, you can take it back to the store. 

[00:08:02] Christina Thompson: Okay. But what if something that you can't recycle makes its way into my bin? 

[00:08:06] Sarah Dearman: If you put something that is not recyclable into a bag or into a cart, overwhelming majority of the time it's going to be sorted out. The bag or the entire container is not going to be ruined. We make mistakes all the time and we all know it can be confusing, and what can be recycled in my location may not be the same as yours. 

[00:08:29] Christina Thompson: And if it doesn't get recycled, the alternative? Landfills. I read a report from the EPA that landfills are mainly filled with food and plastic. More on that later. 

[00:08:40] Sarah Dearman: On average, a person in the U.S. creates five pounds of trash a day. And if you think about that with all of the Americans, then, you know, we're talking about over 140 million tons of trash that are going into landfills every single year. I look at that as opportunity. So much of that is recyclable material that could instead be processed into something else. And when it does that, it prevents us from having to go and cut down more trees or mine more materials. It also creates jobs, because then we're paying people to sort that material and to process it into something else. So while today not everything is recyclable yet, then that would certainly be the long-term goal. 

[00:09:29] Christina Thompson: If we need to recycle everything to achieve circularity, how do we get there? And is it even possible? 

I decided to reach out to TerraCycle, a company that aims to recycle, well, everything. 

[00:09:54] Kathy Pazakis: The amazing thing about recycling and the recycling industry is that the deeper you get, the more layers there are to unravel because it is a highly complicated and often really regionalized and unique experience, depending on where you are. 

I'm Kathy Pazakis. I am the Executive Vice President of Commercial at TerraCycle and my background is, well, I think this is my third career. And I like to joke that I went from Glossier to garbage. 

[00:10:21] Christina Thompson: Kathy left the beauty industry to join TerraCycle, a waste management company that's anything but traditional. Instead of disposing of waste in the cheapest way possible, they find solutions to keep things from reaching the landfill at all.

[00:10:34] Kathy Pazakis: I came over to TerraCycle because I see a tremendous amount of opportunity in bringing recyclability to all industries where there aren't neat, easy curbside solutions. And also because I believe it's really important, from a consumer standpoint, to understand what you can do and how you can hold your manufacturers responsible for end of life of their packages. That's how I ended up in garbage in New Jersey. 

[00:10:57] Christina Thompson: TerraCycle offers a wide range of programs, some free, some paid, to help people deal with the things that are hard to recycle. 

[00:11:05] Kathy Pazakis: It's one of those things where I think in developed countries sometimes we take for granted, right? I, I definitely took it for granted when I lived in New York, because I put my trash in the shoot and it magically disappeared and I never thought about it, right? And then you see some of the impact that waste is having around the world and you realize that we've been incredibly irresponsible. We call it wish-cycling. Like even if you were to go through an ordinary person's recycling bin, someone who thinks they're being responsible, there's likely a whole bunch of plastics in there that you thought were recyclable cause they were clear, but actually aren't recycled. 

[00:11:37] Christina Thompson: To take care of those confusing items, TerraCycle collects recyclables from users. Then, they sort the materials, process them, and the processed materials are sold to manufacturers who make it into something new. Their free recycling programs are funded by brands to collect and recycle their packaging. This means that the manufacturer is responsible for the product throughout its life cycle. 

Kathy told me about another way that they're working with brands to be accountable for their own waste; by preventing it in the first place. 

[00:12:07] Kathy Pazakis: So Loop is a separate company underneath the TerraCycle umbrella. And what it does is it takes your everyday items, like literally your Häagen-Dazs ice cream, your Clorox wipes, and puts them into reusable containers and then creates an ecosystem such that you can return that container back to a store that you visit every day. So we didn't create any waste, but I didn't have to change my shopping pattern. 

[00:12:29] Christina Thompson: This approach to circularity targets disposability. Instead of creating new packaging for every product that's sold, containers are reused at a large scale. When I hear “reduce, reuse, recycle,” I think of those three arrows chasing each other. What I'm realizing is that those three Rs are actually more of a hierarchy. 

[00:12:48] Kathy Pazakis: We talk a lot about what can you do to reduce the amount of products or packages that you're using, right? Anything that comes in a pod, anything that's waterless is great. Anything where you don't have outer packaging for something is amazing. Failing that, you move to the reuse model, right? Which then becomes, okay, is it something in glass that I can then use to store something, right? Can I sell this in a reusable package that could be repurposed for something? And then failing that, you're in the recycle world. 

[00:13:18] Christina Thompson: Reduction first, then reuse, and, finally, recycling. 

[00:13:23] Kathy Pazakis: Waste is a really, really complex space. All of us get it wrong. All of us learn something new. And to be honest, the technology changes so much that we're all learning along the way. 

[00:13:33] Christina Thompson: So when TerraCycle says that they recycle everything, do they really mean everything? Who is doing all that work? And how? Kathy put me in touch with Ernie Simpson, lead scientist at TerraCycle.

[00:13:45] Christina Thompson: So Ernie, should I call you Ernel, Ernie, Dr. Simpson? 


[00:13:48] Ernie Simpson: Ernie is fine. Never Dr. Simpson, nobody calls me that. 

[00:13:52] Christina Thompson: Ernie specializes in polymer science, and this is actually his second career. 

[00:13:57] Ernie Simpson: So, how did I get to TerraCycle? I retired 2007 and I was looking around for something to do because I'm fairly uneasy not doing anything. And I was offered a position at TerraCycle, and I've been there ever since. 

[00:14:14] Christina Thompson: I love how you retired, and now you retired to be the Vice President of R&D. 

[00:14:18] Ernie Simpson: Yeah.

[00:14:18] Christina Thompson: He spends his days analyzing materials to figure out how they can be broken down. 

[00:14:24] Ernie Simpson: For me, it's science in action. And so, you know, I really like it. 

[00:14:29] Christina Thompson: You and TerraCycle say, you know, “recycle everything.” 

[00:14:33] Ernie Simpson: Yes. 

[00:14:33] Christina Thompson: Do you, do you mean everything? Like, is there anything that doesn't fall into that category? 

[00:14:38] Ernie Simpson: Everything that we collect. 

[00:14:39] Christina Thompson: I asked Ernie about some of the more difficult products he's recycled.

[00:14:43] Ernie Simpson: Diapers, dirty diapers. 

[00:14:45] Christina Thompson: Ew, okay.

[00:14:46] Ernie Simpson: Another one is cigarette filters and chewing gum. You know, there's specific materials that are used in the production of these, all of these things that can be actually recycled and repurposed. 

[00:14:59] Christina Thompson: The more I spoke with Ernie, the more I chewed his ear off about the science of this whole process. The physical how-is-this-actually-being-done behind it all? Ernie told me about two of the main ways that recycling is done; mechanically and chemically. TerraCycle mostly does mechanical recycling. This involves a lot of melting, shredding, and pelletizing. 

[00:15:19] Ernie Simpson: Rigid materials are taken, they are run through a piece of equipment called a shredder, and after the material is shred to a certain size, it is fed into an extruder that melts the material. It goes through a die eventually, and you have something in the form of, you know, spaghetti strands. And those strands are chopped into a specific size, what we call a pellet or a granule. That material is then sold to injection molders and other processors that can create, you know, new items from the material that we just recycled.

[00:16:03] Christina Thompson: A lot of processing and “spaghettification” has to happen, but making new things from recycled materials actually uses less energy overall. 

[00:16:13] Ernie Simpson: Everybody should understand that the recycling business is a growing one, but my thing is to start out on a project and try to finish it. And then find as many ways as possible to get that project finished. That's the way I operate. 

[00:16:27] Christina Thompson: The world needs more Ernie Simpsons. 

[00:16:30] Ernie Simpson: Well...

[00:16:31] Christina Thompson: Maybe one's enough. 


[00:16:32] Ernie Simpson: Yeah. 

[00:16:33] Christina Thompson: After each of these conversations, I was encouraged to check out my own local recycling facilities and find out more about what's happening specifically where I live. 

[Sounds of cans and bottles being sorted]

[00:16:43] Ryan Castalia: So this is like the beating heart of Sure We Can, the working area for the canners.

[00:16:47] Christina Thompson: Sure We Can is located in actually one of my old neighborhoods. And it's not your average recycling center. The location serves as a recycling and community space for canners, people who collect containers in exchange for a bottle deposit. 

Walking up to their location, I was greeted by a huge bright mural painted on a corrugated barrier. Behind the murals sat rows and rows of empty containers, from Corona to Pepsi, sorted and stacked onto pallets. Music, conversation, and of course the rattling and clanking of glass and cans welcomed me in.

[Sounds of music, lively conversation the rattling and clanking of glass and cans]

[00:17:24] Ryan Castalia: My name is Ryan Castalia. I'm the Executive Director of Sure We Can. Sure We Can is a sustainability and social service nonprofit. We primarily serve canners, people who collect bottles and cans off the street in order to earn income. We have some who earn just a few dollars in a day and some who earn several hundred. We serve, at our center, over 900 individual canners annually, and that number is going up. We estimate there to be around 10,000 canners in New York City at large. But it's hard to say how many exactly. 

[00:17:58] Christina Thompson: Have you ever noticed that 5 cent label on your can or bottle? That's what we're talking about here. Basically, when you buy certain drinks, you pay this 5 cent deposit. When they're emptied, they can be returned to the producer (the brand who made the drink) to get that deposit back. But a lot of people don't return their containers. So canners fill in the gap by scouring the city for these eligible bottles and cans, sometimes collecting enough to earn a living. This is all made possible through New York's Returnable Container Act, also known as the Bottle Bill. 

[00:18:29] Ryan Castalia: The, uh, container deposit system, the Bottle Bill, in New York is an example of extended producer responsibility legislation, which is an approach to sustainability that's all about putting the onus on reclaiming these materials on the people who manufacture and produce them in the first place. 

[00:18:46] Christina Thompson: So, extended producer responsibility is a waste management concept that aims to decrease the environmental impact of a product. Instead of putting all of the responsibility on an individual consumer, the manufacturer is responsible for that item's entire life cycle. The materials recovered from the item then go back into circulation. This is a good thing. 

[00:19:09] Ryan Castalia: And that means that it's a 5 cent extra charge to the customer at the time of purchase, but then that deposit can be redeemed by bringing the container in some cases back to the place you purchased it. If not that, or if it gets thrown in the trash or onto the street, a canner will come and pick it up and bring it to a redemption center like ours where they can earn that 5 cents or a little extra.

[00:19:28] Christina Thompson: I'd bet there's actually a lot of people who don't know what, when you look at a can and you see that 5 cent and you see the different like states, like what that actually means. So, that's what it means, guys. 

[00:19:38] Christina Thompson: Apparently, since 1983, the bill has led to a drastic decrease in litter. That's an amazing outcome. But Sure We Can is more than a redemption center. It's a total scene. As Ryan showed me around the facility and we ducked under the canopies and wove through the lanes of these beautifully organized cans and bottles, it became very clear that this place is a thriving hub for these New Yorkers.

[00:20:08] Ryan Castalia: I think a lot of canners, even though they make a huge impact as individuals, they are conditioned into a marginalized and distanced place in society that makes them feel isolated. Not just individual, but actually separated from other people. These are workers who are out there making their own hours. Sure, like working in a, in a unique field perhaps, but really making a tangible impact on society and, um, in many cases working astonishingly hard to do so.

[00:20:39] Christina Thompson: Sure We Can was started by a group of canners in 2007. And they've expanded to include other activities like composting and upcycling and community development.

[00:20:47] Ryan Castalia: This is like the really deepest expression of our effort to make a friendly space and a welcoming space. Just to be covered from the elements is an uncommon thing for canners. Just to have space to work where they can, uh, take their time, where they can be careful, where they can interact with other canners, they can trade their materials if they want to. 

[00:21:09] Christina Thompson: It's a good vibe here. 

[00:21:08] Ryan Castalia: Yeah, yeah. 

[00:21:11] Christina Thompson: Like, there's music playing. It's nice.

[00:21:12] Ryan Castalia: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, on some days you can hear like three or four languages, different languages being spoken, people communicating each other, with each other who don't have any shared language, a really wonderful, um, just like basic human stuff, right. Um, and you know, I feel at least, really represents a vision of New York City that isn't, isn't so common these days, right? When, for me, the energies that are happening here are really what fuels it and, yeah, make it so special. 

[00:21:39] Christina Thompson: And then Ryan told me that the 5 cent redemption rate hasn't changed since the Bottle Bill was enacted. No increase in 40 years.

[00:21:48] Ryan Castalia: So one of the things we advocate for here is an increase in the deposit that would both allow canners to earn more and invite more people to participate in the deposit system and increase our recyclable levels overall. That sort of stigma of garbage unfortunately extends to the people who work in these environments, right. And that's something we really are laser focused on fighting. That it's not just about providing a, like a money value to the material, but saying that the work itself and the people who do it are important and valuable, should be seen and recognized. 

[00:22:19] Christina Thompson: I was curious to hear Ryan's take on the recycling system at large, and what a more accessible and equitable structure might look like.

[00:22:26] Ryan Castalia: Well, I think the notion of re-localization comes into that in the sense that different communities have different needs and, um, cultural factors that play into whether or not they're going to participate in such a system or how such a system could be designed to serve their special needs. Like, again, those municipal systems are super valuable and can be effective. I think they, to some degree, encourage the sense of detachment where you just put your waste out on the curb and sort of forget that it exists. 

[00:22:52] Christina Thompson: Yeah. 

[00:22:52] Ryan Castalia: What we're looking to cultivate is a culture where people can engage and follow that process. We envision Sure We Can as becoming, in the future, a circular community center where we're not just doing redemption, we're not just doing composting. We can really be a place where anyone can come both to learn and engage with waste as a topic, to bring their hard to recycle items, their things that are difficult to process, where we can facilitate this as really something valuable, not just in terms of the material value of the product, but something that, like, is important. 

[00:23:25] Christina Thompson: Cultural. 

[00:23:25] Ryan Castalia: Yeah, exactly. That we participate in as a culture and that can be uplifting and can provide opportunities for connection and community growth. 

[00:23:34] Christina Thompson: So how can we support the work that they're doing, and even expand their efforts? 

[00:23:38] Christina Thompson: What do you guys need?

[00:23:39] Ryan Castalia: We need funding and support to preserve this space. But more broadly, we want to... there's lots of conversations happening in political environments about extended producer responsibility. We're seeing bills come up, both in the state and on the federal level, related to this. Um, I think it's becoming more of a concern broadly, the, the topic, plastic pollution and other types of pollution. So we want to make sure that people understand that there's different ways to approach this and that it needs to be approached in a way, again, that recognizes the people who are already doing this work and who are already participating in that type of economy, the circular economy. So any EPR proposals that come up, we feel have to include them and make sure that there are tangible systems in place to ensure that local recyclers, informal recyclers, waste pickers across the world are lifted up, recognized, and empowered by the systems rather than the producers or the institutions that have already spent decades benefiting from tremendous waste.

[00:24:40] Christina Thompson: It really was so cool to see a circular, regenerative approach in action, and one that has a real effect on people's daily lives. 

Okay. So by now we've talked about materials that we can clearly recycle, like aluminum and glass, as well as some things I would have never considered even possible, like diapers. But there's one big elephant in the room we've yet to tackle and actually the biggest offender of all: plastic.

[00:25:07] Svanika Balasubramanian: My name is Svanika Balasubramanian. I'm one of the co-founders and CEO at rePurpose Global. The central question that we were trying to answer was, why does over 90% of the plastic that we consume every single day end up leaking into nature and in some way, shape, form, or other, even if it is recyclable?

[00:25:27] Christina Thompson: I reached out to Svanika to learn more about the realities of plastic waste, and I could not believe what she just said. Over 90% of the plastic we use isn't recycled. At all. And remember those fossil fuels we talked about in the last episode? Well, I learned that the creation of plastic relies on those very resources. And what's an even bigger bummer is that even though recycling our waste is clearly better for the environment, creating new plastic is still cheaper than recycling it. rePurpose's goal is to reduce the impact of all that plastic pollution while addressing global poverty. 

[00:26:01] Svanika Balasubramanian: So we spent the better part of a year going from landfill to landfill, dumping ground to dumping ground, researching, understanding from voices on the ground from South America to Africa, to Asia, where the gap was, where, where the problem was. You have skyscrapers of trash, you know, just rising up on either side of you, just flies everywhere, and you have to crane your neck to see even the top of the trash pile. There are dogs everywhere, and there are people. There are people whose entire lives are kind of like locked into this landfill and the work that it offers. And then, you know, that's a topic that people don't, you know, know much about. Where about 2% of the world's poorest people today work in informal waste management, which is a very incredibly unethical, exploitative sector at large. 

[00:26:46] Christina Thompson: Sometimes I think, as Americans, we don't really have to confront what the end of that linear supply chain looks like and who really is bearing the brunt of all this garbage. So Svanika and the team at Repurpose decided to focus on projects that avoid, recover, and recycle plastic waste at a large scale. 

[00:27:04] Svanika Balasubramanian: The thesis that we came to was that it wasn't a lack of ideas. You had these amazing changemakers on the ground, you had these amazing innovators across the world. Thousands and thousands of them who had come up with great ideas to tackle our plastic waste crisis. But they were all really, really localized and very, very small and they had been unable to scale the solutions that they were creating for one very simple reason, which was just a lack of funding. 

[00:27:30] Christina Thompson: That's where rePurpose comes in. They encourage businesses and individuals to take responsibility for their plastic waste by purchasing their plastic credits, which go to vetted projects around the world. They even pay for the recovery of plastic that has low or no economic value. 

[00:27:46] Svanika Balasubramanian: So these are all your chips wrappers, your candy wrappers, your flexible packaging, the softer types of materials, or materials that are multilayered, like multilaminated and multilayered, that are incredibly difficult to recycle or impossible to recycle. And these materials have a recovery rate of virtually 0%. And so even though they don't form a huge portion of plastic production, they do form a huge portion of plastic waste in the environment. So in these kinds of contexts, what we do is we work with local partners, local kind of waste management organizations and NGOs and so on, that are already tackling some of the higher order materials and use their existing networks to also include these low value materials that otherwise have nowhere else to go. Right, and so make sure that that piece of plastic doesn't end up in a landfill or doesn't end up getting burnt or openly dumped somewhere. 

[00:28:37] Christina Thompson: By working with these local partners, rePurpose helps enable impactful action that takes effect relatively quickly. When describing the work that she does, Svanika shared a metaphor that really stuck with me.

[00:28:48] Svanika Balasubramanian: Let's say you've been out and you come back home and you realize your bathroom is flooded because you left the tap running. And so you go in and you're like, "oh no, there's water everywhere." And your first instinct is to mop the floor, or is it to close the tap? Right? So you do want to mop the floor, you do want to make sure that the water that's already come out is cleaned up, but at the same time you also want to close the tap to make sure more water isn't leaking out into your bathroom.

[00:29:12] Christina Thompson: By now, I think we've all seen the devastating images of turtles and whales and birds all harmed by plastic, but humans aren't immune to the effects of plastic pollution either. 

[00:29:22] Svanika Balasubramanian: The average human being consumes a credit card's worth of plastic every single week. And that's microplastics, right, because plastic is in the food we eat, in the water we drink. 

[00:29:32] Christina Thompson: That's insane and gross. 

[00:29:41] Christina Thompson: And we know plastic production itself is causing toxic air for people across the U.S. and across the world, and disproportionately for low-income, Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities. I want to dig in and talk about that specifically much more in a later episode, but for now, can't we just turn off that tap already? Through rePurpose, businesses and individuals can calculate their plastic footprint.

[00:30:00] Christina Thompson: You all on your company site were brave enough to put your own footprint. So I feel like I have to say mine, which was 76.05. 

[00:30:09] Svanika Balasubramanian: Kilograms? 

[00:30:10] Christina Thompson: Mhm. 

[00:30:11] Svanika Balasubramanian: That's actually lower than the American average. It's always, you know, a little bit shocking because we don't necessarily see how much plastic we consume every single day.

[00:30:19] Christina Thompson: Anyone who's ever bought anything knows just how hard it is to avoid plastic packaging. The idea of a truly zero waste lifestyle is amazing, but is it even possible to cut plastic out in our current system? 

[00:30:30] Svanika Balasubramanian: It's such a ubiquitous material and it is, it's hard to kind of even think about, well there's plastic in my laptop and in that microphone that we're using to record this, there's plastic in there. There's a little bit, you know, it gets a little bit daunting to think of everything. I think sometimes the problem just seems so big, just so chaotic, and so massive that it just seems futile to do anything. But I think for me, it was really kind of thinking about it in small pieces, right. But also just kind of being very connected to the impact on a day-to-day level. The other thing that helped me navigate the space as well was not just seeing it as a purely environmental problem, but rather seeing it as a very intersectional human problem, as a social problem. Some people just say, "well, I'll just wait for something, that silver bullet to come along." And I think that's where things go wrong, right, because the planet doesn't have enough time. Our society doesn't have enough time for us to kind of, like, figure out that perfect solution. So we shouldn't impede progress in the name of perfection. Any action is better than inaction. 

[00:31:30] Christina Thompson: Maybe that “zero” in zero waste can be... aspirational. 

At the beginning of this episode, I set out to learn more about recycling, something many of us do on the daily that makes us feel good about our environmental impact. Of course, I still think that recycling is an important activity, but if we're aiming for circularity, maybe we need an approach that's a bit more holistic. 

Earlier, Sarah Dearman described circularity as being nature-based. It got me thinking about one of nature's fundamental circular processes, one I know very, very little about: composting. 

[00:32:04] Rebecca Louie: Composting is the very natural process of organic matters decomposing into their smallest bits with the help of a whole ecosystem of critters and microbes, et cetera, so that they can restart the cycle of feeding and sustaining new life, which at some point will then decompose and do the whole thing all over again. 

[00:32:28] Christina Thompson: One big circle. I love that. 

[00:32:31] Christina Thompson: That's Rebecca Louie, AKA The Compostess. She's a master composter based here in New York. 

[00:32:38] Rebecca Louie: Composting can happen at a very huge, industrial scale, like full municipalities participate in it. But in terms of what individuals can do, I mean the possibilities are endless, right? Like you can compost in your apartment, you can compost with your co-op or with your neighbors, or you can compost in a whole garden with a network of people. 

[00:32:56] Christina Thompson: Let's take a step back for a second. Is it safe for me to say that most Americans don't compost in any form? And if so, what is happening to all that food waste, once it's in the trash? 

[00:33:08] Rebecca Louie: Because of the way landfills are constructed and the way garbage or what we consider trash is brought there, like a lot of it will decompose anaerobically and sort of leech ammonias and other elements into the soils, which then go into the water streams or release greenhouse gases. And one third of what goes to the landfills is compostable. A third. So that is a significant, you know, fraction. If, you know, all this stuff is compostable, what's the result of not composting it? 

[00:33:36] Christina Thompson: It's easy to think that food in the trash will just decompose, but it's basically trapped in a big plastic bag. Without air it releases methane, an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas. And as Rebecca explained, when we compost we're not only avoiding those emissions, we're also creating healthy soil that stores carbon and enriches our environment. 

Could composting become at least as commonplace as recycling? If you're like me and stuck on the thought of dealing with worms and flies and weird smells, there's some good news for us. 

[00:34:06] Rebecca Louie: There are so many ways to compost and so many ways to fit it into different lifestyles and approaches and, you know, time constraints and levels of interest. So we have all these things, you know, in New York City, from community compost initiatives where they're taking scraps that are dropped off, and parks or community gardens where, you know, a whole neighborhood can drop off whatever and the gardeners take care of it, or schools, et cetera. Like there are all these ways to connect to other people to sort of diminish the responsibility or effort levels an individual might have in composting successfully, but sort of amplify the impact because everyone's just doing the part they're able to intersect at. 

[00:34:43] Christina Thompson: While Rebecca assured me that I could successfully compost in my 600 square foot apartment, I was a little more into the idea of taking it outside of my home and composting in my neighborhood. I found out that my local farmer's market even takes compostables. Win!

[00:35:00] Rebecca Louie: This is a really easy thing you can do, like, on a very personal level, that can feel like a bit of a meditation or a practice. You know, something that connects you to literally like everything that sustains us, like outside of your head and out in the world. Let's bring it all together and find those pockets of joy. 

[00:35:18] Christina Thompson: Who knew composting could make us feel so good?

[00:35:21] Rebecca Louie: I think the reason why I like to connect with people who are just starting this adventure is that it makes the bigger picture, much smaller. It brings it literally into your home or to, you know, your lifestyle and gets people pumped, like to do one small or medium-sized thing. What I'd love people to take away from this is that composting can happen at any scale you're comfortable with, and any contribution helps. 

[00:35:47] Christina Thompson: Honestly, composting always seemed like the domain of expert gardeners, or at the very least, my friends with houses and yards. It's actually a lot simpler than I thought. But what would it take to get more people involved and onboard with composting in their everyday lives? And at a scale big enough to make a real difference? Maybe it could look something like city-wide recycling programs. Turns out there are some really great models already out there that are up and running. Like in Portland, Oregon. Their curbside system has led most residents to become steadfast composters. 

[00:36:19] Anna McClain: So in Portland, we basically have this, like, huge green bin.

[00:36:25] Christina Thompson: That's Anna. She's the lead producer on the show with me and she happens to live in Portland. 

[00:36:31] Anna McClain: It's massive. You can put like yard waste in there, pizza boxes, teabags. You know, it's like an industrial level compost system. So I have this cute little bin. It has a flip top. It's a compost countertop bin. So every time I crack an egg, I throw the shell in there. Every time I, like, drip a cup of coffee, I throw the bag in there. And when it fills up, which is like every couple of days or something, I just go out and toss the whole thing into the bin and roll the bin out with my recycling every week. It's, like, unbelievably easy. 

[Sounds of compost bin rolling to curb]

[00:37:11] Christina Thompson: Pizza boxes and coffee filters, for real? We went to the city's website to see what else we could put in there.

[00:37:17] Anna: Oh, this is interesting, okay. I am learning so much.

[00:37:22] Christina Thompson: No pizza boxes. To whoever keeps putting those pizza boxes, stop it! 

[00:37:29] Anna: Okay, here's what's on there. Yes: meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs and egg shells, cheese, dairy, bread, baked goods, pasta, rice, beans, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit peels and pits, raw or cooked food, food scraps, plate scrapings, leftovers and spoiled food. That's all okay. Also paper coffee filters, paper tea bags, paper towels and napkins, pizza delivery boxes. 

[00:38:01] Christina Thompson: What's not okay? 

[00:38:02] Anna: No pet waste, animal bedding, animal carcasses from hunting and fishing. I don't personally have that problem. 

[00:38:12] Christina Thompson: And I'm assuming no gum.

[00:38:14] Anna: Probably no gum. 

[00:38:16] Christina Thompson: What if everyone had access to a composting system like this? Scaling up activities like composting and reducing food waste could be a huge step towards reversing the effects of climate change. But until the day we can all toss our pizza boxes into a curbside bin, it's worth looking into composting efforts in your own neighborhood, or even your own backyard. 

To quote Svanika, we can't just sit back and wait for that perfect solution to come along. Recycling or composting alone won't achieve this circular future, but a combination of approaches could. 

And if there's one takeaway from all these different efforts that I'm learning about, it's that getting interested is the most important first step. Once we've done that, with a little bit of effort a whole world of solutions opens up. So, if you're listening to this podcast, you're already there.

Yes, I will continue to be a devout recycler, but I'm also going to add composting to the routine to take things beyond that blue bin. As a consumer, I can avoid disposable products as much as possible. I can bring my own reusable water bottle or coffee container, even canvas bag around with me. I can put some dollars towards projects that improve how we deal with waste through organizations like Sure We Can, rePurpose, and TerraCycle. And like I said, I can stay interested and actually look into and support legislative efforts when they come up, like those EPR policies or curbside compost initiatives. 

We've talked a lot about the individual's role in all of this. Next time I'd like to learn more about the ways that companies can be accountable for their environmental impact. Until then you can find information about recycling, composting, and more by visiting our website at ALittleGreenPodcast.com. You'll also find a transcript of this episode there. 

A Little Green is an Avocado Green Brands podcast. This podcast was written and produced by our resident composter, Anna McClain and myself, Christina Thompson, with the help of Kelly Drake and Will Watts. The music you heard is by Aaron Levison, Auntie-Litter, and a PSA from the New Jersey Department of Energy. .