Tag Archives: Plastic

The Five Takeaways of Waste: Tom Szaky

The words “waste” and “garbage” have always had such negative connotations.  “You’re a waste of space.”  Schoolyard taunts about smelling like a garbage picker.  The phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” which refers to something made with low quality materials that will also yield a low quality final product.

Tom Szaky, the 28 year old CEO of Terracycle, sees waste differently.  While he has brought garbage into his company, it seems that the outputs have been nothing short of valuable.  Szaky started Terracycle as a 19 year old Princeton student.  His idea?  Taking food waste from Princeton’s cafeterias, having worms digest it, and producing fertilizer on the other end.  The products were contained in old soda bottles.  After nearly going broke, he was helped out by an investor, which led to the company getting orders into two major retailers.

The worm poop became so popular that even some of the big guys began to feel threatened.  Terracycle was sued by Scotts Miracle Gro in 2007, of which Terracycle won the lawsuit.  In recent years, Terracycle has been focusing on aggregating various forms of waste from consumer packaged goods companies as raw materials, and selling them to different manufacturers to be upcycled.  Items such as juice pouches have been turned into bags, wrappers have been turned into kites, and the company has even been considering what product to turn cigarette butts into.

“There is no waste that can’t be turned into something else useful,” says Szaky.

Below, Szaky provides his five takeaways of waste.

1.  Waste doesn’t exist in nature.

In nature, there is no such thing as waste.  Let’s take leaves for example – if a leaf fell off the tree, it would fall on to the ground.  Provided that an animal or insect didn’t eat it immediately, the leaf would eventually biodegrade and provide nutrients for the soil, which would then in turn provide nutrients for the tree.  In that whole spiel, everything had a use, and there was no waste.  Contrast that with something like a takeout container.  It would be manufactured, sent to a restaurant, where you use it to take away your dinner for the evening.  Then, depending on the type of plastic it was, it would be thrown away or recycled.  In the throwaway scenario, the waste would be created immediately, perhaps left sitting in a landfill for thousands and thousands of years.  In the recycling scenario, this product would be recycled and recycled until the fibres were too short, and that in turn would turn into waste to be thrown into a landfill.

2.  Waste is something that has only emerged in the past 100 years.

“Waste is something that man created over the last 100 years – with the development of complex polymers, it created something that nature can’t deal with,” explains Szaky.

This explains things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and landfills.

“Excess consumption is also to blame – we consume more than we need to.  100% of waste can be attributed to the fact that we buy too much stuff.  By no means am I anti-consumption, and it will never go away – but we have to start buying more expensive, durable things,” suggests Szaky.

3.  Waste is the only commodity that has negative value.

“Waste is the only thing that we pay people to get rid of.  Why are you paying for something that you have to buy and then pay to haul away?  It makes no sense.  For example, why not turn your yogurt tub into a planting pot?” suggests Szaky.

4.  Ninety-nine percent of what consumers buy gets thrown away right away.

In addition to finding ways to reduce or reuse, what consumers buy gets thrown away very soon after its purchase.  Let’s use a pen for example.  The pen comes in a cardboard backed plastic container, which is thrown out.  You use the pen on paper.  The pen runs out of ink, and then the whole thing is thrown away.

There was also the waste that went into creating the product.  Szaky provides a sobering stat:

“For every pound of garbage, there was 60 pounds of waste used to make it.”

5.  Waste is riddled with systemic issues.

“The first problem with waste is the cultural issue of consuming more than we need to,” he explains.

“Second, recycling is fragmented.  There isn’t a Wal-Mart of recycling – garbage is mixed together, and very few waste streams are collected,” Szaky says.

“There also isn’t a collection system.  It is so fragmented that usually the lowest common denominator, or the lowest value items, aren’t collected,” he says.

“There is also a commoditized marketplace for waste.  For example, recycled plastic is more expensive than virgin plastic, because among other reasons, the demand is higher.  Recycling facilities permanently closed their doors when plastic prices dropped and petroleum went cheap,” explains Szaky.

With capacity reduced, this doesn’t help in the long term sustainability of waste facilities, who depend on revenues for selling the waste they have collected.

“And lastly the incentives to reduce waste are not there – why can’t we do in the US what governments in Europe or countries like Turkey are doing – a packaging tax.  Why not try it here?”

Find out more information about Tom Szaky at Terracycle, Garbage Moguls, and through his book, Revolution in a Bottle.

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The Five Takeaways of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Captain Charles Moore

In the movie Wall-E, the title character spends his days dutifully compacting trash that generations of humans have left behind.  Much of it has barely degraded – things like shoes, toys, appliances, plastic fodder.  Today, far out in the Pacific Ocean, a similar landscape exists.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean, estimated to be the size of two states of Texas, filled with plastic garbage.  The flotsam and jetsam in the area are a concoction of trash thrown off of boats, garbage from the West coast of the US, and from the Asian Pacific rim.  It is a veritable graveyard of nets, plastic bottles, caps, dolls, syringes, boots, laundry detergent containers, balls, and practically anything else you could imagine.  There are also little pieces of plastic floating in between, chewed up by the power of the currents.

How did it all end up there?  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was not intentionally created.  It happens that The Great Pacific Gyre, a large high pressure system the size of Africa, circulates currents between the Pacific coasts, creating a vortex effect.  Debris accumulates and gets sucked into the centre of the Pacific Ocean.  The majority of the debris is made up of human created waste that doesn’t biodegrade – plastic.

Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, has been studying this growing garbage patch for the past couple of years.  A Long Beach native, he grew up with the ocean in his backyard.

At first, it wasn’t the garbage he wanted to research – it was bacteria.  After a surfing accident where his arm was almost amputated from an infection from flesh eating bacteria in the ocean, he knew he had to do something about the imbalance in the water.   However, lacking the equipment to study the bacteria, he decided to tackle a more visible issue.  Since the 1950s, he had seen pieces of plastic debris washing up on the beach in increasing numbers.

Moore decided to get more involved in the marine research effort beyond the citizen’s monitoring team he had been involved in, and started studying the debris in the Pacific Ocean, with the help of some prominent scientists in the area.

Moore describes the technique he has used to conduct his research:

“What we do is drag a net across the area to catch zooplankton – we have a net with mesh a third of a millimetre thick, and we drag it a few inches deep into the water.  This area is called the sea surface microlayer, where the sea surface meets the atmosphere.  There are certain animals who go down half a mile during the day and come back to the surface at night to feed – we wanted to see the effect of plastic particles on this life.”

Over the many years of study, Moore provides below some of the five takeaways he has realized about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

1.  The garbage patch keeps growing.

Moore can no longer place an estimate on the size of the patch – some people estimated it was the size of France – some say it’s the size of two states of Texas.

“We went 10,000 miles and all we saw was plastic.  We sailed 2/3 of the way to Japan and there was plastic coming from all directions – it was like a disgusting plastic cesspool.  No one really has a handle on the boundary, or what it might even mean.”

All that to say, that given our current rates of consumption of products encased in plastic, or made of plastic, this patch will only grow bigger.

2.  The ocean is becoming more and more dangerous to navigate through.

In the ten years that Moore has been studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it has gotten so muddled with plastic waste that you can’t safely go into the ocean.

“At night, I have to scuba dive under our boat to cut debris off of the motors so we can keep going – this involves risking the lives of my crew members, which is not what I want to do.  It’s becoming too dangerous to navigate over millions of square miles of the North Pacific.”

3.  Animals have started ingesting the plastic pieces.

“We have found that virtually every creature could be eating this plastic – we looked at seven or eight species of fish, several types of invertebrates, and some birds – they were all eating it.  It didn’t matter if it was a small or a large animal – all of the animals were on some kind of strange, plastic diet directly or indirectly.”  Since humans are at the top of the food chain, it might just so happen that the plastic container that we’re eating food from may actually one day be in the food we’re eating.  If it’s not already.

4.  The garbage patch is one of many things contributing to death in the oceans.

Already, there have been stories in the news of entire coral reefs dying out, marine pollution, and massive overfishing.  The garbage patch only makes things worse.

Larger species of fish, such as tuna, or large mammals, such as whales, already have high levels of mercury and PCBs concentrated in their bodies.  On top of this, the plastic pieces tend to concentrate these chemicals, so when animals swallow these plastic pieces, this adds to the chemical concentrations in their bodies.  This is particularly troubling in countries that rely heavily on marine proteins, such as in Japan., where cases of mercury poisoning or Minimata disease seem to be on the rise.

On top of that, the plastic is adding to ocean warming.

“The plastic pieces act as a heat sink – they are like little tiny heaters that block the transpiration of gas, and also concentrate the sunlight.”

Ocean warming is seen as a precursor to dying oceans.

5.  There isn’t an easy way to clean up the garbage patch, but there is a way to slow it down.

Unfortunately, we can’t hire a few barges to vacuum up the mess, since there is now sea life thriving among the garbage patch.  Secondly, the large size and remoteness of the patch makes it difficult to even know where to begin.

However, Moore suggests that there are a couple things we can do to slow the patch from growing, and over several millennia the ocean will have to heal itself.

“First, which is not so easy, is insist on a zero waste philosophy.  In an era of diminishing resources, it’s immoral to use so much when we’re coming to the end of our ability to feed, house and clothe humanity.  From a closer perspective, we should also use less plastic or buy things with less packaging.  Essentially, packaging has a very short shelf life – products only need to be protected from air and moisture for a short period of time.  Plastic as it is currently made, lasts forever – it could very well be that the plastic we make now will last longer than we do.”

Certainly, if we don’t do something, plastic could very well be the artifacts we leave behind for future generations, or for lonely trash compacting robots.

More information on Captain Charles Moore’s research can be found at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation website.


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