Imagine a world where single-use, toxic, non-biodegradable plastic products simply don’t exist. Imagine a world where methane leaking off of landfills is turned into a biodegradable material that takes the place of petroleum-based packaging, simultaneously reducing GHG emissions and cleaning up plastic pollution. Imagine a world where consumer packaging and waste is fundamentally recreated.
This is Daniella Russo’s world and it is closer to becoming reality than you might think.
Russo is the CEO of Think Beyond Plastic (TBP), a group working on the world’s plastic-waste problem. A former Fortune 500 businesswoman with a multitude of startups under her belt, Russo blends financial wisdom and management savviness with deeply committed ideals on sustainability. Russo and her team use a concept of “disruptive innovation” to change the plastic industry and in turn change the way we think about waste, our health, consumption and our relationship with the earth. They recently announced the launch of their Accelerator Class to advance businesses that will impact plastic pollution.
Russo will be a keynote speaker this October at the Green Spa Network Annual Congress in Yosemite, and recently we previewed her appearance with a conversation about TBP’s groundbreaking work.
How bad is the plastic problem?
Russo tells us that the world has produced more plastic in the last twenty years than it has in all previous years combined. We currently are only capable of collecting 10% of plastic waste. Plastic takes hundreds of years to break down, which means that 90% of the plastic that we throw away will stick around well beyond our lifetime.
We now realize that it is not this universal, magical material that we thought it was,” laments Russo “We should never think of things as disposable products. Any material that has a life cycle of hundreds of years should not be used once and thrown away.
That’s not the half of it. Russo explains:
The problem with plastic pollution is that for too long it was only considered a problem of trash. And the answer was just “Okay, let’s hide it and be done with it.” It becomes a question only of how to collect it and remove it—an action to be performed by individuals or municipalities. And then you can tell people that if they don’t collect it themselves, they are not “conscious” and are not ‘doing the right thing.’ But the reality is that plastic pollution has a whole other aspect: human health.
This is a big deal and it is hugely under-represented in conversations because of its complexity. So many chemicals go into making plastic products, and, at the heart of it, many of these chemicals are synthetic estrogens, endocrine disruptors and some are carcinogenic. These chemicals can be lumped into the category of “plasticizers” which are essentially the things that help make products what they are – transparent, malleable, flexible etc. So, when you start to talk about these problems, then you start to talk about the fate of the next generation, or even this generation because vulnerable populations include pregnant mothers, young children, older people and people with compromised health.
Plastic pollution creates what Russo describes as “a nexus of ecosystem degradation, public health issues and environmental injustice.”
Look at the communities that drown in trash. They are never wealthy—ever. You can go to Dubai, or Abu Dhabi, or wealthy gated communities in the U.S., and despite their use of plastic, they never drown in it. They have resources to clean it up and they spend the time and effort to make it look clean. But if you go to communities that are underprivileged, poor, marginalized, then you will see it. Where there is poverty, there is also almost always a lot of trash...here to stay because it doesn’t biodegrade. It also means that the people who live in these communities are disproportionately affected by plastic pollution...
If you look into the food and drink that is being offered to people of low economic means, you will see that most everything is packaged in plastic. The poor and underrepresented are disproportionately exposed to all the dangers of plastic because they have no access to fresh food and often, clean water. They drink water bottled in plastic, they eat food pre-packaged in plastic. So do the recipients of emergency aid, living in camps around the world. As their economic situations continue to degrade, in part due to plastic, so does their health.
How does TBP Help?
It’s overwhelming to think about the nexus that Russo describes. It can make us as consumers feel powerless. And Russo agrees that putting the power only in the hands of consumers is not the answer.
If you are an underprivileged child or a parent with very limited resources (who has no access to this information or the time to go out and educate yourself) then, what? You have to put yourself in the category of “destroyer of the planet,” just because you don’t know. Or expose yourself and your children to all the dangers of toxic chemicals, just because you don’t know.
Education helps, but the world and the planet need more choices that are sustainable, affordable and easy for everyone.
Think Beyond Plastic helps initiate those choices. The organization sources disruptive innovation with a focus on plastic pollution, and links investors with entrepreneurs and innovators. Russo and TBP have been linking investors to startups for the last three years, and the applicant pool keeps getting stronger. Companies need the initial capital, which is particularly high in the field of plastics. In return, investors not only get to feel good, they are also hoping for a return on what Russo describes as a quickly growing industry.
Innovation is a funny thing – if you shed light on it and focus on it then stuff begins to happen. We’re amazed by the breadth and ingenuity of the solutions that come in front of us.
If you look into why this has not happened before, I can tell you that the barrier to entry is very high. This is not the kind of information that can be created overnight with a computer model. You need special education, special background and highly trained scientists. You also need access to a fully equipped innovation materials lab because often the equipment is very expensive and not readily available. So, one of the services that we provide to qualified innovators is access to that equipment and that kind of development environment. It’s similar to what the biotech industry used to do. It’s an accelerator that will allow innovators to get the product out of the lab and then test it. That’s what we do.
For instance, this year, TBP put out a call for solutions for ocean pollution, a pressing issue for ecosystem and human health. Russo tells us that as plastic degrades in the ocean, the microplastic particles it creates attract and accumulate toxins, which are then consumed by marine life. Studies have found fish with cancerous lesions on their livers, raising concerns over what might happen to humans when they consume contaminated seafood. TBP just awarded a prize toThread International, a company that removes plastic bottles from the waste stream of economically depressed island countries to turn them into fabric while providing jobs and opportunity to 2,700 people in Haiti and Honduras. The other big prize went toAmbercycle, a startup in development which engineers enzymes to convert waste plastic into useful intermediate chemicals, normally derived from petroleum.
TBP goes to great lengths to support their companies. Not only do they offer cash prizes and accelerator services, they alsorecently announced an Accelerator Class, which will guide these entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and keep them up to date on policy, regulation, and trend opportunities. TBP does everything it can to help these forward thinking companies succeed.
It’s all about the Triple Bottom Line
Russo knows that improving ecosystem health and human health by changing the plastic industry can happen only if businesses driving these changes succeed financially. Embedded in the TBP model is the necessity of scaling up, processing at high volume and reducing costs. Russo explains that her goal all along has been to help develop these companies into bigger entities:
We started with the purpose of it going mainstream. We are not looking for boutique products, but products that are available, affordable, useful. Businesses are not good or bad, they are about making money. If they can be offered a material that is the ultimate—cheap, effective and sustainable—then why would they not use it?
For example, one TBP company, Black Lodge Design Lab, has created a biodegradable Styrofoam alternative that is three times more insulative and two times stronger than industry standards. It is cheaper than other insulation material, too. Given the vast amount of petroleum based Styrofoam that is still used for insulation, this material would cut down on a significant amount of pollution if it became the new industry standard.
The TBP Model Expanded
Russo and TBP have a mountain of work to do in the plastic industry, but she believes that the strategy can spread beyond polymers. The TBP website states “Think Beyond Plastic™, and is a model for addressing global sustainability problems that can be extended to food security and agriculture, clean energy, climate change and other pressing issues.” Russo explains further:
Our thesis is that if you look at the problem as an economic opportunity then it becomes an innovation challenge. We go upstream and say, “What can I do to prevent these things from happening in the first place?” Then you come up with really interesting solutions to reduce dependence on oil or fossil fuels, for example.
But we need to support these innovations. Currently there is not a single government policy that promotes innovation for sustainability.
We could revive old industries and create jobs. For example, there are a lot of paper and pulp factories around the world that are shutting down. Well, what if instead of wood stock we used agricultural waste to produce these products? Waste is an incredible source of wealth and materials. It can be used to create a whole new portfolio of products and new jobs."
We believe that holistic thinking can solve these problems. And it is all related. Poverty is almost always related to public health and hunger. So there is a way that we can eliminate waste, create jobs, alleviate hunger and poverty and create a more sustainable world. We just need to continue to push for the innovations that will take us there.
The TBP model strives to make the environmentally sustainable choice commonplace; a given; a default in the world of consumerism. Russo’s vision is one in which businesses can do well while doing good. They are attempting a real paradigm shift to a society of price conscious products and goods that work in concert with the natural world. To Russo, funding these ventures is not only a smart business investment: it is an imperative for our future.
We are shifting the way that we think about the environment: it will become mainstream. We all live on this planet, so we are all environmentalists. Buying products that support the Earth should not just be a privilege or concern of the few. We need to cultivate an attitude within ourselves and within our businesses where we are in harmony with our planet, and we leave something behind that is better than what we started with.
PHOTO: photo - pleiadesnetwork.org